Article Archive
Challenges of the green world
Volume 25, No. 1

I am not known as someone who has bought into the green revolution too deeply. The reality is that does not make much difference. I am a fire suppression person. I consult with people on how to keep fire from happening. If fires do happen, I consult on how to put them out. If there are specialized issues with regard to products that burn, I try to bring those issues out in advance through training and other dissemination of information.

As increasing amounts of renewable fuels are produced, it is critical that first responders have the knowledge necessary to respond to these incidents. In February 2007, I spent two of the coldest weeks of my life in Wisconsin helping the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition conduct a blind testing program at the Ansul Fire Technology Center. If you have never visited the snowy regions of our globe before, go to Wisconsin in February. This South Texas boy saw enough snow to last a lifetime. That testing proved that fire fighting foams without an alcohol resistant polymer were unsuccessful in extinguishing E-95 fires.

The results of that testing helped fire departments and industry make informed decisions as to which foam concentrates should be used, which ones will work and the associated equipment and tactics to be employed based on the most significant risk. But now we find ourselves faced with other alternate fuels -- methanol, biodiesel, LPG, LNG and compressed natural gas. Emergency responders, i.e., you folks who wear the funny helmets, are going to find this stuff in storage tanks, fuel terminals and tanker trucks. Most of these new fuels will be transported on the streets, not via pipelines. Often it will be transported under pressure and even at cryogenic temperatures.

Frankly, I am not sure the fire service is ready for these new challenges. For example, I have talked at length to representatives of the biodiesel fuel industry. Some very big names in the refinery business are making and blending biodiesel. When I talk with these folks everything goes well until I ask one question -- "Do you know if anybody has done any fire testing?" Then they get that deer caught in the headlights look.

"Uh, no," they reply. "Should we?"

A recent episode at a fire school that shall remain unnamed illustrates my point. Responders attending the school decided they should burn some biodiesel. Makes sense to me. If it is something you are likely to encounter on the street, it is better to encounter it first in training. Unfortunately, the responders followed standard procedure established for fuels such as gasoline. Four or five inches of water was introduced into an open tank of sizeable dimension. Next, the biodiesel was added.

Had the biodiesel been gasoline, the fuel would have floated on the water. However, biodiesel seems to be somewhat water soluble. The responders had difficulty igniting it because the biodiesel and water had mixed into an incombustible solution.

The training continued. Responders filled a pit with pure biodiesel, then lit it. Applying water successfully extinguished the fire. What was left was then drained and sent through the fire school's water purification system. This proved fatal to the biological processes used in wastewater treatment. In other words, the solution from the pit killed all the precious and no doubt expensive bugs used to purify the contaminated water.

Biodiesel represents a significant gap in our information about emergency response. "I don't know" is not an acceptable answer at 2 a.m. when the contents of an overturned tank truck are pouring into a nearby creek or river. If booms and pads prove inadequate, recovering spilled biodiesel from a waterway could represent a real nightmare.

Once again, the fire service is having a new product thrust into its lap that could prove difficult to manage without further research. Responders need more information. All I ask is that we find a warmer month if I have to go back to Wisconsin.


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