Emergency responders are trained to run in when everyone else is running away—they’re the ones you want on the scene, from accidents to fires to natural disasters to public hearings.
If you’re routing a pipeline, you have to get out ahead of issues with a communications approach that is proactive, transparent, and fact-based. Enlisting trusted agents to help carry your message is one of the single most powerful steps you can take in any public process. Don’t limit yourself to engaging with emergency responders only when regulation requires it.
The trust of emergency responders isn’t easy to gain, and they will often ask you the toughest questions—but if you give them the answers they need from the start, they can become your most impactful validators.
Everyone needs energy, and everyone wants it to be as reliable, safe, and affordable as possible. Even five years ago, there was debate in the industry about whether “0 accidents” was an acceptable goal, given the many miles of pipe across the country. We’ve reached consensus now that 0 is the goal, and we can have no other—it drives continuous improvement, and that’s how we’ll get better.
That’s a message that resonates with emergency responders, who know that while you can’t eliminate risk, you can always do more to manage it. As one fire chief said to me, “we could put a firehouse on every block, and there would still be fires. But we’ll never stop trying to prevent them.”
Because emergency responders are trained to understand and manage risk, they can be the perfect people to help convey that bigger picture. That helps put risk in context, so that you can reframe the debate from only focusing on risks to balancing risks and benefits. Early in your process, begin an open dialogue (particularly with firefighters). Tell them about your project, and why it will benefit their community, in specific terms, so they can understand the benefits: natural gas generates 50% of this plant’s power, and this pipeline will supply it, securing your electric supplies; or, the gas stations in your town get their gas from this tank farm, which is supplied by this pipeline.
Of course, when you come to the table for these conversations, you’ll be in the hot seat. To start, you have to know all the specs of what you have in the ground, materials, seams, coatings—and what you’re currently or proposing to transport through their community. But you also have to show that you understand the environment around your systems, and how it may be changing. For example, record flooding and ice dams in the last few years have led to a number of accidents.
To emergency responders, pipelines are just another means of transporting a hazardous material, and they deal with that every day. Helping them understand the product, as well as how to respond effectively – and safely – to a pipeline accident, goes a long way toward establishing trust and confidence. Be sure they know how you will contribute in emergency response (e.g., your people and their training, response materials, response timelines, communications, etc.), so they can factor that into their incident response plan. Depending on the size of an event, emergency responders muster a multi-disciplined response team, and they need to know how you factor into, and add to, that team’s effectiveness.
Conversations are about existing pipelines as often as they are about new ones—in these cases, do more than just send a mailer. Take the time to send someone in to talk with them, spend time with them, and ensure that they’re prepared to respond to any emergency in the community. Remember, the people who would be there if something goes wrong are the people in whom you want to invest up-front.
The worst time to meet emergency responders is when they’re responding to an emergency. When you’re forthright and transparent about your project, benefits and risks, and you start to develop a relationship with emergency responders, something wonderful happens: you earn credibility. Suddenly, you have trusted community leaders who are willing to vouch for you. And that can make all the difference.