Article Archive
Dave's Notes
Fire Brigades Must Stay
Vol 21 No 4

Why does an industrial facility need a fire brigade when they have agreements to bring in mutual aid and outside contractors when things get their worst? One important reason is that a narrow window of opportunity exists to save lives after a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a vapor release or ignition. The only responders in place to take advantage of that window are the responders already on site. If there is a worker trapped, he may only have minutes to live. Waiting for responders from the next plant, next town or next state is not an option. If that worker is going to survive, action has to be taken now. You need trained people with the right protective gear at hand ready to go into that vapor cloud get those people out. You've got to have responders trained to set up hose lines supporting manned or unmanned monitors, or sprinkler systems. An evolving disaster in a plant or refinery is a lousy time to teach someone how to hook up three lines to a portable monitor when he's never seen one except parked on a fire truck.

We don't do a good job defining what a fire brigade should be or even measuring what they need. A plant fire brigade should analyze their capabilities. It's not hard. We usually start figuring out how many gallons of water or foam you can pump or deliver in how many minutes. Bear in mind that firefighters can use just about any old water in a pinch -- river water, salt water and sewage water included. Modern foam doesn't know the difference and neither does the fire. If you're pumping out of the Houston Ship Channel, that's one thing. If you're pumping out of a storage tank in Midland, TX, that's another issue. What are you're alternative sources of water? Do you need to bring in mutual aid to lay large diameter hose to the nearest pond? Factory Mutual or NFPA standards for fire water and fire pumps in plants are not designed for a 60 minute fire, let alone fires that go on 24 hours or more.

Water isn't the only major capability that should be explored. If you've only got four people on a shift, you're limited in what your fire brigade can accomplish. If you've got 20 people to back them up, that's different. But even 20 responders is not a lot of people when you consider the toll fighting a mid-summer fire can take on a responder. Wearing full bunker gear in 100 degree temperature gives most responders an endurance of 30-minutes to an hour before rehab is required.

To me, it is almost inconceivable that a plant could operate without a mutual aid agreement with other plants, cities and outside commercial providers of fire protection. Because even though the statics look better each year, chemical plants are going to have chemical spills and vapor releases, refineries are going to have storage tank fires and even manufacturing facilities making everything from cars to coffee pots are subject to devastating disaster that can threaten their business overnight.

Yet, there are plant today saying 'Hey, there is a fire department right down the street that I pay good taxes to support -- I'm shutting down my fire brigade and turning the keys over to the municipal firefighters.' If that's okay with you and the stockholders, fine. But you'd better be ready to train those municipal firefighters and provide them the specialized equipment, like foam nozzles, necessary for industrial fire fighting. Because if municipal firefighters get hurt on site due to lack of training or equipment, I don't need to tell you who is going to be signing the checks for that liability. For that reason, a lot of plants simply refuse to allow municipal firefighters inside the front gates. These firefighters don't understand the process, the chemicals, the procedures and they certainly don't feel comfortable attempting them.

That was the way I felt about it 40 years ago when I started out as a municipal firefighter. Today I know better. I'd much rather go into a refinery and battle a gasoline storage tank fire than go into a three-story warehouse with fire on the second floor. The later is a lot more dangerous than the former. Another reason why I'd prefer the tank fire is that the refinery is a place where the pursuit of safety has been ingrained in people above all other things. From the first day on the job, workers are constantly reminded to respect the need for safety. That sentiment is so instilled in the industrial mindset that it is not unusual to hear a plant manager say he would let a storage tank burn to the ground before he'd risk someone getting hurt.

Fire brigades are a long way from extinct. In those first instinctive minutes when fast action can make the difference between a temporary inconvenience and a multi-million dollars product loss, the plant fire brigade is poised and ready. Sure, that once-in-a-career fire might have to be handed off to an outside specialist, but if the fire brigade does its job right that fire might never get to that point.


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