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Ludwig Benner Jr.: The Father of Modern Hazmat Thinking

Ludwig “Ludi” Benner Jr. was a pioneer in hazardous materials response research and development in the 1970s. He also is the Father of Modern Hazmat Thinking. Benner passed away Nov. 15, 2021, in Virginia. He was 94 years old.

A chemical engineer, he was a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators and an International System Safety Society Fellow. His experience included hazmat transportation equipment engineering, operations and regulatory liaison; corporate physical distribution management; transportation consulting; more than 35 accident investigations with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); teaching accident investigation at the University of Southern California and Montgomery County Community College; development of the D.E.C.I.D.E. hazmat incident management system and the General Hazardous Materials Behavior Model (GEBMO); and the design of investigation support software. Benner was a practitioner, observer and analyst of accident investigation practices and keen follower and analyst of national and international developments in this field for 45 years, with more than 100 publications.

When Benner worked at the NTSB, the organization did a hazmat accident-risk study that concluded that emergency responders had a 10,000 times greater chance of death or injury than anyone else. This is one of the things that prompted Benner to develop decision models to help responders to make better decisions when responding to hazmat incidents.

Inform a new generation

During my first trip to the National Fire Academy in 1981 to take a hazmat class, I became familiar with Benner. During the class, I was introduced to his D.E.C.I.D.E. hazmat incident management system. The acronym stands for:

Detect the presence of hazardous materials

Estimate likely harm without intervention

Choose response objectives

Identify action options

Do best option

Evaluate progress

As I taught emergency responders throughout my career, I talked about D.E.C.I.D.E. After I retired, I was approached by Kent Anderson of the Ammonia Safety Training Institute (ASTI). He was working with Benner and others to see whether there were lessons to be learned for responders from historical ammonia incidents. He asked me whether I would look into an incident that occurred in Crete, NE, in 1969

During preparation for my book set, “Hazmatology: The Science of Hazardous Materials, Volume 4: Common Sense Emergency Response,” Benner and I spoke on the phone on several occasions about his D.E.C.I.D.E. and GEBMO models. This was the first opportunity that I had to talk with Benner. I found him to be very knowledgeable, passionate about hazmat response safety and friendly.

On one occasion, he told me, “The greatest challenge we face today in hazardous materials emergency response is to inform a new generation with the knowledge to safely work with those materials.”

We also discussed the D.E.C.I.D.E. process. The intent of the D.E.C.I.D.E. process, according to Benner, is to help the responder get “ahead of the curve” during a hazmat incident. “The goal,” he emphasized, “is to constantly

update the predictions of what’s going to happen next, in order to see how the actions are changing the outcome. With a hazmat incident, you have to focus on the outcome.

“The beauty of the D.E.C.I.D.E. process is this: If you can’t make a prediction about what will happen next, you can pinpoint the data gaps that will ultimately allow you to make a prediction.”

Many years removed from his days of teaching hazmat and investigating incidents for the NTSB, Benner still was interested in the health and well-being of firefighters. “Back then,” Benner pointed out, “firefighters received hazmat training pretty much the same way, following the prevalent fire service paradigm at the time: attack and extinguish. I wanted to change that paradigm by teaching firefighters the importance of thinking their way through an incident rather than jumping into the middle of something they didn’t really understand. I wanted to show them how to look at a situation, interpret the visual cues and predict what was going to happen next.

“Additionally,” he continued, “my training program illustrated how critical it is to start out with a game plan, even if it’s pretty basic. If the situation isn’t going to create a problem, maybe you don’t have to do anything. On the other hand, if it’s going to hurt somebody, you have to figure out how it’s going to hurt them and decide whether or not you can do anything about that.”

Benner said that by using the D.E.C.I.D.E. model to look at a situation a little differently, responders could appreciate the differences between a firefighting mindset and a hazmat mindset.

 

GEBMO

The GEBMO model allows an orderly assessment of events that are likely to take place when a container of hazardous materials is stressed. Generally, hazmat containers are designed to hold hazardous material under normal conditions of shipping, storage and use. When containers are stressed beyond their normal capacity to hold the hazardous material, the container likely will fail. When containers fail, certain predictable events occur, both with the container and the hazardous material, which might have an unfavorable effect on the public and emergency responders. These effects might be prevented by removing the public and emergency responders from harm’s way and letting the event take its course. Benner told me that this is a time to “Go sit on a hill and watch it happen. You will never see another like it.”

There is nothing wrong with that choice of action if it’s the only safe option. However, using the GEBMO model, you can determine scientifically what actions should be taken based on the incident circumstances when you arrive.

Anywhere on the model where exposure is mentioned, the reference is to emergency responders primarily, but it also extends to the public. You want to change the potential outcome, which is what’s likely to happen without intervention.

The purpose of the model is to save lives of responders and the public. Property can be replaced, and the environment can be cleaned. Lives can’t be replaced. The model allows you to determine appropriate intervention points during the incident, which is dependent on what is happening when you arrive.

History shows that effects of stressors on containers don’t cause container failure before you arrive in every case. GEBMO provides two courses of action to take based on container stressors, container breach or hazmat reactions, which might lead to container breach.

When you arrive, if the container isn’t breached, you might be able to intervene at certain points, based on when you arrive.

Some of Benner’s conclusions from incident investigations for the NTSB that led to the development of his models include:

  • Traditional attack and extinguishment approaches didn’t work for hazmat emergencies
  • Firefighters were “programmed” to get into trouble at hazmat emergencies
  • Cookbook approaches to hazmat emergencies produce bad outcomes
  • There must be a better way of responding to hazmat emergencies

According to Benner, “There are two types of responses: adaptive and habitual (cookbook). GEBMO allows for an adaptive approach to an incident based on risk analysis, previous events and appropriate intervention points. Historically, the vast majority of firefighter deaths and injuries at hazmat emergencies happened before the advent of decision models. That is not to say we have not lost lives since; however, we need to keep educating hazmat responders so that we do not fall into complacency. Dealing with hazmat emergencies can be conducted safely and effectively if we are able to adapt to the situations we encounter and use models.”

Talking with Benner was one of the highlights of my career. My only regret is that during the 22 years that I lived and worked in Maryland before my retirement, I didn’t realize how close I was to a “hazmat treasure” in Virginia.

 

Remembering Benner

Following Benner’s death, I contacted his daughter, Holly Carey. She helped to get me in touch with people who were a big part of his life.

Michael Hildebrand and his wife were close friends of Benner and his wife, Helen. After being discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1976, Hildebrand met Benner when Benner was teaching a hazmat course that he had developed in the fire science program at Montgomery County Community College.

“What I learned as a student of Ludi’s and working for him was invaluable,” Hildebrand says. “He was the single most important influence on my career.”

Hildebrand took a required hazmat course from Benner. The class was on hazmat containers and how they behave when they are breached. Hildebrand says that through the first several classes he was “lost,” but by the fourth or fifth class, it all came together.

Hildebrand worked for Benner at the NTSB in 1978–79 through an internship. Hildebrand created maps of major hazmat incidents.

“We became lifelong friends for 43 years,” Hildebrand says. “He helped open many doors for me professionally and was a valuable mentor. Ludi was a good technical writer and helped me with my report writing.”

During the 70s and 80s, multiple firefighter fatalities from hazmat incidents caught Benner’s attention. This included his investigation of a butadiene rail car incident in Houston. He found that firefighters needed training in dealing with hazardous materials.

Hildebrand says Benner was the nicest and smartest guy that he has known. “A real kitchen table guy.” Hildebrand never saw Benner lose his temper or lose control. “Just an amazing guy.”

 

Mandatory stops cause accidents?

Benner and the late Les White started Events Analysis in the early 80s. I believe that they met at a System Safety Conference. Benner was presenting. As I understand it, Benner and White wrote up an agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin to open a safety consulting business. Benner selected Events Analysis for the name of the company in view of the fact that they would analyze events that involved accidents.

Benner was retired from his position of chief of the Hazardous Materials Division of the NTSB, and White was retired from the Air Force, where his last billet was as the assistant for safety policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Jeff Chapman worked for 13 years with Benner at Events Analysis and calls him a friend and mentor for more than 36 years. “He was truly one of a kind and had a tremendous impact on my career and, more importantly, my spiritual life.

“Ludi was kind enough to ask me to co-author a paper with him shortly after I joined Events Analysis,” Chapman recalls. “This paper was basically a review and critique of a paper written by someone concerning requiring trucks and buses to stop at all railroad crossings before preceding across. The gentleman who authored this article concluded that requiring mandatory stops at railroad crossings increased the risk of accidents due to such vehicles stalling at the stops and/or from rear-end collisions due to following vehicles not expecting the trucks/buses to stop.

“Ludi and I disagreed with this man’s conclusion that mandatory stops cause accidents and authored a counter argument to his conclusion,” Chapman continues. “A short time after we published our paper, Ludi called me and said we had been asked to present our paper at a symposium … After we had presented our paper and were sitting having a nice lunch, a stranger approached our table and very politely asked if we had any investments with Preparation H. When we kind of stared at him with confused looks, he said we should have, because we certainly, to use a milder term than he actual said, reamed him out. He was the author of the original article we had taken exception to. The guy then just walked away. Ludi and I had a good laugh on our drive home.”

 

A home for a life’s work

Anderson didn’t meet Benner until about 2013. That was through a mutual friend, Steve Selk, who was investigations manager for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and who came to know Benner through his work on accident investigation theory.

“Through my work with ASTI, I got to know many of the leading hazmat experts and chiefs in the fire service who knew of Ludwig through his hazardous materials response work,” Anderson explains. “Although many knew his name and his work, not that many had worked with him professionally, since he had retired to do consulting work in the early 1990s.

“We, thus, had lots of common interests in hazardous materials, emergency response, accident investigation, ammonia, and the roles of the NTSB, CSB and others in chemical safety,” Anderson continues. “So, you can imagine our long lunches in Virginia were quite fascinating and an experience most of us would never have had with Ludwig.

“My last exchange by email with him was in early 2020 after COVID surfaced and he had started having health issues that slowed him down, but he was still working on several new journal articles.

“Steve and I want to try and find a home for Ludwig’s materials and work on hazmat, and the National Fire Academy or the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute of the University of Maryland may both be options.”

 

A daughter’s thoughts

Not only did Benner have high standards in his business life, but he also set an example to follow in his personal life.

According to his daughter, Benner met the love of his life, Helen, at work. He fell in love with her spunk and sparkle. He shook her hand goodbye on their first date. She loved what a gentleman he was and how kindly he treated her. They had a brief courtship: He always said that they just knew that they wanted to be together forever, so they kept pushing up the wedding date. They eloped after telling their parents that they were going to find a little church somewhere and get married.

A little more than a year and a half into their marriage, Helen contracted bulbar polio. She wound up in an iron lung fighting for her life. At 27, Benner was at home trying to hold down a full-time job and manage a one-week-old baby and an 18-month-old. Although the doctors were not hopeful, the “newlyweds” were, and not only did they both survive this terrifying time, but “they managed another 53 years of joy-filled living” until they were separated by Helen’s death, Carey says.

They enjoyed their family first and foremost through the years. They loved their children and their grandchildren. Benner lived to become a great grandfather, a fact which delighted him, Carey says.

They inspired many people with their devotion and kindness toward one another. Many people declared, “I want a marriage like Helen and Ludi’s!”

They traveled together for work and for pleasure. They played a million games of gin rummy and probably more games of Scrabble, where their friendly competition was intense, Carey says.

They were so well-matched in temperament, intellect and spirit. God was the foundation of their union, although never in a showy way, just a constant presence, as Carey puts it.

They spent many times together at the beach in later years, just enjoying each other’s company. Helen’s death was Benner’s deepest sorrow, and when asked by his daughter how he was after she died, he often replied, “One day closer to being with Mom!”

Their family rejoices that they are once again together.

 

Improved safety for emergency responders

Right up to the time of his passing, Benner continued to review historical hazmat incidents and to try to derive lessons learned to help today’s emergency responders stay safe. He had no fire service background but worked tirelessly throughout his life to keep emergency responders safe when they respond to hazmat incidents.

Thanks to Ludwig Benner Jr. and all of his contributions to the emergency responders in the world, hazmat response is a much safer venture than it once was. His tireless efforts undoubtedly have saved lives and prevented injuries to emergency responders.

Rest in peace, my friend. You earned it.

Thanks to Holly Carey, Kent Anderson, Michael Hildebrand and Jeff Chapman for their contributions that made this article possible.

 

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