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'VERB' Means Action
A Minnesota refinery brigade unites management, personnel and the community in its protection strategy

While Minnesota is a state without its own oil, it is home to the 320,000-barrel-per-day Pine Bend Refinery, the 15th largest refinery in the country. Built in 1955, the refinery specializes in processing crude oil from Canada.

 “Refineries our size are usually dependent on mutual aid organizations,” refinery Fire Chief Rolf Peterson said. “They have other industries within a reasonable distance whose fire brigade could respond to help.”

Pine Bend Refinery, owned by Flint Hills Resources, is located in the Twin Cities suburb of Rosemount. The closest refinery is 16 miles away and only one-quarter the capacity of Pine Bend.

“We can draw from a lot of great municipal fire departments, including St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Peterson said. “But to  ensure that we have the highest level of emergency readiness, we’ve really had to beef up our internal resources.”

Having switched from a mandatory fire brigade to a volunteer/paid brigade 23 years ago, Pine Bend has 101 responders. Of those, 71 are volunteers drawn from other jobs in the refinery and 15 are contract firefighters provided by Illinois-based Kurtz Industrial Firefighters, Inc.

Split between two fire stations, the available apparatus includes four engines, an incident command vehicle, spill response boats, a haz mat response trailer, trailer-mounted nozzles and pumps and two aerial ladders, including a new Sutphen 110-foot aerial ladder delivered in November.

“Our philosophy is if we’re going to build up our people resources in emergency response, we’ve got to have the equipment to support them,” Peterson said.


Before 1991, Pine Bend had no official fire brigade, said Pete Herpst, former fire chief and current deputy fire chief. In the early 1990s, management began a transition toward a more structured emergency response brigade.

“Looking at our internal capabilities and those of the local fire departments, we made the determination that we had to beef up our own emergency response and make it an official fire brigade.”

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines a verb as expressing an act, occurrence or mode of being. It seemed appropriate to designate the new brigade at Pine Bend as VERB – Voluntary Emergency Response Brigade.

“We sent everybody to hazmat, fire and medical training,” Herpst said. “The fire training was done at Texas A&M. Everybody earned their first responder certification from the state.” As for rescue training, personnel trained in both Level I and II at a Minnesota school.

Changing from a mandatory hose team to a volunteer fire brigade sparked a motivational shift as well.

“With volunteers as part of the brigade, we were getting people who really wanted to participate,” Herpst said.

Membership peaked at 120 volunteers in the mid 1990s. Pine Bend sends one firefighter from each of the four surrounding communities to train annually with the Refinery Terminal Fire Company, a non-profit industrial fire fighting group in Corpus Christi, TX.

Every two years, the refinery sponsors a joint training exercise for the departments at its in-house training facility, Peterson said.

“We burn some pretty big props so our firefighters get teamwork evolutions both defensive and offensive,” he said. “We burn training fuel, diesel, propane and one pan is designated for ethanol.”

“Onsite personnel are trained to respond in the event of an emergency,” Herpst said. “We do our best to minimize our dependence on outside resources that might not have the specialized training, experience, or equipment specific for addressing industrial emergencies.”


As needs changed, Pine Bend looked at contracting with an outside company to provide the full-time firefighters.

“Most often that was done in the coastal regions or the Chicago area,” he said. “Contracting for firefighters was unheard of in this area at the time.”

Research led Pine Bend to Illinois-based Kurtz Industrial Firefighters, Inc., a fire services contractor that today provides contract firefighters to seven chemical and petrochemical facilities in Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia.

“We worked with Kurtz to hire people from our area,” Herpst said. “Kurtz interviewed 150 to 200 people from the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. We had minimum requirements for the certification of anyone we hired. In the end, we pretty much hired everyone from local fire departments.”

To accommodate the change, Pine Bend built a second fire station complete with living quarters. Today the brigade roster includes 71 volunteers, 15 contract personnel working 24-hour shifts, four shift assistant chiefs working 12-hour shifts and two shift captains working 12-hour shifts. Four industrial hygienists, two deputy chiefs, a rescue chief, a fire marshal and a fire chief work days.

The Maytag repairman of advertising lore was a highly trained professional with way too much down time on his hands. Peterson said nothing could be further from the truth about the full-time Pine Bend brigade members.

“They have about 4,400 mechanical integrity checks to be performed on an annual basis,” Peterson said. “The firefighters are checking any piece of fire equipment – such as fire extinguishers, deluge systems and fire alarm panels – that we have oversight of.”

That fire equipment also includes Pine Bend’s own inventory of rolling stock. The new Sutphen aerial includes a 3,000 gpm pump and twin 2,000 gpm nozzles mounted on the ladder.

“It’s a key piece of equipment given the tall superstructures we have,” Peterson said. “We also have a large tank farm to protect.”

The Sutphen replaced a 1,250-gpm E-One with a much shorter 55-foot “stick.” The brigade also has a 3,000 gpm E-One aerial with a 90-foot ladder. As for engines, the brigade has a 1,500 gpm Peterbilt with rescue and hazmat equipment, a 3,500 gpm Pierce, and two 3,000 gpm E-One pumper-tankers.

In 1995, Pine Bend bought a 35-foot Grumman van which the brigade adapted into its own incident command vehicles, Peterson said.

“We had the refinery’s internal construction people build the interior the way we wanted it,” Peterson said. “We just did a refit on it in the last couple of years.”

Pine Bend has recently switched to 1x3 percent foam, keeping about 24,000 gallons of concentrate on hand. To move it to where it is needed, the brigade has two 2,500 gpm portable pumps, two 8,000 gpm nozzles and a 2,000 gpm nozzle, all trailer mounted.

The brigade also maintains a hazmat response trailer for spills on shore. For spills on the inland waterway that serves the refinery, the brigade maintains two 22-foot response boats powered by Evinrude Twin 70s. The boats carry nearly 700 feet of spill boom for containment.

“We are near the Mississippi River,” Peterson said. “It’s important that we have the capability to protect the river and our barge dock areas.”

Pine Bend participates in an emergency response cooperative that monitors the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Prescott, WI., he said.

“We all contributed and bought equipment necessary to exercise spill response strategies,” Peterson said. “The equipment, which includes about 15,000 feet of boom, is in product boxes strategically placed along the river. We get together with the others every summer and do structured training.”

On shore, the refinery brigade training ground is moving into its busy season as well.

“We do three sets of evolutions every three months,” Peterson said. “In the summertime, we are drilling every week. When we have mutual aid firefighters come in, we do that in the evening in early summer or late in the fall.”

Every graduating class of rookie firefighters in Minneapolis and St. Paul spends one day at the Pine Bend training ground studying combustible liquids fire tactics, he said.

“The training ground is located in a secluded area on the southwest side of the refinery,” Peterson said. “It’s an ideal location because it’s a safe distance from the refinery and not a bother to our neighbors.”

There are no other industrial training grounds in the area, Peterson said.

“This helps us keep the skills fresh between trips to Texas.”


Pine Bend refinery shows how a unified strategy by management, personnel and community responders can yield the greatest returns from the assets each contributes to prepare for and respond to potential emergencies.           C



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