Anywhere else, a class instructor asking students about their bathroom habits is rude. At the Texas Engineering Extension Service's 45th annual Industrial Fire School in July, making sure that the students were properly hydrated is item number one on the safety check list.
Instructor Jeff Hoffsted was not shy when it came to encouraging his students waiting to tackle the railcar loading rack project to drink plenty of water.
"If you are not going to the bathroom at least once an hour, you are not drinking enough water," Hoffsted said. "You're going to hear this repeated at every project you visit."
Nearly 200 highly qualified guest instructors and speakers representing industry were on hand to train more than 450 industrial firefighters and safety personnel who gathered at the TEEX Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station from 11 different countries. Hoffsted was only one of many instructors who donated their time, services and expenses to ensure that firefighters were adequately prepared to respond to various industrial emergencies.
Fortunately, the summer heat for this year's school was far milder than in years past. After checking that his students observed proper procedure as to personally keeping cool, Hoffsted turned his attention to the correct way to keep a burning railcar cool.
"You need to have a nice, smooth application to it," Hoffsted said. "If it's popping, if it's cracking and you're hitting it too hard, are you really effectively cooling the process at all?" Water must be applied so that it runs down the sides and removes heat from the vessel.
Next Hoffsted reviewed the close relationship between a master stream operator and his spotter.
"Where does the operator of that master stream look for direction?" Hoffsted asked. "Does he look at the instructor? Does he take instruction from anybody but the spotter? No, because the spotter is your eyes. Your eyes are on the spotter at all times."
Besides a pit fire, students facing the railcar loading dock prop were faced with a LPG fire in a compressor near one of the railcar's wheels. Students were charged with identifying a valve block on top of the compressor and reacting accordingly.
"This is all about going in, getting a plan together, communicating it to everyone on the team and then effectively going in and following your plan to put out the fire," Hoffsted said. "Then you make sure everybody backs out."
The loading dock prop is only one of many full-size combustible replicas on the fire field, representing everything from process units to oil tankers. This year's industrial fire school enrollment included the Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Equatorial Guinea, Jamaica, Mexico, South Korea and the U.S.
Les Bunte, division director of TEEX's Emergency Services Training Institute, said application of new systems and procedures have helped improve the annual fire school over the past few years.
"For example, we've taken the incident command system that is used in emergencies day in and day out and applied that structure to the administrative operation of the school," Bunte said. "We've also adopted a training action plan, which is really a direct takeoff of the incident action plan format that most people are familiar with in ICS."
However, despite improvements in administration and operation, enrollment for the industrial school continues to drop, down as much as 20 percent, Bunte said.
"We are extremely concerned about that," he said. "We have developed an internal survey that we intend to give to our guest instructors as well as our students. We are trying to determine if the problem is course content or the time of year that we conduct the school and conflicts with turn arounds at plants operating under heavy production loads."
One cause for the diminishing summer enrollment may be the availability of the fire grounds for corporately funded schools throughout the year, otherwise fulfilling training requirements, Bunte said. Still another reason may be the general downsizing in industry, reducing the number of emergency response groups requiring training.
"I can certainly tell you that there are no plans to scale back any," Bunte said. "I think the school still gives good value to the students that attend. Perhaps we need to create more vitality by freshening up some courses or offer more courses that lend themselves to continuing education units."
Lee Ray Kaderli, emergency response chief for ExxonMobil in Mont Belvieu, TX, served as field chairman for this year's industrial fire school. He said that the school is still emphasizing the need for certified training recognized by the National Fire Protection Association.
"We continue to support the certification process," Kaderli said. "That's our biggest thing."
John Quincy Adams, manager of industrial safety and fire protection at Enterprise Products in Mont Belvieu, was a past chairman of the industrial school. This year marked his 43rd consecutive year to attend. Like Kaderli, Adams has been one of the prime movers in the certification effort.
"We started quite a few years back trying to get courses certified because when plants are inspected by the federal government, they want proof that the fire protection people are qualified," Adams said. "They don't just accept that you have a certificate. You need to show that the training has been sanctioned by a governing body."
Each year more courses, including hazmat, rescue and NFPA 1081, are taught by certified instructors, Adams said.
"We see what our customers want and we start developing the courses in accordance to the national standard," he said.
Enterprise Products was responsible for a large number of students this year. Tommy Corporan, a process operator with Enterprise Products in Victoria, said this year was his second time to visit the industrial fire school. He serves on the fire brigade at his facility.
"Mainly we're learning with monitors rather than using the single line," Corporan said.
He said instructors were emphasizing safety and how to operate master streams with fewer people available per shift.
Sabas Garza, also with Enterprise, does electrical instrumentation work at the facility in San Antonio when he is not occupied with the fire brigade. This year was his third to attend the fire school.
"We're basically just hitting different bases and programs so that we can better ourselves," Garza said. "We did exterior fire fighting one year, LPG last year and now we are doing interior fire fighting this year."
Among the emergency responders attending from outside the U.S. was Fitzgerald Stuart with South Riding Point Ltd. of the Grand Bahamas. Like Corporan, he noted that instructors were emphasizing how to use master streams with fewer people.
"For a company like ours, that is good," Stuart said. "We have very small shifts. So training to use the Crossfire and Blitzfire suits our organization pretty good."
Mary Peavler qualifies as an old-timer at the fire school, even if she is not a student. Her husband Patrick with ConocoPhillips served as one of the instructors. Meanwhile, Mary and her five children watched the props burn from a safe distance.
"I've actually been coming out here for 32 years now, originally for the municipal school," Peavler said. "We have a long line of fire fighters in our family and we want to make sure that we carry on that tradition. My four-year-old here will probably carry on in his dad's footsteps."