Article Archive
A Time for Everything
Firefighter Dwight Williams calls it quits
Vol. 26 Fall 2011

Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his position for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him.                                                                Ecclesiates 3

Dwight Williams, founder of Texas-based Williams Fire & Hazard Control, announced in September that he is no longer employed by the company he led for more than 30 years, providing contract fire fighting and extinguishing technology to industry worldwide.

 “There comes a time for the quarterback to thank the crowd for all the years and not go back on the field,” Williams said. “I think that’s where I am.”

In August 2010, WF&HC became a wholly owned subsidiary of Chemguard, another privately held Texas-based manufacturer of fire foam concentrates and foam systems. Less than a year later, Tyco International, a highly diversified manufacturing company with annual revenues exceeding $17 billion, acquired Chemguard and all its holdings for $130 million.

Williams, 65, paraphrased from Ecclesiastes to explain his departure.

“The Bible says there is a time for everything,” he said. “A wise man understands that you have to walk away from your career at some point. It needs to be on your own terms. And that’s what I have been blessed enough to do.”

Chemguard will become part of Tyco’s fire protection product unit, a Tyco press release states. Tyco’s extensive holdings in fire protection include companies such as ADT, Ansul, Sabo, SimplexGrinnell, Skum and Total Walther.

Williams said his only connection with WF&HC in the future will be as a consultant.

“My job is to give direction when they ask for it,” he said.

Two of Williams’ children, Bette Daspit, former chief executive officer of WF&HC, and James Williams, have tendered their resignations in the wake of Dwight Williams’ departure.

“They came to me, days apart, and said it just wasn’t the same anymore,” Williams said. “I wanted them to hang on, to see if it didn’t evolve into something they could work with and be proud of, but it was their choice.”

WF&HC stands alone in industrial fire fighting. From process facilities to marine fire, bulk flammable liquid storage, pipelines and oil rigs, WF&HC has honed its technical skills on record making industrial challenges. Topping those achievements is the 65-minute extinguishment of a fully involved 270-foot-diameter gasoline storage tank achieved at Norco, LA., in 2001, the largest single tank fire in history.

“I think the 270 was the absolute test of the Footprint methodology, the use of Big Guns and calculating foam runs,” Williams said. “It proved that if an oil company asks what it will take to put out the fire you can pretty well believe what we say. We have walked the walk and talked the talk.”

For Williams, industrial fire protection has always been a family business. Born in Port Arthur, TX, young Williams often hitched a ride with his father, Les, who, as a chemical plant safety director, made the scene at industrial fires along the Texas Gulf Coast. His other big challenge was playing high school football for coach Bum Phillips, later to take charge of the Houston Oilers.

Military service has always been an important part of the Williams family tradition. Dwight Williams’ grandfather served in World War I and was part of the brigade that chased Pancho Villa out of the United States. Les Williams survived multiple kamikaze attack on the USS Randolph in March 1945. In 1969, Lt. Dwight Williams, after serving as a Green Beret, returned to civilian life to take a refinery job near his childhood home.

In January 1974, he joined forces with his father to battle what he still maintains is the worst fire he ever saw – the Magpetco tank farm fire (See IFW Winter 2011). A series of boilovers sent firefighters running for their lives, including Les and Dwight.

That Magpetco nearly ended in disaster motivated Dwight Williams to research better means of fighting industrial fires. Based largely on his effectiveness in extinguishing two major fires in 1979, Dwight Williams founded Williams Boots and Coots Fire Protective Equipment Company with Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews, former lead firefighters for Red Adair.

Together with his father, Williams fostered a revolution in the design of fire equipment led by the self-proportioning Hydro-Foam nozzle. This innovation helped streamline the process of making and delivering foam to fires. The Williams team also developed a specialized methodology for reading big fires to dictate the techniques and strategy to be used.

“To say what we do is without risk is insane,” Williams said. “We tried to engineer out all the risks, to minimize it. If there is anything I am most proud of, other than my family, it’s the work that Les and I did to engineer out a lot of the hazard and logistics problems associated with our industry.”

The company’s earliest successes came in the field of marine fire fighting – M/V Texaco North Dakota (1980), M/V Aikaterini (1981), M/V Monticello Victory (1981) and others. In 1983 the company made its name in storage tank fire fighting by extinguishing two 80-foot-diameter gasoline storage tanks in New Mexico by marrying aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) with first generation HydroFoam technology.

The techniques employed by Williams directly challenge the accepted wisdom of the day. The American Petroleum Institute was on record stating that extinguishing a burning tank larger than 80 feet in diameter was impossible using over-the-top application. The same year at the New Mexico fire, Williams extinguished a 150 foot diameter gasoline storage tank, the largest fully involved tank fire on record at that point.

Thanks largely to WF&HC, 2,000 gallon per minute monitors and large diameter hose have become the industry standard for fire protection.

Williams continued to broaden its resume through the remainder of the decade with marine fires, landfill fires and a 30,000 square foot gasoline spill stabilized using 3M ATC. Dealing with three-dimensional fire would point to a new direction in equipment development, making dry chemical an equal partner with water and foam.

Both Les and Dwight Williams played key roles in battling the Christmas Eve 1989 refinery fire in Baton Rouge, LA, that involved 16 storage tanks ablaze. Extinguishment was achieved in less than 15 hours. The following year saw Williams taking charge of two headline grabbing emergencies – the Jupiter tanker ship fire in Bay City, MI, and the Stapleton Airport jet fuel storage fire in Denver, CO.

In 1991 Dwight Williams bought out the Boots and Coots share of the company to create Williams Fire & Hazard Control. A series of major storage tank fires in 1993 solidified WF&HC’s dominance in bulk flammable liquid fire fighting.

Williams had the confidence to lead the company alone after his father died that same year.

“My dad gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten,” Williams said. “He said ‘Son, you’re reading these fires better than anybody I’ve ever known in my life – that’s a gift.’”

Important WF&HC operations that Industrial Fire World has highlighted in recent years include securing faulty ethylene oxide containers shipped by cargo vessels to five different locations worldwide (September 1997), a fire involving seven million used tires in Westley, CA (September 1999), WF&HC’s consulting role in burning off the fuel oil cargo of the freighter New Carissa near Coos Bay, OR (February 1999), a storage tank seal fire in Sealy, TX (July 2000), extinguishing shredded rubber stored in four 64-foot tall silos at a Nebraska City, NE, recycling plant (January 2002) and a fully involved 140-foot gasoline storage tank in Glenpool, OK (June 2006).

Williams said he takes the greatest pride in the fact that despite the inherent risks of industrial fire fighting, WF&HC has never had a lost-time accident in its history.

“That was under my watch,” he said.

An explosion and fire at a south Louisiana chemical plant in mid-June set the stage for what may be the last fire of Williams’ illustrious career. The plant in New Iberia blends and stores specialty chemicals used in the oil fields.

Fire broke out in an area where nearly 100 barrels of chemicals including xylene, toluene and methanol sat on a concrete pad. From there, flames spread into the company offices and nearby warehouses. Officials ordered a one-mile radius be evacuated.

Local firefighters allowed the plant to burn until the WF&HC crew led by Williams arrived the morning of June 15.

“We had six full storage tanks on site,” Williams said. “They weren’t big. There was a variety of chemicals present and one of them was water reactive. They didn’t know that until I told them.”

The biggest issue to be resolved involved semantics, not fire fighting. Williams discovered the water reactive chemical while making a close quarter reconnaissance of the fire scene. Unfortunately, heavy smoke from numerous small fires obscured the storage tanks.

To get a better look, Williams said he decided to “treat the smoke” by teasing it with water-foam solution. He had to explain that action at length when he returned to the command center.

“We had been told not to attack the fire without telling them first,” Williams said. “There had been a lot of smoke and now there was a lot less.”

All was forgiven when Williams and his crew extinguished all six burning tanks in about 12 minutes.

“That same guy said ‘Dwight, it looked like you threw a switch and it went out – it was the fastest extinguishment of a sizable fire I’ve ever seen.’”

When Williams founded WF&HC fires as intense as New Iberia could be expected twice a week or more, Williams said. Today, a fire like that comes along maybe twice a quarter. While that is good news for industry, it is bad for inexperienced firefighters.

In 1985, Williams instituted an annual seminar in Beaumont, TX, to teach its Footprint methodology. That seminar, dedicated to the memory of Les Williams, continues today.

 “Firefighters just are not getting the exposure they need,” Williams said. “It’s kind of like the combat soldier going into his first battle. The first time you get shot at it’s a little bit frightening.”

Industrial fire protection is undergoing a changing of the guard. Not all of that change is good, Williams said.

“We see people at the federal and corporate level who have not been close enough to a fire to describe what it is all about making regulations and rules governing the people who actually put out the fires,” he said.

Lack of leadership is a problem at all levels of American life, Williams said. With regard to industrial fire fighting, people are too often scared to make the decisions needed to protect lives and property.

“Somebody needs to be the field general,” Williams said. “Either put it out or let it burn if that is the smarter move. But today everybody comes to the fire with different priorities. Fire fighting is not about being politically correct.”

However, rather than becoming a Monday morning quarterback, Williams said he wants to promote good practices to insure the safety of the firefighters with whom he has worked.

“I want to take the high ground,” he said. “I’ve got good people that I care about working at Williams Fire & Hazard Control.”

 Williams remains adamant about retiring from active fire fighting, calling it a lifestyle decision.

“I want to continue to help the people I’ve worked with for so long,” Williams said. “But the way I quit anything is to put it down and walk away. It’s what I did when I decided to quit drinking – I put it down and walked away.”

Members of his own family are amazed that Williams could make a clean break with his life-long career.

“I wake up in the morning almost giggling that I do not have to do anything I don’t want except paying taxes and, at some point, kicking the bucket.”

 
 

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