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Small town firefighters protect big chunk of Illinois economy

Thanks to a substantial industrial base, Elwood, IL, population 2,200, might boast the best equipped fire protection district per capita of any community in the United States. Although modest in population, Elwood Fire Protection District (EFPD) also protects an expansive industrial area, and the district makes certain it has the equipment for the many facets of industrial fire protection. “Soon, that will include a brand new 3,000 gpm pumper to be delivered in September,” said Fire Chief Bill Offerman.

“We’re primarily an industrial fire department. We always have been,” Offerman said.

Functioning as a separate government entity from Will County and its municipalities, the 37-square-mile EFPD covers the 238,000 barrels per day ExxonMobil refinery in Channahon Township; the 633-acre Stepan Chemical plant; a 1,350-megawatt electric generating station; a 3.4-million-square-foot Wal-Mart distribution center; plus another 6.6 million square feet of distribution facilities.

EFPD also protects the Burlington Northern Sante Fe 780-acre rail yard at CenterPoint inland port which ranks as the largest intermodal rail facility in the country.

Offerman, a firefighter with 31 years experience, has been the EFPD chief for 17 years. One of the first actions he took after accepting the job was a risk analysis of the entire fire district.

“Our greatest exposure was our industrial facilities. It wasn’t just a hazard to the community but also to the department’s personnel. We purchase vehicles and equipment based on job specific criteria and the safety of our employees,” Offerman said.

Although ExxonMobil and Stepan Company have their own in-house fire brigades, the kind of emergencies possible at these facilities demand a rapid response with apparatus specifically suited to the task.

“It takes more than one department to deal with emergencies like these,” Offerman said.

Just as the EFPD is a great asset to the industrial community, the district’s industrial tax base is a benefit to our residents and small businesses, as well.

“If we only had our residential and small commercial business tax base, we’d have about 14 percent of our current budget. We’d be a volunteer department with a two-bay station and aging equipment,” Offerman said.

Instead, the EFPD provides full-time fire protection, hazardous materials, technical rescue, and emergency medical services with ample equipment and apparatus.

“We are able to provide much better service for our customers,” Offerman said.

Offerman does not discuss the specifics of EFPD responses to industrial facilities. But the district has assisted with a fire in a 175-foot diameter storage tank,  leaks including hydrofluoric and sulfuric acid, naptha fires, underground pipeline leaks and a rupture in a 700 psi hydrogen line.

“When it is necessary to involve the press, we work out a press release and issue a unified message with the affected industrial facility. Providing an accurate, consistent message helps to build trust and confidence with the public and industry,” Offerman said.

However, Offerman quickly provides examples of how the district’s apparatus inventory can be brought to bear against the kind of fire typical to any community, such as burning warehouses.

“In my early years, it was common for fire departments to flow 500 gpm nozzles with a straight bore tip. Now we’ve got a 110-foot tower that can flow 2,200 gpm. It’s not an industrial tower, but it’s as big as we can justify for general commercial and residential use. ExxonMobil has an industrial tower that can flow 4,000 gpm,” Offerman said.

Operating from one fire station in Elwood, the EFPD has two engines – a 1,750 gpm 1997 Freightliner and a 2,000 gpm 2004 Sutphen, both equipped with National Foam Servo Command foam proportioning systems. The Freightliner is being sold to make way for a new 3,000 gpm Sutphen in September.

“We installed a SKUM nozzle on the engine that will flow 1,000-to-5,000 gpm. On a calm day it will deliver a water stream 426 feet,” Offerman said.

“Pushed to the limit during testing with the same type pumper as the EFPD uses, the SKUM flowed 5,900 gpm that traveled a distance of 600 feet. With the new engine added to its fleet, EFPD will be able to flow foam at a rate of 9,000 gpm,” Offerman said.

“Like the fire brigade at ExxonMobil, the Elwood Fire Protection District prefers Sutphen pumpers equipped with National Foam Servo Command foam proportioning systems. We can operate each other’s equipment; it really provides for a seamless operation,” Offerman said.

Leading the fleet inventory is a 110-foot Sutphen tower ladder with a 2,000 gpm pump and two 1,000 gpm monitors. As with the two engines, the tower is equipped with five-inch large diameter hose.

As if carrying LDH was not enough to prove the EFPD’s industrial credentials, the district’s apparatus responds with 1,600 gallons of Class B foam at their immediate command and another 600 gallons in reserve at the station.

“Stepen keeps a couple of thousand gallons on hand and ExxonMobil has about 25,000 gallons,” Offerman said.

EFPD firefighters also utilize two ambulances, a tender with 2,500 gallons of water and 1,000 gallons of Class B foam, a brush truck and a rescue squad.

On hand to operate this treasure trove of fire gear is a full-time staff of 19 personnel and six part-time employees.

“We train a minimum of three hours a day on fire and rescue and two hours a day on EMS. We recently purchased a $30,000 advanced cardiac life support mannequin that we use to perform the vast majority of our EMS functions —intravenous therapy, blood pressure, lung sounds, etc.,” Offerman said.

“The mannequin is so advanced that the students can actually talk to it during the procedure. Paramedics are video recorded while they train so that their communications and medical techniques can be evaluated.

“Staying current on procedures that may not be called for on a daily basis is essential,” he said.

“The EFPD also trains with local industrial partners whenever possible,” he said.

“ExxonMobil has a flammable liquids fire field complete with a smoke tower. We train with their firefighters to make sure our organizations are integrated and work well together,” Offerman said.

Likewise, the EFPD trains with Stepan’s fire brigade and the BNSF railroad facility.

“Our railroad facility is almost 800 acres and truck traffic can reach 11,000 trucks a day through the industrial park,” Offerman said

Every year, a team of four EFPD responders accompany ExxonMobil firefighters who visit the Texas Engineering Extension Service’s Emergency Service Training Institute for specialized training in industrial fire fighting.

EFPD personnel are also on hand when Stepen firefighters practice mitigating vaporing acids in the desert at Yucca Flats, NV. Stepen also includes EFPD responders when it visits the USS Lexington, a retired aircraft carrier on display in Corpus Christi, TX, used to practice high angle and confined space rescue.

“We also go to the BNSF emergency response training center in Pueblo, CO, and work with railcar incidents,” Offerman said.

Cooperation between EFPD and local industrial brigades extends to the district firefighters being directly tied into the pager system for ExxonMobil and Stepan.

“As soon as they have an incident they notify us. Even if they have some serious maintenance beginning, they notify us so we can prepare for the hazards,” Offerman said.

During Offerman’s 17-year administration, the EFPD’s burden of fire risk has ebbed and flowed with the changing economic tides of the region. In the mid-1990s the federal government closed the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, site of the community’s worst industrial accident on record. In June 1942 a massive explosion on the assembly line of what was then known as the Joliet Arsenal killed nearly 50 people.

“The plant had two fire stations of its own when it closed,” Offerman said.

Another plant complete with its own brigade was lost when People’s Gas closed a synthetic natural gas blending station used to supplement the Chicago area.

“At one time our district had six fire stations, five of which were industrial partners,” Offerman said.

The chief’s influence as a firefighter reaches far beyond his fire district. In May, he spent 15 days in Russia as part of the U.S. State Department’s Legislative Fellows Exchange, a program that gives American participants the opportunity to broaden their professional expertise.

“I met with mayors and city administrators, finance directors, the equivalent of our state legislature and federal government. I lectured three days on economics, foreign affairs and the effects of globalization at their university,” Offerman said.

Offerman, who also serves as Elwood Village President, at one time taught at Loyola University. He holds an Associates Degree in Fire Science, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and a Master’s Degree in Public Safety Administration.

“I’m writing my dissertation for a doctorate in business administration,” he added.

Working with the Federal Highway Administration, Offerman helped develop the current (TIM) Traffic Incident Management System, a variation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). During the last five years, he has worked with the FHWA’s EMS group and the EMS Foundation in studying ambulance rollover hazards, making a trip to Germany for research.

“Many EMS providers and patients have been seriously injured due to loose equipment moving around inside an ambulance during a crash. In the last five years we’ve seen a real transition towards fastening everything down,” Offerman said.

In particular, regulators are focusing on fastening down patient cots inside the vehicle.

 “You’re seeing a transition to rigid cot systems that lock in all four corners so the patient is better secured,” he said.

As for his work with the EFPD, Offerman says it is important to continually evaluate risks to citizens, property and first responders. Change the way business is done when a better way is found. Communicate and participate with other agencies.

“It is our responsibility to make sure every one comes home safe.”C

 

 
 

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