A generational change is in progress in the profession of industrial fire fighting, several key speakers at this year's Industrial Fire World Emergency Responder Conference & Exposition agreed. Finding responders who have actually dealt with a major industrial emergency will be increasingly rare in the future.
"The good news is we don't have as many fires and explosions, thank God," IFW president David White told attendees. "The bad news is we don't have a lot of fires or explosions."
Referring to his own resum?, White's 40-plus years of fire fighting include 16 major tank fires, two major ship fires and the largest post-Texas City chemical plant explosion in American history. Unfortunately, industrial firefighters with anything approaching that degree of experience are not far from retirement, he said.
"We need to take advantage of these guys with the gray hair in the time they have left," White said.
Held in Beaumont, TX, for the second consecutive year, the 23rd annual IFW conference and expo filled the town with the most talented and imaginative of any generation of firefighters, past, present or future. IFW teamed with Beaumont Emergency Services Training Complex, Industrial Safety Training Council, Sabine Neches Chiefs Association, Southwest Louisiana Mutual Aid, area fire departments and industrial sponsors throughout the Golden Triangle region of Texas and Louisiana.
With nearly 475 emergency responders and managers in attendance, topics of interest at the conference covered the broad range of modern industrial emergency response from fire pump testing to fire brigade leadership.
Both White and Alan Hunsburger of Williams Fire & Hazard Control, addressing the general session of the conference, drove home the importance of training as the only alternative to prepare industrial brigades as valuable experience continues to exit the stage.
"If I was a New York City firefighter, I'd fight fire everyday," White said. "I'd fight working fires every week. In industry, we don't do that."
Hunsburger said industry has not prepared itself for the rush of retirement in the industrial fire fighting field expected in the next five to seven years. He charged that much of the training available today lags behind the rapid changes in fire fighting technology.
"We are not going to make up for 30 to 35 years experience lost in just a couple of years," Hunsburger said.
Nothing emphasizes that loss more sharply than the sudden death of Jerry Craft, former refinery fire chief and manager of consulting and training for Williams Fire & Hazard Control. Craft, who served as a substitute speaker at the conference in late April, died from a stroke on May 20 at age 61.
Other general session speakers touched on the importance of training as well. Darrell Graf of Resolve Marine Group said many locations have excellent personnel and quality training. However, he is constantly amazed by responders who arrive to assist with the necessary apparatus but have failed to master it.
"People can't get their pumps going," Graf said. "Either that or the threads don't match and they never bought universal thread adapters. They don't know how to cut the hose together to overcome that problem either."
According to White, training too often fails to reflect the realities of real world fire fighting.
"When I go to fire schools I see students lay out a 1?-inch hose to fight a big refinery or tank fire," White said. "Then I go to an actual refinery fire or tank fire and five- and six-inch hose is called for. For some responders it might be the first time they ever saw water in a six-inch hose. That's not going to cut it."
Likewise, too many fire schools teach only what the firefighter will be expected to know to pass a test rather than prepare him to think for himself in an emergency situation.
John Coates, emergency team leader for the BP Sangachal Terminal in Azerbaijan, said that industrial emergencies may increase in the future owing to larger output demands combined with greater congestion and complexity as refineries expand to keep up.
"We've got ethanol response, exotic chemicals, larger facilities, pipeline shipping and, especially growing out of the Buncefield incident, a growing pressure from government and the public sector to handle emergencies," Coates said. "They don't want to see two weeks of black smoke over London."
Both the opening and the closing of the general session are set aside for award presentations. This year, the award named for the greatest name in oil field fire fighting - Red Adair - was presented to a firefighter who is arguably the best known name in modern industrial fire fighting - Dwight Williams.
"We have a person and an organization that is getting the first Red Adair lifetime achievement award," White said. "This is a person and organization that has made a big impact on what we do, everything from large-diameter hose and self-educting nozzles, to jet ratio controllers and pumps that move large volumes of water."
A PowerPoint presentation detailed Williams' career from his years as a Green Beret paratrooper to the many tank and process fires he has battled through the years.
"It's a real privilege to be recognized by your peers, the people you love and care for and fought fires with," Williams said. "I've been blessed by God and my friends."
Robert Wood of Lumberton, TX, received the Connie Award, which recognizes an individual for his or her commitment to supporting the fire and emergency response industry and was established to honor the memory of Roberts Company, Inc., co-owner Connie Gross.
Wood, retired from Chevron, serves on the Beaumont Emergency Services Training Complex Board of Directors and is a founding member of Sabine Neches Chiefs Association.
"This is a shock," Wood said. "I don't believe I can say anything."
White replied that any time there was a fire, Wood was on the front lines.
"I can handle that but this is different," Wood said.
The presentation also provided an opportunity to make amends to last year's Connie Award winner, Jim Overman, Texas Operation site risk management plan (RMP) coordinator for Dow Chemical. Called away at the last minute, Overman was unavailable to accept his award for his work to streamline federal emergency planning requirements.
"I just want to say we're still fighting these battles," Overman said. "You now have to deal with security planning as well."
The surviving co-owner of Roberts Company, Joe Gross, presented the annual award that carries his name to an entrepreneur from Washington who served as a firefighter in Port Arthur, TX, early in his career.
Eugene Ivy of International Fog, Inc. markets a unique penetrating fog nozzle of his own design that was demonstrated against live fire during the conference. His nozzle was also on display in the exposition hall.
"He doesn't have a big corporation behind him," White said. "He doesn't have a thousand people working for him. But sometimes people make a big difference with small things."