Michael Schmidt of Ansul, Inc., runs a fire school for the first people on the scene when a fire breaks out at a plant or refinery -- not the firefighters but the workers operating the equipment and handling the maintenance.
"Really, these are the guys who, when incipient fire has just started, can respond to it using the portable extinguishers placed throughout their facility," said Schmidt, Ansul's training manager. "This differs from firefighters who use water and have more time to assemble and determine a method of attack."
If used correctly in those first critical moments, a fire extinguisher can be an effective tool in protecting life and property. To that end, Ansul has operated a training field at its Marinette, WS, facility for nearly 50 years.
"Our fire field is nearly 20 acres," Schmidt said. "We have a dedicated classroom facility and fire training props designed to teach students how to use the portable and semi portable extinguishers that are generally located throughout most manufacturing and retail establishments in the United States."
As many as 300 students a year train at the Ansul school with classes limited to only 30 students per typical three-day class. For the most part, these students represent industries with a potential high risk for fire emergencies.
"We see good numbers from the petrochemical industry, power generation and heavy manufacturing," Schmidt said. "These are industries where a fire in a plant that burns for any length of time can mean lost production for a long period of time. Products don't sit on a shelf anymore. The product is completed with a destination in mind for the same day."
Because most people are not familiar with the proper use of a dry chemical extinguisher, the training school starts with relatively simple props. From there, the students advance to larger, more complicated props that require teamwork to tackle.
"For portable extinguishers we have a barrel rack using six barrels with burning fuel flowing from the top tier and puddling on the ground," Schmidt said. "It makes for a pretty good fire and you have to have at least two people to put it out. They really have to know what they're doing."
Also on tap is a simulated pump flange break with a flowing pressure fire and pooling on the ground.
"We're trying to simulate what people might find in industry," Schmidt said. "The students graduate from relatively simple fires to fires they couldn't believe they could put out with a portable extinguisher."
Unlike some fire schools, the Ansul training field has no restrictions on the type of fuels burned in training.
"We burn heptane, which is a solvent," Schmidt said. "The burning characteristics are identical to gasoline, but it's a little bit cleaner. Each student will fight 25 separate and distinct fire scenarios. In a typical class of 30 we'll burn 1,200 to 1,400 gallons of fuel and use 12 to 15 tons of dry chemical. We also burn a lot of propane to simulate the kind of jet fires that dry chemical is so effective against."
To protect ground water from fuel leeching into the soil, each prop is built with a clay barrier beneath it. Also, Ansul has recently renovated all piping on the field to further protect against any leakage. Waste water is run through a fuel-water separator twice before being drained into the city sewer system, Schmidt said.
"The local office of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is only six blocks away," Schmidt said. "We're not hiding anything from them."
On the last day of class the students graduate from hand-held extinguishers to using 350 pound wheel units familiar to industrial firefighters.
"We probably burn more fuel on that last day than the other two together, mainly because these are large capacity units," Schmidt said. "They put out a lot of chemical with a big flow rate."
Using the wheel units teaches one of the most important lessons in fire fighting, Schmidt said. The greatest ally a firefighter has is distance.
"The farther he can be from that fire yet attack it effectively, the better off he is," Schmidt said. "He's less likely to get burned. The big wheel unit will put out five to eight pounds of chemical per second, giving them ranges beyond 20 feet."
Instead of dry chemical agents such as Purple K, distinctive from most brands by its purple color, the Ansul school uses sodium bicarbonate to train.
"The Purple K is probably twice as effective as sodium bicarbonate and is typically what is used in industry," Schmidt said. "Our thought is that if we can teach students the proper technique using sodium bicarbonate they are going to be pleasantly surprised if they have to fight a fire with Purple K."
Located near the Wisconsin-Michigan border only 60 miles from Green Bay, Marinette is easily accessible to students visiting from other parts of the country. Rooms at local hotels are booked through the school with bus service to and from the training field. Lunch and breaks are catered on site at the school.
"At one time countries such as Saudi Arabia were sending a lot of folks over," Schmidt said. "The last few years enrollment has been almost entirely from across the U.S. We do a Latin American school every year that draws from
Mexico to South America. We have a lot of Canadian students as well."
Classes are generally held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Due to the hard Wisconsin winters, the school only operates from May through October.
"We had a freak blizzard that dumped 12 inches of snow in May one year," Schmidt said. "We were fueling the fire without every being quite sure where the flames were going to pop up. It was nothing you wanted to do again."
Ansul also takes training on the road to the plants and refineries, he said.
"We'll get a request from a customer who says 'We've got a fire training ground here and we'd like to have one of your firefighters come out for a few days,' Schmidt said. "We're more than happy to do it."
Although Ansul extends the use of instructors for such training, the same is not true of training equipment.
"Generally, we do not load up our trailer with props, fuels and extinguishers to go out into the field for extended periods," Schmidt said. "Everyplace has its own local requirements regarding licensing, where you can burn, where you can't and what you have to do once you're through. We try to stay away from that."