Cold Chain Plays a Crucial Role in Emergency Preparedness

Disaster takes many forms – just this year, various sections of the U.S. have experienced catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires and flooding, all of which can knock out – sometimes for a long time – utilities that are essential to maintaining business. Earthquakes, tornados and blizzards are other major threats.

For food manufacturers, wholesalers and supermarkets and others that rely on electricity or that can be damaged by storm or other events, disaster preparedness is an essential business practice.

“We’re constantly thinking about resiliency and business continuity. Whether it is a storm, a prolonged power outage because of rolling blackouts or catastrophic events like the wildfires we’ve experienced in California,” said Tristam Coffin, director of sustainability and facilities for Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods has partnerships with generator suppliers/disaster relief contractors and owns mobile generators it can deploy to affected stores to provide enough energy to operate refrigeration systems, and the grocer has recently tested Axiom Exergy’s Refrigeration Battery solution at its store in Los Altos, California, which could eventually allow it to keep food cold by relying on thermal storage.

“Supermarkets by their very nature have an important role in helping with emergencies when they happen. They have a lot to think about ahead of time, so that they are able to respond when their communities need them most,” said Keilly Witman, owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy.

H-E-B, a grocer with a significant presence in Texas, has mobile kitchens, a Disaster Relief Unit and two water tankers that it can deploy to areas hit by a natural disaster. The grocery also employs a full-time director of emergency preparedness and constantly monitors weather patterns.

Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness at H-E-B, told Texas Monthly the company was watching Hurricane Harvey a week before it formed and activated its emergency process before the storm made landfall, devastating much of the Houston region. The company was prepared for a significant impact. H-E-B activated its mobile kitchens and disaster response unit, which includes a mobile pharmacy and a business center.

H-E-B also works to open its stores quickly after a disaster. “A lot of the time when we roll up to these stores after a disaster, we’ll have customers waiting out in front of our stores waiting for us to open,” Noakes said in a Q&A with the magazine.

Peter Jordan, senior principle engineer with MBD Risk Management Services, Inc., based in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, said the goal of any emergency preparedness plan is to anticipate problems that may occur and develop plans to limit their impact.

Emergency plans vary based on where you are in the country and store design takes that into consideration.

Coffin said Whole Foods stores in California are designed for seismic activity whereas stores in Florida are more concerned with hurricanes. “Emergency plans are similar but different in certain respects,” he said.

“Certain types of emergency situations involve at least some advanced warning,” Witman said. “Like a snow storm that drops four feet of snow or a hurricane that is forecast to hit a particular area. Those situations allow for a different level of preparedness than you’d have for tornadoes or earthquakes.”

Jordan said in some areas, such as California, regulations require a seismic analysis to be done ahead of time. These analyses often require changes to the system including the installation of seismic bracing. However, he added that there are always disasters that operators can’t anticipate. “I knew of a plant where they had a near miss occur when a process tank overflowed. The resulting internal flood almost caused a large ammonia release. Prior to this near miss, I hadn’t anticipated this type of scenario. I now cover internal floods in all of my analyses,” he said.


Industrial plants also must address emergency planning. Many facilities incorporate this emergency planning into their written operating procedures. Jordan often develops system operating procedures that include steps to take if disasters such as power failures, fires, bomb threats or hurricanes were to occur.

Campbell Soup Co. has emergency action plans for each of its facilities, which can also vary by location. “Our facility in Florida has hurricane evacuation plans. In Texas, we have tornado shelter-in-place plans in place,” said Bing Cheng, manager of utilities engineering at Campbell’s.

As part of its evacuation plans, Campbell’s has established meeting points for employees and identified coordinators that take attendance to make sure everyone has left the building. Campbell’s also has an action plan for an active-shooter situation for all its facilities.

For Campbell facilities that utilize ammonia, there are emergency action plans specifically for ammonia systems. “We have detailed emergency procedures in the event of an ammonia release or power outage. As part of our employee and operator training, we review our evacuation plans in case of any releases that may occur,” Cheng said.

When Hurricane Harvey threatened, the Campbell’s facility in Lakeland, Florida, was closed during the storm as a precaution. The engine room was in the process of being commissioned, so employees made sure all equipment was secured and all the contractors were taken off site, Cheng said.

To help minimize product loss, Campbell’s can shift production runs if there is advanced notice. “If you have a sudden storm or a tornado, that can cause issues with production,” Cheng said.

Campbell’s also relies on diesel-powered equipment for back up. “Most of our fire protection pumps have a dieselpowered pump backup,” Cheng said. “If we do lose power to our ammonia refrigeration system, our operators are trained to get the system stabilized and back online as quickly and safely as possible to minimize production downtime.”

Like Whole Foods’ Coffin, Cheng is looking into battery solutions. “With improvements in batteries and the size we need, it is feasible now,” he said. “It protects you during some outages and it takes some of that peak demand out of your utility bills.”

Depending on the nature of the emergency, a pump-out procedure could improve safety. “What you do is slowly shut down the plant, stopping the flow of ammonia to the system evaporators and allow it to be drawn back to engine room vessels — typically a high-pressure receiver — and wait it out,” Jordan said.

The length of time it takes to pump out ammonia varies, depending on the size of the systems. A very small ammonia refrigeration system can be pumped out in one or two hours. Larger facilities may need a day or more to complete the process. “You need to prepare. You can’t just decide to do it moments before a storm hits,” Jordan said.

If a fire is approaching a facility with ammonia, the primary question is whether or not to pump out and shut down the ammonia refrigeration system. “Most of the plants I’m familiar with have shut down their systems when a fire was approaching, but I know of at least one example where the facility did not shut down the system without suffering any major consequences,” Jordan said.

In addition to protecting the companies’ brands and meeting consumers’ and communities’ needs, operators’ emergency preparedness plans can help them meet regulatory requirements. When a hurricane is approaching, the Environmental Protection Administration will often send out alerts asking companies if they have thought through their hurricane plan. “Blaming an ammonia release on an ‘act of nature’ may not be an acceptable explanation to a regulator. Regulators expect facilities to be prepared, so don’t be caught short,” Jordan said.