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Firefighters On Demand
Illinois company specializes in keeping fire departments fully staffed with certified professional responders
Volume 23, No. 5

When industry contracts with an outside company for fire protection, it usually means the plant fire brigade is reorganized to suit the company taking charge. However, Kurtz Industrial Fire Services, based in the Chicago area, seeks to work with the organization in place.

Kurtz President and CEO Tom Vana said his company provides trained fire fighting personnel that supplement existing industrial fire brigade operations.

Kurtz employs more than 100 industrial firefighters working for six industrial sites in four different states. Proposals are on the table to add two more industrial sites to the Kurtz list. In total, Kurtz employs more than 300 firefighters when its 16 Chicago-area community fire departments are included.

The advantage to industry is that Kurtz carries the load with regard to paperwork.

"We handle all the wage and benefits, liability, workers comp and employment practices part of the business," Vana said. "Our clients simply pay us a flat fee to provide them X amount of personnel."

Industry in major cities often has the option of participating in a mutual aid organization that unites various fire brigades for the common good. The same is not always true for plants and refineries operating in remote locations across the Midwest and other areas of the country," Vana said.

"These plants may be isolated but they have good infrastructure in place," Vana said. "They also have good leadership. We provide them with the firefighters to follow that leadership."

Kurtz started as a private ambulance service in 1977, he said. The move into fire fighting came in the mid-1980s.

"In 1984, the Chicago area had a great push for fire departments to have a contractual arrangement so they could utilize our personnel to provide firefighters and EMS services," Vana said. "Then, in 1999, the fire chief of a major refinery approached us about providing industrial fire protection."

The biggest difference in recruiting industrial firefighters is that while fire fighting experience is required, it is not always possible to hire personnel with first-hand knowledge of industrial fire fighting. The minimum requirement was an Illinois State Firefighter II certificate.

"Because of the inherent risks in a refinery, an industrial firefighter should also be a state licensed EMT-B at a minimum before they come on board with us," Vana said.

Utilizing various fire fighting schools such as Refinery Terminal Fire Company in Corpus Christi, TX, Emergency Services Training Institute in College Station, TX, and the University of Nevada, Reno Fire Science Academy near Elko, NV, Kurtz firefighters go through an extensive 12-week training program before ever going into a plant.

Retired refinery Fire Chief Dale Pirc recently took charge of the Kurtz Consulting and Training Division. His mission is to have all Kurtz employees NFPA 1081 ProBoard certified.

"One important thing to remember is that the people Tom is providing are not intended to replace employees in their existing emergency response organization," Pirc said. "It's meant to supplement the existing organization and provide a good quality core organization."

A frequent problem for mandatory brigades is job turnover, Pirc said. For example, someone who works in the laboratory is designated as driver of a fire truck. Despite the time and effort to train that person to a sufficient level, all that may well be lost when the lab assistant transfers to another position that does not require time on the fire brigade.

Likewise, personnel trained as emergency responders may find themselves with other operational priorities from their primary job and unable to respond in an emergency, Pirc said.

"The emergency may be in their area of the plant," he said. "They may have to go out and close valves on tanks or perform an emergency shutdown or by-pass procedure."

To avoid this, Kurtz provides a fixed number of trained fire fighting personnel who are on hand no matter what happens to supplement volunteer or mandatory responders, Pirc said.

"You know what you've got seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Pirc said. "A lot of facilities don't have that. The same holds true for high angle and confined space rescue, haz-mat and emergency medical services responses."

With the advantages the Kurtz approach offers, getting industry interested is not such a hard sell, Vana said.

"OSHA and NFPA have established so many regulations that there is no way volunteers or mandatory responders can maintain their competencies in all areas of emergency response and still keep an industrial facility completely compliant," he said.

Lower insurance rates are one major selling point, Vana said. Mustering workers from various points across the plant and deploying them as firefighters costs valuable minutes. Keeping the fire stations staffed with Kurtz firefighters means an instant response.

"For what it costs to put 15 trained people into a refinery, it is almost a wash insurance-wise," he said. "Your insurance drops dramatically when you can demonstrate that you have firefighters available 24/7, not just an emergency response organization composed of employees hopefully coming from their normal job duties."

However, these firefighters do not spend the day just waiting for the fire bell, Pirc said.

"Our people work a 24 hour shift, just like municipal firefighters," he said. "Every morning starts with a safety talk and reviewing what is going on in the facility that day. Then they tackle a safety issue, usually related to the daily facility activites in the field. Half of the workday in the morning is spent on what we call mechanical integrity or equipment checks."

In the afternoon, training is always emphasized for the Kurtz personnel on duty shift. At other times, the Kurtz personnel will either conduct or assist in conduct-ing classes for refinery employ-ees including firefighting for operators, main-tenance, fire bri-gade personnel or, in some cases, clerical employ-ees. Training de-pends on roles and responsib-ilities of the em-ployees. Time not spent at the fire stations goes toward fire prevention in other ways - industrial hygiene, fire extinguisher inspections, fire water system flushing and preventative maintenance, flushing monitors, maintaining nozzles, air pack inspections and? record keeping.

"At one refinery, our staff began to do all the fit testing," Vana said. "If it costs $25 or more to fit test each person, imagine what you save if you have 1,000 employees and another 700 to 800 contractors. Hose testing is another chore we've taken over as well."

After dinner, firefighters can either utilize their time in exercise or computer-based training, Pirc said.

To date, Kurtz industrial firefighters have handled three major process unit fires. In one case, the damage reached $350 million.

"We held it to the point of origin," Pirc said. "The process supervisor told me, 'Thank God for the fire crew because if it wasn't for them, the fire would not have been contained to the point of origin.'"

In at least one case, having Kurtz firefighters on site was the difference between life and death for two contract refinery workers, Vana said.

Two contract employees were inadvertently trapped by a catalyst which had formed a crust at an inspection door on a catal-yst hopper. The catalyst gave way and con-sumed both em-ployees while they attempted to escape on a large catwalk and stairway area. The quick self generated actions of the Kurtz firefighters in the area of the incident did in fact save a life that day.?

?"That man would clearly have died had there not been a rescue team or fire brigade at that refinery," Vana said. "That refinery manager gave awards to our guys because they prevented a death in the refinery that day."

The financial cost to the refinery could have been staggering as well.

"Take the increased premiums and other numbers into account and our firefighters paid for themselves for about two or three years in that one incident alone," Vana said.

?In addition to emergency response services, Kurtz Industrial Fire Services can provide in-house reviews of existing in-place fire protection facility services including fire, haz-mat and rescue.

The reviews provide a thorough third party set of eyes to review compliance with NFPA and OSHA codes and standards including training procedures and record keeping, fixed and mobile equipment maintenance and testing procedures and documentation, emergency response plans, policy and organization statements, employee training and compliance with OSHA 1910.119, section 13, Emergency Planning and Response.

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