Every October, the Beaumont Emergency Services Training complex in Beaumont, TX, conducts a fall fire school that helps shape the facility’s annual course schedule and better define its unique customer base.
At first, the BEST complex annual Fall Fire School (BAFFS) proved to be a little disappointing, said BEST Vice President of Operations Denzil Thompson.
“We had our first school in 2010,” Thompson said. “We planned for it to be a big event, but we didn’t have the participation we anticipated.”
However, that initial setback gave Thompson and his staff an opportunity to reexamine what BAFFS could achieve. A decision was made to concentrate on ProBoard (National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications) certification classes for NFPA 1081 covering exterior fire fighting and leadership and NFPA 1041 for professional fire instructors.
“That has been our niche for the last several years,” Thompson said. “It hasn’t been real large but we’ve done some quality training with people from all over the country.”
Celebrating its ninth year under the management of the Industrial Safety Training Council (ISTC), BEST is a 70-acre fire training school leased from the city of Beaumont. It includes nine full-size live-fire training props, plus another 13 props applicable to extinguisher fire training, and 3 props for interior structural live fire training.
BEST graduates nearly 3,000 firefighters a year, mostly from across the United States, Thompson said. In particular, enrollment has seen a significant increase in the last three years after the closing of the University of Reno, Nevada Fire Science Academy and following an important agreement struck with Texas A&M University’s Texas Engineering Extension Service.
“There were a lot of people coming from Louisiana who were driving past this field to get their ProBoard training in College Station,” Thompson said. “Now a lot of them are coming to us.”
As for BAFFS, 2013 enrollment totaled 50 students from Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah. Facilities represented included the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves in three states.
“We even drew some Canadian students from a refinery in Saskatchewan,” Thompson said.
Firefighters with the local Beaumont Fire and Rescue attended through a partnership with the nearby ExxonMobil refinery.
“If you have an event at your plant, these are the folks that are going to end up there anyway, so it makes good sense for Plant Owners to sponsor the municipal departments that provide Mutual Aid.” Thompson said.
Holding BAFFS in the last quarter of the year gives BEST the chance to attract people across the U.S. who may have missed their annual required training because of vacation schedules or shutdowns at their plant, Thompson said.
Then there is always the weather. The warm climate in Texas can be attractive when temperatures plunge in other regions. Jim Philp, BEST’s training coordinator, cites another weather advantage BAFFS offers.
“October is near the end of hurricane season,” Philp said. “In the last 10 years on the Gulf Coast, we’ve had three hurricanes hit this area. We’ve been impacted by several tropical storms too.”
In return for decent weather, BAFFS students give the management at BEST greater insight into what is most important to clients, particularly regarding certification.
Two certification agencies – ProBoard and IFSAC (International Fire Services Accreditation Congress) – certify firefighters to a national standard. IFSAC is predominately concerned with municipal fire fighting, while ProBoard covers municipal and industrial emergency response.
“We are able to certify firefighters to a national standard – several of them,” Philps said.
ProBoard classes are available throughout the year, not just during BAFFS, Thompson said.
“Typically, because a ProBoard class is so instructor intense, 23 students per class is the maximum,” he said. “The minimum class size is about 15 students.”
Aside from NFPA 1081 and 1041, plans for 2014 include extending the class schedule to include ProBoard hazardous materials technician training.
“We’re in the process of securing the equipment for that,” Thompson said.
Credentialing instructors to verify training to certain levels is expected to become an increasingly important issue in the future. Still, BEST resists applying a “cookie cutter” approach to training overall, Thompson said.
“We let these people train the way they like to train as long as they’re being safe,” he said. “Some of the fire brigades that come here are very experienced. With those folks we’re just sort of their training wheels, making sure they don’t do anything that will get anyone hurt.”
On the other hand, some clients ask BEST to provide everything from the classroom to the fire field.
“We can do that too,” Thompson said. “We have a checklist we go through with new customers. We ask what they are looking for, what they need and what kind of brigade they are. If we need to, we’ll develop a school just for them.”
One key advantage offered by BEST not available at other fire schools is the chance to train using your own fire truck.
“Training in most places consists of hooking your hose up to one of the headers on the field,” Philp said. “When the brigade does it for real at 3 a.m., there may not be a convenient header nearby. They’ll have to use the fire truck they drove to the scene.”
Using their own fire truck gives the brigade the opportunity to deal with real time situations using their own equipment, Philp said. That practice is valuable.
Another advantage offering greater realism is the chance to work with real firefighting foam, not training foam. However, some restrictions do apply.
“We make them dial it back to one percent, which is easier on our treatment system,” Thompson said. “Regular AFFF is not a problem. However, if the foam works by encapsulating the molecules of the burning product it cannot be used here.”
Clients like to bring foam they have already paid for rather than buy new foam specifically for training, he said. And, as with bringing their own fire trucks, it gives them the opportunity to work with what will actually be used on a fire.
Fuel is another matter. BEST is located on the Neches River next to the local yacht club. In the years before ISTC took over operations, a strong north wind might force the school to suspend live-fire operations.
“The diesel fuel and gasoline would mix into globules that became airborne and spotted the boats,” Philp said.
EIII, a special fuel blended by Chevron Phillips, provided the solution. Since switching to EIII as fuel for the live-fire props, complaints from the yacht club have ceased, Thompson said.
“The fuel is environmentally friendly and safer for the instructors and students,” he said. “In nine years there has never been a necessity to stop training because of the wind direction.”
Based on BAFFS students feedback, together with that from BEST’s own advisory board representing local industry, the school is making plans for new props and expanded training in the future.
“We have a prop planned that will be an industrial complex,” Thompson said. “It will have several vessels and piping. The prop will be placed inside an existing concrete containment berm so that we can practice spill fires and other scenarios.”
That containment will also hold other props such as the pipe rack and pumps, giving instructors an unlimited number of leaks to spring on their students, he said.
Philp describes the new prop as a large industrial complex located inside the same berm, allowing several props to be ignited simultaneously. Being designed to take advantage of the existing berm means a significant cost savings.
BEST has not received grant money. A proposed grant package for a $15 million to $20 million expansion including an airplane and marine prop failed to gain enough support, Thompson said.
“We are still working with other sources to see if funding might be available in the future,” he said.
Meanwhile, BEST is working to maximize the facilities already in place, such as its incident command simulator utilizing a detailed model of an industrial facility and nearby community.
“The three-dimensional aspect of our simulator is getting a lot of attention,” Philp said. “We’re seeing a resurgence in tabletop exercises as opposed to computer-based incident command training.”
While using a photograph doctored to represent the student’s plant on fire has an “ooh-ah” factor, it is only a one-dimensional image on a computer screen, he said. The BEST simulator allows incident command students to take charge of an EOC (emergency operations command) and have their performance evaluated by others.
“People can be located throughout the plant and forced to use their radios as their only communications,” Philp said.
For BEST Complex, the bottom line is a continuation of the philosophy that steadily increased enrollment throughout ISTC’s organization, Thompson said.
“The experience of our students is of the utmost importance,” he said. “We want to make them happy through exceptional customer service and providing the best training and instruction we possibly can.”