Ammonium Nitrate: Using Thought Leadership Media

By: Robert Avsec

Welcome to our 1st “Mail Bag” blog.  Now this is not your usual collection of reader comments/feedback/input because it actually comes from across several “platforms”.  (And it’s not another article on how to use Twitter and Facebook!).  The short “conversation thread” that follows is illustrative of how Fire & EMS leaders can become more connected—if we make the effort—and better positioned to inform, educate, and influence current and future Fire & EMS leaders.  Until I hear otherwise, I’m “staking a claim” and calling this Thought Leadership Media, or TL Media for short.

Aerial photograph of site of the ammonium nitrate plant explosion & fire in West, Texas.

I received the following comments in response to my recent piece, Ammonium Nitrate: What Firefighters Must Know, that was posted on (Platform #1).  The comments, however, were posted by LinkedIn colleagues (Platform #2) in response to my posting of the article on the National Fire Protection Association Group in LinkedIn (Platform #3).  Lastly, you’re reading the feedback on this blog (Platform #4).  Whew!

So here we go (If you haven’t read the article yet, here’s your second chance in this blog post).

Donald Hester (Owner/Inspector at NCW Home Inspections, LLC, Yakima, Washington Area).  Robert, good stuff. I was an Industrial/bio-pharmaceutical Hazmat/First responder and gathering proper intel on any situation is critical.  Getting key personnel with intimate knowledge is paramount.

I was lucky enough to deal with many oxidizers, flammables, corrosive gases, acute toxins, along with radiological and biological hazards. Did I say lucky?

Properly identifying the risk and setting up your zones is such a critical step.

Robert Avsec: Don, thanks for the supportive comments. Always good to hear it from a subject matter expert such as yourself.

Donald Hester: Robert, I have not done any response work in several years now, but I have it ingrained in me.

In my particular situation we had some very specific hazards that most fire departments did not have the intimate knowledge to deal with.  We would train with the local fire department and go through our facility with them to help them understand what was there and where [the materials were].

When we had an incident the fire department would show up and act as back up to us.  They much rather have us deal with the stuff. We had a group of scientist/chemists that we would gather to help profile the situation.

Key in all of these situations is having all these hazards profiled before any incident can occur. We had a massive MSDS library along with on-site staff that had first-hand knowledge of the hazards.

Guarding against complacency in the work place is huge. Many of these incidents go back to poor practices and protocols and complacency.

Many people do not understand how many of these hazards exist in a given community. I live in an area with a lot of Ag [agriculture] businesses. The incident in Texas can happen in many rural cities throughout the country.

Robert Brenner (Fire Engineering Services International,   R.H.BRENNER & CO.LTD, Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL area).  If you can find the film, Texas City Texas Fire, I strongly suggest you watch and learn.  This was required watching when I was in the fire service.


John Sharland (Owner, B-T-R Consulting, Bridgewater, MA).  While the focus of all these memories of ammonium nitrate

Ammonium Nitrate in solid form

explosions ons has been on solid material (prills) in either bulk storage or bagged storage, there was an eye opening incident in 1994 in Sargeant Bluff (aka Port Neal), Iowa at the big Terra Industries nitrogen products (fertilizer) plant that involved the sensitization and subsequent detonation of LIQUID ammonium nitrate solution in the neutrilization reactor. The crater was 10 times bigger than the crater at West.

This WAS a “black Swan” event because there were no prior recorded detonations of liquid ammonium nitrate solution at the normal 83% concentration found in the reactor. Various theories evolved as to how the solution became sensitized. Here is the link to the EPA investigation report:

For a slide show that has a few much better pictures and some “cartoons” of the Terra incident, email me at [email protected]

50 lb. bags of prilled ammonium nitrate

Facilities like West bring in bags of prilled ammonium nitrate and re-slurry it in water so that the farmers can spray it as a liquid onto their fields.  I do not know the concentration that they provide, but I suspect that the conditions that allowed the 83% solution at Terra to become sensitized would not be present in the tanks of slurry at places like West.

airflow ag chem

Liquid ammonium nitrate being applied for agricultural purposes

Donald Hester:  John, I briefly scanned that document and looks like protocols and procedure were severely lacking. Which is very typical of these kinds of incidents.

All too often workers really do not fully understand what they are dealing with and why safety procedures are critical.  It is sad that it is incidents like this that cause the change.

Sad indeed.  But we can help shape the future by continuing the dialogue and exchange of information, and not only within Fire & EMS.  We must keep learning how to use new tools and forms of communication to share “intel” across the various platforms so that we connect all the entities—local government, public safety agencies, state agencies, and the local population—in the information flow.

How are you doing at “connecting the dots” in your community?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].