West Fertilizer Plant Explosion: Even After Tragedy, Texas Still Bans Fire Codes in 70% of its Counties

Despite the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas earlier this year which killed 15 people and injured 200, Texas law still bans nearly 70% of its counties from adopting fire codes, a set of minimum standards aimed at preventing fires and explosions. 173 of Texas's 254 counties are currently forbidden from adopting fire codes under the law. Counties can legally only adopt a fire code if they have a population of over 250,000 people, or, following a 1997 law change, if they border a county with a population of over 250,000. 

The Texas state legislature, which only meets every two years (as infrequently as possible in fact), has a reputation for a strong antipathy toward government regulation. But this antipathy, and an overriding emphasis on being business-friendly, may be unnecessarily endangering the lives of Texas residents.

The fertilizer plant explosion took place in McLennan County, which has no fire code or county fire marshal, and only became eligible to adopt a fire code following the 2010 census. According to the Dallas Morning News, however, county officials may not even have been aware that they were able to adopt a fire code. And while a fire code obviously does not guarantee that fires and explosions will not occur, federal officials and fire safety experts believe that a fire code might have prevented the tragedy in West. But while McLennan County at least had the option of adopting a fire code, the majority of Texas counties do not. Fires codes do not just cover fires but also the storage of explosive or toxic chemicals, such as the ammonium-nitrate fertilizer that exploded in West.

There have been calls to change the law for years, and less than a week before the West explosion, Republican state representative Walter "Four" Price argued in front of the County Affairs Committee that all counties should be allowed to adopt fire codes. Yet even following the deadly disaster, a bill put forward by Price that would have changed the law accordingly failed to make it through the Texas legislature. The 250,000 people threshold is seemingly arbitrary and not based on potential risk given that small counties such as Jasper County, with over 25 miles of a paper mill, and Parmer County, with 2.3 million pounds of anhydrous ammonia, could face potentially deadly disasters if a fire broke out or there was an explosion.

Dallas County Fire Marshal Robert De Los Santos argues that all counties should be allowed to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach and have the option of adopting a fire code. "We have these rules and regulations because of past experience. It's just like a stoplight. Most places don't have them until we have so many fatalities and so many wrecks. It's a shame that it has to be that way." Opposition from lawmakers and industry to increased regulation has so far prevented efforts to change the law, with the New York Times even reporting that some Texas counties specifically cite the lack of fire codes as a reason for companies to do business there.

According to The News, "85% of the code-prohibited counties have no full-time professional fire department anywhere in the county ... Only a few bigger industries have their own specially trained and equipped in-house fire brigades." Although there are worries about the potential increased costs of having fire codes, and fear that companies might take their business elsewhere, Donald Bliss, vice president for field operations of the National Fire Protection Association, argues that many of the potential compliance issues can be fixed for little or no money. Moreover, as Bruce Johnson, director of fire-service activities for the International Code Council, points out, fire codes are an "investment in safety," given that "What you save by not adopting a code upfront can cost a lot more when disaster strikes, both in the cost of property damage and the loss of life — occupants and the firefighters who have to battle the fire."

While even if counties are allowed to adopt fires codes they might still choose not to, and although there is no guarantee that fires codes will prevent future disasters, giving all counties the option to adopt them is a step in the right direction. And it would be a step that would place the safety of Texas residents ahead of any ideological opposition to government regulation and ahead of the profits of industry.