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Industrial Fire Group Brings Unique Idea To Texas Mutual Aid
Vol 20 Issue 1

Industrial mutual aid usually means an agreement among industrial facilities to share firefighters and equipment in the event of an emergency. But in Corpus Christi, TX, mutual aid takes a different approach. Here a non profit fire brigade owns the trucks and trains the firefighters, dispatching them to the plants as needed.

Other than the Port of Rotterdam in The Netherlands, no other major industrial area manages mutual aid in quite the same way, said Geoffrey Atwood, Fire Chief of Refinery Terminal Fire Company, a non-profit corporation set up to handle industrial fire fighting in Corpus Christi.

"Our basic goal is to provide state-of-the-art training and emergency services to our local members and assure the protection of the environment and the safety of our employees, and community," Atwood said.

The Refinery Terminal Fire Company (RTFC or Fire Company) was formed in 1948 as a Texas Non-Profit Corporation to provide fire department services to the Port of Corpus Christi and the related refining and petrochemical port industries. RTFC currently protects over 70 industrial facilities owned by 15 different corporations. RTFC is the largest non-profit industrial firefighting group in the United States, serving the fourth largest petrochemical port in the Nation.

Over the past 50 years, RTFC has gained significant emergency response experience. This covers over 300 major fires and emergencies throughout the oil, petrochemical, pipeline and port facilities of its members. Most of RTFC's chief officers have responded to at least 12 petroleum storage tank fires. RTFC responds as requested to assist the City of Corpus Christi Fire Department.

Atwood, who has been chief for three years, has been with RTFC 17 years. He said the decision to establish what is essentially a cooperative fire brigade in Corpus Christi has a lot to do with reliability and cost.

"Back in the 1940s and 1950s you didn't have paid firefighters in the industrial arena," Atwood said. "The driving force was to save the cost of having separate equipment for each facility. A given refinery might have to have a couple of fire trucks, and also have to train their plant personnel as firefighters. Apparatus and foam are expensive. The thought process is that we will purchase a smaller amount of equipment for each site and put the rest of the money in a general fund to buy standby, reserve equipment."

Instead of duplicating effort at each local plant, RTFC consolidates the training and equipment to make it more effective and efficient.

"Generally each plant has an incipient stage firefighting effort that handles day to day efforts," Atwood said. "We come in and support that effort. If it escalates, then obviously our response escalates."

RTFC employs more than 120 personnel, including in-plant firefighters stationed at various facilities. Annually, RTFC makes nearly 300 emergency calls to local plants, ranging from the routine accidents to process and tank fires. Many of those calls are medical in nature, Atwood said.

RTFC maintains a central fire station from which equipment and personnel can be dispatched. In June 1997, in cooperation with the city of Corpus Christi, RTFC moved its dispatch center to the Corpus Christi Police Department headquarters. Together with city personnel, RTFC operates a crisis management dispatch center which is responsible for all industry/public notification activities such as special telephone notification systems, and the local emergency radio station, AM620.

The fire company also coordinates public sector emergency response to its member company industrial facilities, archives pre-planning and hazardous materials information, and of course, provides dispatch services for the Fire Company. The CMD Center is staffed for 24-hour operation.

RTFC's state-of-the-art fire training academy opened in August 1994. This significant cooperative project was funded by our largest member companies and the Port of Corpus Christi at a cost of $5.5 million. The academy was built to provide comprehensive firefighting training in a simulated industrial setting. It is truly a training facility built by the refining and petrochemical industry for the refining and petrochemical industry.

The fire company trained over 3,000 students during the training academy's first year of operation. The academy continues to be more active every year. The international client base grows annually. The most notable comment by students is that the training is delivered by instructors that have actual experience. Of course, students are referring to the fact that all of the TAS fire and command instructors are currently active refinery and petrochemical firefighters, either from the RTFC career staff, the member company emergency response teams, or the internationally recognized academy adjunct faculty.

RTFC operates on a budget of nearly $12 million annually. The Emergency Response Service operating budget comes from membership fees calculated from the size and hazards of each individual facility. Out of 15 separate members, the largest single fee accessed for membership is about half a million dollars annually. At least three local plants -- Equistar Chemicals, Flint Hill Resources and CITGO Refinery -- support RTFC in-plant stations at each of their major facilities. (RTFC also maintains a fire station at Equistar Chemicals' LP's, ethylene and olefins plant in Alvin, Texas.)
By contrast, some plants that limit their participation pay as little as $10,000 annually.

"Our smallest member has two tanks that we protect, nothing else," Atwood said.
Downsizing and an older workforce in most refinery operations makes RTFC an increasingly valuable asset for the Corpus Christi industries, Atwood said.

"People who turn the wrenches in plants have good paying jobs and great benefits," Atwood said. "People hired stay there until retirement. What we continue to see is the workforce is getting older."

Fire fighting is a young man's operation, Atwood said. Expecting a 55-year-old plant employee to put on bunker gear, an airpack and drag 7-inch hose is unreasonable in most cases.

"The plants are starting to realize this," Atwood said. "With the reduction in personnel and the aging of the workforce the reality is we do not have adequate manpower to depend on volunteer or mandatory brigades inside the plants."

Operational personnel are still valuable in helping mitigate an emergency, chiefly through technical information, Atwood said. But for fire fighting, a strong crew of well trained personnel separate from plant personnel has become a necessity.


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