Article Archive
Dave's Notes
Ethanol mandate moves forward
AR-AFFF provides best defense in ethanol fueled fires
Volume 23, No.2

Conservative blogger Rebecca Hagelin, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, states that the escallating use of ethanol “certainly didn’t come about because of a groundswell of popular demand.”

It came about, she said, because of a government mandate.

Firefighters are used to being on the wrong end of such majestic mandates. Remember Halon? Under the guise of environmental responsibility, ethanol is being wholeheartedly supported with government subsidies. Little is left for emergency responders to do but learn to live with it.

Even at its worst, ethanol is not an unstable demon. It’s just another flammable liquid. For decades firefighters have safely handled gasoline, which is far worse than ethanol in terms of explosive potential. The biggest thing to recognize about ethanol is that it is a polar solvent, meaning chiefly that it does not mix with water. Ethanol can not be diluted with water like gasoline.

Ethanol requires a special kind of foam and specialized technique. Dealing with it means specific training. And since ethanol is already in more than 50 percent of the automobiles in America today, getting that training is mandatory now! This is not something that can wait for the next budget cycle. It should not be filed by priority behind getting a new refrigerator for the command vehicle or repainting the pumper.

Firefighters need to worry about ethanol long before it gets into our gas tanks. For the most part, ethanol is processed from corn. That means ethanol plants throughout the midwest. But ethanol can also be made from sugar cane and switch grass. Ethanol production has the potential to become a coast-to-coast operation.

Ethanol comes out of processing plants 95 percent pure. The only reason it is not 100 percent pure is that to keep people from turning it into a new source of moonshine, the government mandates (there is that word again) that ethanol be denatured by adding five percent gasoline. It may not be drinkable, but it is still flammable.

Some of the ethanol is loaded into tank trucks and some of it goes into rail tankers for transport. None of it goes into pipelines. Tank trucks and rail tankers have been known to have accidents. For example, last May in Baltimore a tanker rig overturned and burst into flames on a curving interstate ramp, killing the driver and sending a burning stream of ethanol into the street below, igniting a row of parked cars.

From the massive bulk facilities, the ethanol is transferred to local gasoline terminals. Tankers are loaded with gasoline and topped off with ten percent ethanol, the most common formulation. No matter how slight the ethanol content, it remains flammable, and despite the best attempts of firefighters, it cannot be diluted..

The only way to challenge a polar solvent fire is with the right type of foam. A recent series of tests by the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition shows that the only foam effective against ethanol is alcohol-resistant AFFF. Straight AFFF or fluoroprotein does not work. It does not make any different if the ethanol is 95 percent, 85 percent or only ten percent.

AR-AFFF, readily available to industrial fire brigades, still remains relatively unknown in municipal fire fighting. Even the foams that municipal fire trucks do carry are in severely limited amounts compared to what it takes to deal with an industrial emergency. Industrial firefighters need to work with their municipal cousins to prepare for what may eventually happen.

It is not unusual to encounter 100 tanker cars of ethanol in a single freight train. Imagine 100 ethanol tank cars sitting six tracks wide at an unloading facility when a fire breaks out. Some of these facilities have good fire protection -- fixed foam systems, monitors and sprinklers. Others do not. When one of these facilities goes up, municipal responders do not want to be in the position of forging an instant alliance from scratch with industrial brigades.

Ethanol is going to make mutual aid a reality nationwide, because industrial responders are the only ones readily equipped to deal with such emergencies. Municipal fire departments are not likely to afford sufficent stockpiles of AR-AFFF any time in the near future.

Fire is one thing. Spills are another. There are no recommendations from the feds yet on how to deal with ethanol spills. Absorbent pads used on hydrocarbon spills are ineffective when used on ethanol. The pads treat ethanol the same as water, leaving it behind when the pad is recovered.

Emergency services in the U.S. are going to have to step up to the plate on ethanol. Either we are going to get the foam and get the training or we are going to continue to let events send us scrambling for solutions. 


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