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COMMENTARY - Explosives safety during lightning within five

Lightning strikes behind an aircraft on a flight line.

Lightning strikes on the flightline at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Aug. 8, 2017. After an incident in 1926, the DoD Explosives Safety Board was created to provide criteria and policy for protecting servicemembers and property from DoD titled ammunition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --

If you use social media, I’m sure at some point you have seen the meme, “Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force, except lightning within five.”

Before I delve into this subject, I’d like to offer some historical perspective first to shed light on why we are required to stop explosives operations when lightning is detected within five nautical miles.

On July 10, 1926, powerful thunderstorms were predicted for the area around Rockaway Township, New Jersey, home for the Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition Storage Depot. This depot was part of the larger Picatinny Arsenal. Somewhere around 5 p.m. that evening, the storms produced a bolt of lightning that struck an area of the storage depot, subsequently detonating more than 600,000 tons of explosives stored there.

The resulting blasts came at the cost of 21 lives, with dozens more injured, completely destroying close to 200 buildings in a half mile radius and costing more than $47 million in damages. The blast was so powerful there were reports of debris being found nearly 22 miles away. There were a few other major results from the Lake Denmark disaster.

Not long after the disaster, Congress created the DoD Explosives Safety Board. The DDESB provides specific criteria and policy for protecting personnel and property from DoD titled ammunition thru the Defense Explosives Safety Regulation 6055.09, Edition 1. That policy is contained in para 1.4.1 “To provide the maximum possible protection to people and property from the potential damaging effects of DoD military munitions, and minimize exposures consistent with safe and efficient operations (i.e., expose the minimum number of people for the minimum time to the minimum amount of explosives or CAs). Applying the standards in this manual provides only the minimum protection criteria for personnel and property; greater protection should always be provided when practicable.”

Each service subsequently implements the standards in the DESR through service specific manuals -- for the Air Force it’s AFMAN 91-201. Among the many criteria contained in the DESR and AFMAN 91-201 are procedures for when lightning is observed within five nautical miles.

The DESR_AFMAN 91-201, Volume 2, Enclosure 4, spells out requirements, design, and exceptions for Lightning Protections Systems, specifically stating in V2.E4.3.5, “Properly maintained LPS are required for all AE facilities.”

The procedures in the event of electrical storms are annotated in V2.E4.6 and separated into procedures for conventional ammunition and nuclear weapons. A lightning warning is in effect whenever lightning is within five a nautical mile radius of a Potential Explosion Site.  In V2.E4.6.2.2.1, it states “Immediately provide personnel protection equivalent to PTR distance from explosives facilities containing exposed explosives, explosive dust, or explosive vapor, regardless of whether the facility is equipped with an LPS; this includes providing protection equivalent to PTR for all locations within the PTR arc. (T-1). PTR distances will be based on airblast overpressure only (minimum fragment distances do not apply).”

What if your facility has an LPS but for whatever reason it is unserviceable or uncertified? Then, you don’t have a serviceable/certified LPS, and it would require evacuation procedures. What if evacuation procedures are impractical or could potentially cause a greater risk to members by evacuating to the required incremental PTR distance? Are there procedures and who makes the decision?

There may be times when evacuation to incremental PTR during a lightning warning are impractical. A real-world example are some Combat Aircraft Parking Area locations in deployed locations. These locations have temporary facilities for maintainers, with grouped CAPAs sited at 50,000 pounds Net Explosive Weight producing an incremental PTR distance of 884 feet.

The temporary facilities housing maintainers are located at 663 feet, the allowed quantity distance for the sited NEW. These are the only facilities in the area, thus making it impractical to evacuate to the required 884 feet. Another real-world example is a contiguous U.S. location munitions storage area with installed but unserviceable LPS. A lightning warning will require evacuation to incremental PTR, but once again based on NEWs, it becomes impractical to meet the required distance.

One thing to keep in mind is basing your incremental PTR distance on the actual stored NEWs and not the sited NEWs. Many times the sited NEW may be 200,000 pounds, but the actual NEW in storage is 55,000 pounds. That becomes the difference between evacuation distances of 1,404 feet versus 913 feet. Based on these two scenarios, what are the procedures, and who makes the decision to not evacuate to the required incremental PTR?

Not evacuating to the required incremental PTR is a violation of QD criteria and requires approval to deviate from the QD requirement IAW DESR_AFMAN 91-201, Volume 1 Enclosure 3 procedures. The appropriate authority level for acceptance of risk and deviations from mandatory QD requirements and instructions on how to make that determination are contained in V1.E3.9.  

There are two very important items to advise leadership and decision makers of. One, V1.E3.8.5.1 states, “Ease of operation or convenience are not reasons for requesting a deviation.”

Two, what are the strategic and compelling reasons for approving the waiver to this QD violation? In V1.E3.8.5.1, it also provides the following definitions of strategic and compelling reasons -- “A strategic reason relates to a national security, national defense, or military strategy. Joint doctrine defines strategy as a prudent idea, or set of ideas, for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national or multinational objectives. Issuance of an explosives safety waiver or exemption may be necessary to achieve a particular military strategic objective. A compelling reason is any other reason which would convince proper Air Force authority that something must be done.”

In the two previous scenarios, there were compelling reasons to not meet the QD standard to evacuate to incremental PTR, and exemptions were processed in accordance with DESR_AFMAN 91-201 procedures.

The following is an example from one of those exemptions: “The benefit for mission critical personnel to remain inside their work facilities and near the flight line would allow for combat operations to resume without delay after a lightning warning has been lifted. Additionally, reduced evacuation requirements will allow work to continue longer during a Lightning Watch. This exception permits mission essential personnel to remain within PTR distance during a Lightning Warning; however, this should not be construed as an excuse to unnecessarily increase risk. Group Commanders will designate mission essential personnel for their respective groups and develop an evacuation/hunker down plan for their operations. Blast and fragmentation can cause damage well outside of PTR, so all non-essential personnel will continue to maximize distance from any PES.”

In most cases evacuation to incremental PTR is not an issue, and violating the required QD should be the exception and not the rule. However in case the need arises to waive the requirement, hopefully these examples will assist in advising leadership and decision makers.