Collins, MS, Fire Chief John Pope laughs it off when people jokingly refer to him as the Red Adair or Dwight Williams of South Mississippi. But, like Will Rogers once said, people never laugh at anything that is not based on the truth.
“I tell folks ‘I don’t think I’d go that far,’” Pope said. “They say ‘Well, you’re the person everybody calls when they have fuel fires.’ So I guess that part is true.”
On March 7, the Collins F.D. Special Operations Response Team put the latest notch in their growing reputation as specialists in hydrocarbon emergencies. On a clear day with no storms, an explosion blew the roofs off two oil storage tanks containing more than 33,000 gallons of crude oil located in Jefferson Davis County.
Within one hour of the initial call, firefighters had the resulting full surface fires extinguished.
“Getting to the scene alone took 20 minutes,” Pope said.
In two years, Collins FD has responded to more than 10 industrial emergencies outside its jurisdiction alone. The March 7 fire was the fifth involving crude oil that the department has handled during that same period.
“Collins is kind of unique in that we protect the largest bulk storage tank farm in a 2-3 state area,” Pope said. “All of the major oil companies – Kinder Morgan, Plantation, ExxonMobil, Motiva, Chevron, Colonial, Trans Montaigne – have bulk storage tank farms in our jurisdiction.”
That makes Pope responsible for protecting more than 100 large-diameter storage tanks in his jurisdiction alone.
“We are the only department in the region with any large foam capability,” Pope said. The department has an inventory of 5,000 gallons with another 25,000 gallons available from the local tank farms, terminals and contract facilities.
Collins, the county seat of rural Covington County, has a population of less than 4,000 people.
“We’ve done a lot of things a department of our size would never be able to do, but most departments our size are not protecting one of the largest petroleum assets in the Southeast,” Pope said.
Collins’ importance as an energy center became painfully apparent in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A presidential directive ordered that power be reestablished to Collins and its tank farms before anywhere else.
“If they didn’t, the fuel supply the Eastern seaboard was expected to be crippled or shut down within four to seven days,” Pope said. “We were hit hard, but our oil companies never missed a beat.”
Pope began his career in fire fighting with the Collins FD in 1996. He went on to become an instructor at the Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute and the Mississippi Fire Academy. In 2007, Pope returned to Collins as its first career fire chief.
Fire fighting is a proud tradition in the Pope family. Chief Pope follows in the footsteps of his father, John B. Pope Jr., who was a 37-year veteran of the department, many of those spent as chief. Chief Pope’s brother, Mason, serves as an assistant chief with the department.
“When I came to Collins we did some industrial fire fighting, but not to the level I wanted,” he said. “So we started working with the tank farms and terminals to acquire additional equipment and resources.”
Unfortunately, some companies initially clung to old ideas about protecting their tank farms.
“The premise in the beginning was ‘You know, we’re going to do the best we can,’” Pope said. “‘If we have a fire we’ll pump out what we can, but if we lose a tank we lose a tank.’”
That was not good enough for Pope.
“I said ‘We’re going to put these fires out by using Type 2 and 3 applications over the top,” Pope said. “While at FETI and the Mississippi Fire Academy, where I really gained my passion for industrial fire response, I did a lot of study and research on fires that Dwight Williams and other industrial companies had put out. We kind of developed our own principles on how we would handle fires with the equipment we had.”
When Pope announced his intention to upgrade industrial emergency response, most of the local companies were very supportive, offering all the help they could, Pope said.
“They understood that we were serious about better protecting their facilities,” he said.
The Collins F.D. had two industrial foam trailers built for them. Chevron Products USA Collins Terminal and Kinder-Morgan Southeast Terminal funded the trailers as part of their Ethanol Projects at the terminals. The department also acquired a large cache of foam. Finally, the department invested in training for their firefighters.
“We only had our foam trailers about a month and a half when a military jet fuel tanker truck flipped end over end and exploded in Seminary, MS,” Pope said. “We were called to assist Seminary VFD with mitigating the fire and the release. We assisted in applying heavy foam, knock out the fire and dike off a drainage basin. Our haz-mat team also plugged two holes in the tank after extinguishment before it was flipped over by wreckers.”
Collins also played a major role in extinguishing a major industrial fire at the Phillips Bark Processing plant in Brookhaven, MS, in May 2011. Multiple departments batted the large blaze for more than six hours before Collins FD was called, Pope said.
“The fire was three counties away,” he said. “Collins FD used its foam units to extinguish this fire in approximately one hour.”
Next came an oil well fire in which a pumping unit manifold and a recovery unit failed. Ignition was sparked by an electrical short. Again, Collins F.D. put out the fire.
Electrical ignition on a grander scale gave Collins F.D. its next big inferno. With a thunderstorm raging overhead, seven tanks – five metal, two fiberglass – caught fire in nearby Jones County.
Once more, Collins F.D., a tiny department consisting of only 30 personnel – two full-time paid employees and the rest paid on call – helped multiple Jones County fire departments to extinguish the blaze.
“We have been paid on call and volunteer since the 1970s and 1980s when my father first joined the department,” Pope said. “You get a different level of person because they are more engaged to learn about the apparatus and take advantage of the training needed to be a professionally competent firefighter.”
The department operates from a single fire station, plus a storage facility for its growing collection of industrial fire fighting equipment. A second station will be open by June of this year, serving as an “industrial fire station” of sorts, Pope said.
Housing all special operations, the new station will be home to the department’s specialized foam equipment and foam concentrate supplies. It will also be the location of a new training facility for Collins firefighters.
“This facility, located in the heart of the city’s petroleum corridor, is within a quarter mile of four of the fuel terminals, and only two miles from the other tank farm facilities,” Pope said.
The rest of the department’s apparatus inventory includes four pumpers equipped with 1,000 gallon tanks and capable of pumping 1,250 gallons per minute, the two foam attack trailers, a foam tender, a heavy rescue unit and multiple other response and support apparatus.
Having built a reputation across the region for hydrocarbon fire fighting, the call from the production manager for a storage tank site in adjacent Jefferson Davis County on March 7 came as no great surprise.
“He said ‘I have two crude oil tanks on fire and my boss specifically requested that you put it out,’” Pope said. “‘Can you come?’”
At about 10:15 a.m., an explosion 30 miles away near Prentiss blew the tops off two 14-foot diameter crude oil storage tanks standing about 25 feet high. A worker was checking meters at the site when the explosion, followed by fire, occurred.
“We still don’t know what caused the roofs to blow off,” Pope said. “One roof landed about 60 to 80 feet from the tank. The other one landed right at the cat walk stairs going to the top of the tank.”
While still on the phone with the production manager, Pope notified dispatch to page out for a special operations response. A four-person team was selected to respond to this deployment — Chief Pope, assistant chief Josh Leggett and firefighters Joseph Barnes and James Yawn. Meanwhile, Pope got more information.
“I got the diameter and size of the tank, the amount of product we were dealing with and how long the fire had been burning,” Pope said. “I was concerned about how big of a water bottom this tank had as related to a potential boilover.”
Pope finished the conversation with the production manager by speaker phone while en route to the scene. He asked about water supply options. There was no fire protection water on site. The manager said 16,000 gallons of water were en route by tanker truck and more were being prepared, Pope said.
“I asked if the tankers had pumps,” he said. “The answer was no. I asked if it was brine water or clear water and he said clear. I said we would either have to bring a portable fire pump and line the trucks up for a continuous supply or call the local fire departments to bring portable tanks.”
Arriving at the fire, Pope determined that one tank was 75 percent full and the other only half full. However, the half full tank had a hole burned through half way up the side.
To his surprise, Pope learned that the local fire department in Prentiss, less than eight miles away, had not been notified. He immediately alerted Prentiss’ dispatch.
“You don’t want to go into another department’s jurisdiction and step on their toes like that,” Pope said. “They sent trucks and manpower.”
Ultimately, Pope had access to three pumpers, two standard fire tankers and five tractor-trailer rigs carrying water. A sixth tractor-trailer rig had been dispatched as well.
Even in the midst of a blazing emergency, some people find time for bureaucracy. Pope said he was approached by the safety person for the owners of the tanks who requested a copy of the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the foam being used.
“I said ‘You called us,’” Pope said. “‘Do you want us to handle this fire?’ She said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘From here on out I write the play book. I’m not going to do anything that will hurt your people, my people, the public, your property or the environment. In fact, we’re going to give you some good PR by putting out your fire.’”
“She said ‘Well, you come highly recommended,’” Pope said. “‘I put my trust in you.’”
Firefighters proceeded to position the foam trailer and support truck. Pope estimated he would need 165 pounds per square inch of pressure to feed the extinguishment effort.
“We had six trucks and truck trailers lined up with an additional five waiting to be pulled into position if needed,” he said. “Once we sized up the fire we felt comfortable with lines hooked to one truck and a secondary inlet hooked to another. As one truck got to half capacity, the other truck would start pumping to it.”
Within 10 minutes, the firefighters were ready to make their first attempt.
“It was a fast extinguishment,” Pope said. “We got the foam nozzle dialed in, proportioned just like we wanted it. We had it laid outside and came in, did a real brief exterior cool and then got our foam blanket on there. We made five passes across the tanks.”
Firefighters used a tri-flowing self-educting National Foam Gladiator nozzle and Task Force Tips’ Monsoon monitor mounted on an Alpha Dual Series trailer built by Combat Support Products of North Carolina.
The trailer carries two 330 gallon totes of National Gold AR foam and a five-inch waterway with a riser capable of 2,000 gpm, Pope said.
Complicating the application, fire started to spread to a feed line running up the side of one tank.
“We were coming across to skim the fire off the top and start putting foam on the tank fire itself,” Pope said.
He estimated that extinguishment was achieved in less than three minutes for both tanks.
“We had been checking with a thermal camera to see what the bottom of the tank was doing,” Pope said. “Once the fire was out, we checked it with the thermal camera again then went up to the tank with hand lines.
Extinguishment was achieved with less than 1,200 gallons of water and only one tote of foam tapped. The firefighters never resorted to using the water from the tanker trucks. Two pumpers containing 1,000 gallons each were enough to put out the fire, with a single tanker hooked up and on standby.
Even if the first attempt at extinguishment had failed, enough of the initial 16,000 gallons of water brought to the site was left for a second attempt without waiting for the additional 35,000 gallons en route to the scene, Pope said.
Since 2007, the Collins Fire Department has gotten almost $3 million in federal grants for specialized training and equipment. Yet, its success also depends a great deal on the support of the local city government and community that funds the department’s annual budget of about $300,000.
“Without a supportive mayor, board and community we couldn’t do what we do,” Pope said. “We have always been good stewards of the tax payers’ money.”
City leaders have always backed the department, even when asked to respond outside their jurisdiction, he said.
“It’s all about us helping other communities when they need us,” Pope said. “The mayor has never told us we couldn’t respond out of jurisdiction. He is one hundred percent supportive.”
In particular, the community took notice of the June 2010 gasoline storage tank fire in Greensboro, NC. (See IFW, Fall 2010) The Greensboro Fire Department extinguished the fire within six hours and prevented other nearby tanks from becoming involved, earning accolades from the local media for its speedy response.
“I flew out there after it happened to meet with Chief (Jim) Robinson and Chief (Gregory) Grayson because we protect a Colonial facility that almost mirrors the one in Greensboro,” Pope said.
Corporate support for the Collins FD is also apparent. Of the two industrial foam trailers owned by the department, one was purchased by Chevron and the other by Kinder Morgan.
“We were very blessed to have these great companies support us with the trailers, they have more than paid for themselves many times over,” Pope said.
Colonial Pipeline is sending Chief Pope to the Tyco-Williams Xtreme Foam School in Beaumont, TX, in May, as well as providing additional needed equipment and foam support to the department.
With the help of corporate funding, the department hopes to send four firefighters every year to the Xtreme Foam School beginning in 2013, Pope said.
“We’ve got money set aside to send people to some industrial schools, hopefully in the near future, to do some hands on flammable liquid training in addition to what we already do at the Mississippi Fire Academy,” Pope said.
Collins FD is fortunate to have both the Mississippi Fire Academy and the LSU Fire & Emergency Training Institute within driving distance, he said.
“Having two such facilities that still burn fossil fuels in some training pits is a major plus for us,” Pope said. “It allows us to really test our guys and their abilities as it relates to the specialized fires they will encounter in our jurisdiction & abroad. Both facilities are top notch. We have a great relationship with both Director Reggie Bell & his staff at MFA and Director Donahue and staff at LSU-FETI.”
By comparison to Collins, the population of Greensboro is well over a quarter of a million. Most of those citizens learned about the massive storage tank fire via continuous television coverage. But in Collins it does not take a breaking news bulletin to know that the local firefighters are busy.
“The afternoon after the fire I had a phone call from a local restaurant patron and former Collins FD fire chief telling me that the department was the topic of discussion that morning,” Pope said. “Everybody was wondering why we weren’t sitting at the big table at lunch.”
Slowly, word got around about the fire in Jefferson Davis County. Soon everyone in the place was talking about the big fire, Pope said.
“We’re lucky that we have a very supportive community that really gets behind us,” Pope said. “It helps keep moral high. The firefighters give that much more when they know the community appreciates what they do.”