Article Archive
The Road to Sangachal
Fire brigade expands to protect growing Azerbaijan terminal
Vol. 26 Fall 2011

John Coates spent the last seven years building emergency response capabilities as part of the Midstream Team for BP’s Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey Region (AGTR), based in Baku, Azerbaijan.  His current position is Emergency Response Specialist for the three country region, which is a follow-on position from Emergency Response Team Leader for Sangachal Terminal, described in this article..”

Before the assignment in Azerbaijan, Coates was with the Das Island Fire Service, part of Abu Dhabi’s ADMA-OPCO, where he was responsible for the Fire Training Center and responded as 2IC (second in the the incident command structure). But his overseas experience began with Saline Water Conversion Corporation in Saudi Arabia as Fire Fighting Specialist.


"I have taught and spoken on industrial fire protection issues throughout the United States, Middle East, the Caspian Region and in South Africa.” Coates said. “My industrial experience was started by working with Bob Noblitt of Jack Daniel’s Distillery and doing special projects for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) on dealing with flammable liquid hazards and preparedness."

In October 2004, John Coates found himself assigned to the biggest job of his career – form a fire department to protect what would become one of the largest integrated oil and gas processing terminals in the world.

“When I arrived at Sangachal Terminal in Azerbaijan it was producing 130,000 barrel per day,” Coates said. “Today it’s producing 1.2 million barrels per day plus millions of scfs (standard cubic feet) of natural gas.”

BP Operated Sangachal Terminal is located 35 miles south of Baku, Azerbaijan, and covers an area of slightly less than 1500 acres. The Terminal processes, stores and exports crude oil and gas produced from the Azerbaijan’s offshore oilfields in the Caspian Sea.

Cleaned crude oil is pumped to 317-foot diameter crude storage tanks until it is exported via the 1,100 mile pipeline to its sister terminal on the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey, where it is jetty loaded on to tankers and sent to the world’s markets. Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) are also processed in the Terminal, where they are stripped and dried and flow through another pipeline along a similar route, into Turkey and then to the European market.

Originally begun in 1996 as an exploration project, the Terminal phased into a major expansion project in 2002 that included adding the three large atmospheric crude oil storage tanks with 880,000 barrels capacity each. Beginning in 2005, the terminal began receiving new oil production from the Caspian Sea.

The task Coates was given upon arrival was to build an industrial fire department from the ground up, beginning with a handful of men and two old fire tenders from West Yorkshire Fire Brigade in the UK.  Mutual aid for an industrial emergency was pretty much non-existent and Sangachal Terminal stood isolated and alone, Coates said.

“We had no one to rely on in the area; we couldn’t dial 911 and expect a response.”

As the terminal continued to grow over the course of the next five years, so did the team Coates was tasked to build. The original position of fire chief, transformed the following year into emergency response team leader, responsible for organizing all forms of tactical response within the terminal and to its adjacent properties. In addition to this, all emergency plans, procedures and organization became part of his scope of work.

“When we got started, we had the two old British trucks and there was also a brand new Italian fire truck that nobody knew how to use, with another on order,” Coates said.

Fortunately, due to the labor pool of available personnel and the rigorous fire training of the Soviet era, the qualifications required to work for Sangachal Terminal Fire Rescue Team (FRT) were set very high, he said.

“We required a minimum of five years experience with the State fire service,” Coates said. “We had people who knew how to fight fire. During the Soviet era, Azerbaijanis were known as the best trained and most aggressive in the Soviet fire system.”

Culturally, the Azerbaijanis consider fire fighting to be as honorable and heroic a profession as it is in America, he said.  “They even have a national firefighter’s day,” Coates said.

Bearing in mind the degree that national pride plays in the career of an Azerbaijani firefighter, Coates made his new charges a promise on the first day.

“I told them when they came through the door that I wasn’t going to turn them into an American fire department,” Coates said. “I was going to take what I knew and learned, combine it with what they knew and move forward. That’s been extremely successful.”

 Twelve years ago Coates wrote a series of articles for Industrial Fire World on how to build an industrial fire brigade. In Azerbaijan he simply followed the blueprint he put forward in those articles.

“The difference with industrial fire protection planning is that you’ve got to map your risks using a Major Hazard Register, a Risk Register or other tool first,” Coates said. “Once that is done, management has to agree to what level the in-house brigade or department will respond too or is expected to handle. At the time I arrived, the response philosophy or ‘base case’ design for response included 85 percent of the credible scenarios determined to be possible within the Terminal. With that being my directive, I equipped and trained the department to handle what was expected of them.”

With Coates’ promotion in 2005 came added responsibility for oil spills, emergency response recovery and emergency medical care. His brigade steadily increased to and beyond 40 members.

“We kept finding more and more jobs for the fire fighters to do and that helped increase our manning levels,” Coates said. “Industrial brigades are often seen by management as in intangible object; something that costs money but not used very often.  By increasing the scope of work for the fire team, they became productive members of the terminal and no longer thought of as a burden. Today’s fire team performs all fire protective equipment inspections, services the gas detection equipment, works standbys, even offers training to other assets.”

As typical with international projects, standards were a mixture of the most convenient or the most familiar. Using patience and tenacity, Coates was able to begin implementing standardized practices and best industry practices.

“When and where possible, we implemented National Fire Protection Association standards regarding training, staff and equipment,” Coates said.

Using the risk register for the expanding facilities as justification, the terminal acquired a Pierce industrial pumper equipped with a 3,000 gpm output pump, a Husky 300 foam system and a 6,000 gpm Williams Fire and Hazard Control Ambassador monitor mounted on top. The truck carries 1,000 gallons of water and 1,000 gallons of one percent foam.

Brigade members dubbed the new truck “The Red Angel.”

As the terminal rapidly expanded, so did the emergency response requirements. Looking at the changing environment and our new fire fighting philosophy that no longer considered controlled burn down acceptable, we decided to put together a $14 million fire protection upgrade project,” Coates said. “That’s pretty astonishing for a new facility.”

By no longer accepting controlled burn down, the terminal FRT had to equip and prepare itself to handle a full surface tank fire on the 317-foot crude tanks. Three Williams Fire & Hazard Control skid pumps, a trailer mounted Battler and a trailer mounted Ambassador were purchased along with nearly two miles of 12-inch hose and all the accompaniments.

Buying equipment wasn’t enough. “We had to install manifolds in the tank farm and make improvements in the fire mains,” Coates said. “We installed landing pads so the monitors could be placed correctly and have access to the mains. We built a command truck; response facilities were planned, foam systems improved; all in all, a few ideas became quite an extensive project.”

The big test for the new philosophy and the improvements came in December 2009 when the FRT made an attempt to break the world’s record for setting up and dispensing water and foam out of multiple big guns, during their guns commissioning trials.

“The fastest I’ve seen it done was on Das Island where a Big Foot and Ambassador were set up and flowing foam at full flow rates in 52 minutes,” Coates said. “The FRT trained and prepared for months and when the day came, they were displacing 21,000 gpm of water and foam in 54 minutes using a three gun set up. The next goal is to do it in 45 minutes.” 

The conclusion of this segment of the fire protection upgrade project is that the terminal is now trained and equipped with everything needed to extinguish a burning jumbo storage tank, including nearly 50,000 gallons of Williams F&HC Thunderstorm foam on hand.

Today, the Sangachal Terminal has 58 responders on duty.

“We’ve got six people certified to NFPA Fire Inspector II level,” Coates said. “We’ve got a certified fire instructors. The FRT now has enough resources that they are handling training and inspection at BP assets throughout the region.”

Among the brigade’s current 10 vehicle fleet are the two original West Yorkshire tenders, which have been converted into a command truck and a HazMat truck; three roll-on/roll-off POD trucks for moving foam and equipment; the two Italian fire trucks; the Pierce industrial and a mini-pumper. Thankfully, Sangachal Terminal has never had reason to deploy its fire fighting resources on anything larger than a routine fire.

“There is no way I could have done this all by myself” admits Coates. “The core team I started with is just a fantastic group of fire fighters that have worked incredibly hard. That combined with friends in the industry that you can call on when needed and excellent contractor relationships that have been developed, all contributed to the success of this Team and the resulting protection afforded the Terminal.

In December 2009, as the foam flowed successfully in 54-minutes, Coates considered his assignment completed. He expected to move on to a new adventure in another far off place such as Kazakhstan or Libya. Then BP came back to him in the beginning of 2010 with a new challenge – organize the emergency response for all onshore operations in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey along the same lines as he had done in Sangachal Terminal.

“The new job is a holistic approach to standardize onshore response, said Coates. “When counting full-time emergency responders, FRT members, oil spill responders and emergency medical, etc., we have more than 400 personnel that are expected to respond to an emergency. The business wants that done safely and efficiently. We will take the lessons learned over the past seven years, apply the best practices, create synergies and share the experienced response personnel throughout the region, creating a world class onshore response group


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