If they had, the firefighters responding to the burning rail car in Lansing years ago wouldn’t have sprayed water on it — and the chemical inside, sodium isoxyanthate, wouldn’t have exploded and blown the top off of the rail car.
“It was a lack of information on their part. They didn’t know what to do,” Dean Blauser recalls of that and other incidents he’s seen over the years that grew worse because of an inability of the respondents to get quickly access the data they needed.
Blauser, a veteran of hazardous materials management, believes he has an idea that can alleviate the problem and help corporations and fire departments better prepare for and respond to chemical spills and other emergencies involving hazardous substances.
His company, HazCom Solutions, produces custom software packages that map out a complex and provide instant access to information on the chemicals used there, their hazards and how to manage the risks associated with their use, evacuation plans, and how to appropriately respond when something goes wrong. A program also enables a person, when dealing with a hazardous discharge that requires an evacuation of the neighborhood, to plug in weather conditions and get a reading on how a toxic gas cloud will spread.
Blauser, 44, formed the Grand Haven-based company a year ago. The idea stems from his experience in responding to emergencies involving chemical or hazardous material incidents.
“I’d show up and the information was never available,” Blauser said. “I’d ask for it and they’d say that it was in the building. ‘Oh, in that building … the one that’s on fire?’
‘Yeah, that building.’”
“My thought is that if I could put together a software package helping responders and the community, it would just be an easy sell. It has been so far.”
In the first year of operations, HazCom sold three software packages — which range from $5,000 to $35,000, depending on the size of the plant and the type of chemicals used — to firms in West Michigan. Copies of customized programs are provided free of charge to local fire departments and county emergency management officers where customers are located, providing firefighters with a new tool they can use when assessing and responding to an emergency.
The idea is that instead leafing through the plans the firms handling hazardous materials are required to have on file with their local departments, firefighters can readily and quickly have the data available through the laptop computers that are standard equipment on many emergency vehicles.
“In an emergency situation, you don’t want to have to really think. You want to be able to point and click to get the information. You have all the information you could possibly need on all the chemicals at that location right there at your fingertips,” said Blauser, who got into the hazardous materials field in Texas while working on an offshore oil rig.
Blauser moved to Texas with his parents shortly after graduation from Grand Haven High School in 1976. He landed a job in the drilling operations of an offshore oil platform, monitoring gas discharges and “trying to keep them from blowing up.”
While living and working in Texas, he earned an undergraduate degree in 1987 from Sam Houston State in Huntsville in physics. Blauser returned to Michigan shortly afterward and earned a master’s degree in environmental earth sciences from Western Michigan University in 1992.
His career includes two years working on a hazardous materials team and division manager for Young’s Environmental Cleanup Inc. in Grand Rapids, where he helped form the local office, and three years at Amway, where he worked in quality assurance and was involved in forming a hazardous materials team and was third-shift incident commander.
He’s also worked at Northern A-1 Services Inc. in Muskegon as a hazardous materials specialist.
While hazardous at times, the profession holds a high level of reward for Blauser. The risk-reward ratio that comes with helping to contain and quell a dangerous situation is part of the allure of the trade, he said.
“There was an excitement there and an adrenaline rush, if you want to call it that,” Blauser said. “It’s not your typical engineering physics.”
Convincing Blauser to leave the risky side of the business behind and form HazCom Solutions were personal and professional considerations.
The personal reasons stem from his role as a husband and father to a teen-age son and always being on call 24 hours a day.
The professional drive involved trying to produce a better tool for corporations and fire departments to use in planning for and handling emergency situations that involve chemicals.
“The industry really needs to take the initiative to protect the firefighters and protect the communities,” he said.
HazCom presently employs just three people — Blauser, his wife Susan, who’s the company’s CEO, and a software engineer — and subcontracts with outside help. As he ramps up marketing efforts, Blauser see the company, which also provides hazardous material consulting and training, growing to 10 employees within a year and eventually developing a nationwide client base in the years ahead.
While the initial focus is on hazardous chemicals, HazCom’s software packages are adaptable to other emergencies, such as workplace shootings or natural disasters, where quick access to data and maps are essential to a quick and effective response.