David Owens -

David Owens

Team IRIS firefighters often apply their talents to emergencies in foreign locales such as Kuwait and Angola. On March 20the Intercontinental Terminals fire in Deer Park, Texas gave them the opportunity to do some of their best work on American soil.

“If somebody calls and says we need help, if it is something we can do, something within the scope of what we can handle, we’re going to help,” said David Owens, owner of Industrial Rescue Instruction Systems.

IRIS, specializing in training for industrial emergency responders, made news last year when it reopened a fire training field in Beaumont, Texas closed following Hurricane Harvey. However, as Team IRIS, the company has long provided personnel for on-site emergency response training both nationally and internationally.

“All of our instructors are also firefighters,” Owens said. “We also provide firefighters to cover start up projects and major facilities worldwide. So all the guys we pulled together for the ITC fire were already on our team.”

The initial blaze at the terminal erupted at 10:22 a.m. on March 17. Still, even after a telephone call from noted industrial firefighter Dwight Williams about noon the next day, the fire largely remained a matter of distant professional interest.

“He asked if I was watching what was going on,” Owens said. “I said ‘Yeah, we’re kind of keeping up with it.’”

Then, at about 10:30 p.m.,US Fire Pump owner Chris Ferrara, called from Baton Rouge, LA. His company had been awarded a contract to assemble a crew of firefighters to respond to the ITC blaze, still going after nearly 36 hours.

“He wanted us to provide firefighters to join with his team in attempting to manage this,” Owens said.

IRIS employs nearly 70 instructors at its training facilities in Beaumont and Baytown. Add to this pool of talent IRIS firefighters working under contract at refineries in Baton Rouge, Pasadena, Port Arthur, and Beaumont.

A convoy of big rigs hauling the foam and equipment crossed the Houston Ship Channel via the Fred Hartman bridge shortly before 7 a.m. on March 19. From the bridge Owens could see the flames rising from ITC.

“It was big,” Owens said. “They brought us straight into the plant, straight to the heart of the fire.”

Owens and Ferrara arrived at ITC with more than 10 firefighters, including Dwight Williams who brought 15,000 gallons of his new 1 x 3 AR-AFFF Signature series firefighting foam. To deliver the foam to the fire, Ferrara tapped US Fire Pump’s inventory of large volume portable pumps, submersible pumps, proportioning systems and a quick attack truck that flows 18,000 GPM when hooked up to a high pressure water source.

While Williams made an aerial survey of the fire scene by helicopter, the fire crew busied itself with getting water to all the US Fire Pump equipment. As for apparatus, the fire had already claimed several trophies.

“There were a couple of quick attack trucks that had made an initial response to the fire,” Owens said. “They were still in the dike, all burned up.”

“We set up a submersible pump to draw water from a flooded dike nearby,” Owens said. “We used that to get water to some of the fire trucks that were already there. Then we established our own water supply from a city water line and started firing.”

Within eight hours, the crew mounted its first attack on the fire.

“Dwight and Chris Ferrara took charge of operating the equipment themselves,” Owens said. “We went with Ferrara, working from the south side of the fire. Dwight, working with the many other fire teams there that day, worked from the north.”

Within 12 hours the attack proved successful, knocking out all of the original fire. However, the fire would rekindle twice in the next 24 hours. Owens and Ferrara, whose fire team was on duty around the clock for the next week, were on hand for both events.

“On Wednesday (March 20), one of the tanks flashed off suddenly,” Owens said. “We had it out in 240 seconds flat. That’s documented.”

The second rekindle happened two days later and qualified as a major setback.

“The dike failed and we lost the entire inventory of foam and everything,” Owens said. “For a period of time everything was shut down while we began foaming applications.”

Unfortunately, before the foam blanket could be reestablished, the flammable products ignited. Nearly 40 percent of the 15 tanks sharing a common dike was again ablaze.

Firefighters on standby jumped into action. Within an hour the flames were again extinguished. In the wake of that emergency, care was taken to refresh the foam blanket on an hourly basis, Owens said.

Mentally, no firefighter is prepared for a single incident involving 15 burning or threatened storage tanks, Owens said. But the ones that joined together to tackle the ITC fire represent the best of those working in industrial firefighting today.

“They had a solid understanding of the basic philosophies of firefighting,” Owens said. “That, together with the expertise that Dwight contributed, made it all happen.”

Now comes the opportunity to apply the new knowledge gained from the ITC fire, he said.

“During the course of the fire I had probably eight to 10 different customers contact me, saying ‘Man, I got a tank farm like that.’” Owens said. “They weren’t real sure if they were prepared for what could happen.  So this has been an eye-opener to a lot of people.”