- Photo by Anton Riecher

Photo by Anton Riecher

Scheduling nighttime live burns at Brayton Fire Training Field becomes a challenge during the summer. Texas twilight lingers long past 8 p.m., making it hard to get an early start the next day, said Tonnie R. Hopson, operations chief for Chevron’s three-times-a-year corporate fire school.

Instead, the Chevron firefighters hit the field at 5:30 a.m. on the last day of the four-day school.

“The responders look forward to getting up and getting it knocked out,” Hopson said. “It means an early finish for them at around 2 p.m. and the rest of the day to do what they want.”

An hour before dawn nearly 80 responders took up positions on three live-fire projects at the southeast end of the fire field – the chemical complex, rail car loading rack and tank and dike project. When all three are ignited, it provided the first serious light to break the darkness.

Slowly, the fires diminish, overwhelmed by the firefighters and the rising sun. But rather than get to enjoy the triumph, the firefighters immediately regroup to burn the project again before moving to a new challenge.

“What we do is bring all our best people together from all the Chevron locations,” Hopson said. “We get our leaders, paid fire staff, lead captains, lieutenants and battalion chiefs out here to train.”

Ordinarily, Hopson serves as an assistant fire chief with Chevron’s refinery in Pascagoula, MS. He stepped forward to take charge of the April and May fire schools when chief of operations Robert Taylor was waylaid by an ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer.

 “This is an intern position,” Hopson said. “Normally I’m the number two person here. We hope to have Robert back later this year.”

Supporting Hopson in his new role was Grant Tokiwa, a battalion chief with the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA.

“We do all the administration and logistics,” Tokiwa said. “I’m also working with the crews down on the props as well.”

The first priority on Hopson and Tokiwa’s duty list is safety.

“We know we have people coming here for the very first time,” Hopson said. “We also have people who have been here five times or more. We challenge those with experience to take a leadership role, taking charge of some of the training evolutions.”

One live-fire project at Brayton of particular interest to firefighters visiting from Richmond is the shipboard prop. A 300-foot ship mock-up stands three decks high and encompasses many enclosed fire situations. Out front, a 175-foot forward deck simulates a tanker emergency involving a variety of fires – burning barrels, overflowing expansion trunks, manifold fire, confined and unconfined spills on deck and cargo tank fires.

“Those firefighters from Richmond may occasionally have to extinguish fires on ships at their dock,” Hopson said. “We had liquid fuel fires coming out of pipes on the deck. We also had gas blowing like with a pipe rupture.”

With that combination, the immediate objective becomes controlling the ground fire, i.e., the liquid fuel fire, he said. This was done using dry chemical and foam.

“Once that’s under control, the firefighters are able to make valve isolations to shut off the remaining fuel,” Hopson said.

On the opening day of school, firefighters visiting from the same refinery typically feel more comfortable working together, Hopson said. Firefighters on the shipboard project were divided into two 25-member teams, one made up entirely from Richmond firefighters and the other combining firefighters from California, Oklahoma and Utah.

“Normally what we see on the first day is the team taken from one location tends to be more in sync working together,” Hopson said. “The other team tends to be a little more challenged working together for the first time.”

However, by the second and third day of training both teams are working in perfect harmony, he said.

Beyond bringing firefighters together from different Chevron refineries in the United States, the fire school often has a large contingency of international firefighters as well. The roster has included company responders working in Nigeria, South Africa and Canada, Tokiwa said.

“Chevron is a very large, multi-national company,” he said. “The people who attend school here are part of a global group that is the Chevron Fire Department.”

Tokiwa’s home refinery produces 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The refinery’s full-time emergency response team consists of more than 30 paid fire personnel, including a chief, assistant chief, training officer and several inspectors. The Richmond ERT is also responsible for site security.

The volunteer component of the ERT includes more than 65 members split between five different crews, Tokiwa said. Apparatus available includes three engines, a hazmat truck, brush rigs and foam tenders, all operating out of a single six bay fire station.

“We are an all-risk fire department,” Tokiwa said. “We handle everything a normal fire department would. We do medical, hazmat, wildland and structural firefighting in addition to our core responsibilities which is oil and gas firefighting and spills.”

The Richmond ERT is also responsible for a large wharf that juts out into the middle of San Francisco Bay, he said. The ERT fleet includes a fire board, boom boats and skimmers to assist with oil spills.

As with any ERT, the majority of calls qualify as routine. However, in January the Richmond ERT responded to a request for assistance from the Petrochemical Mutual Aid Organization that involved battling an 11-hour fire at a metal recycling facility.

“They activated the mutual aid organization to provide Class B foam,” Tokiwa said. “They needed a lot of it and we were the only ones that were able to provide it.”

Hopson’s ERT in Pascagoula operates in a much smaller community without the resources found in a major city such as San Francisco, he said. Fourteen of the ERT’s 125 members are fulltime paid responders, with the rest drawn from volunteers.

“We are able to do that because our ERT volunteers are not just hose handlers,” Hopson said. “They function as engineers on their trucks, rescue technicians, hazmat technicians and EMT medical personnel. Our volunteers are trained in other disciplines.”

The total ERT is divided into five crews of about 25 members each, Hopson said. Fulltime responders include the fire chief, the assistant fire chief, five crew leaders who are the equivalent of battalion chiefs and seven fire marshals or captains.

Four of the crews operate in a rotation to protect the 355,000-barrel-a-day refinery with an fifth relief crew in reserve.

Hose team pushes deep into the burning training prop. - Photo by Anton Riecher

Hose team pushes deep into the burning training prop.

Photo by Anton Riecher

“We provide 24-hour protection for the refinery,” Hopson said. “However, at night and on the weekends the only fulltime responder on duty is the battalion chief. Those shifts have the strongest contingency of volunteers.”

The arrangement allows the ERT to maintain fire protection totally in house, without relying on municipal or county assistance in an emergency, Hopson said. Since Pascagoula is not part of a major industrial hub, so there is no local mutual aid association to fall back on.

“At any time we have at least 25 responders available,” Hopson said. “That’s more than our neighboring five departments can raise at one time.”

The Pascagoula ERT operates from a single fire station that houses two fire engines, plus assorted brush trucks and squad trucks. Also on the equipment list is four 6,000 gpm diesel powered pumps, three 1x6 nozzles and 20,000 feet of 7½-inch and 5-inch hose each.

“We keep as much as 35,000 gallons of foam on hand, enough to easily extinguish our largest storage tank on site,” Hopson said. “We have foam on trailers ready to go in case another industry with an emergency makes a request.” The refinery also keeps 1,200 gallons of foam aboard its primary 3,000 gpm foam engine.

Unfortunately, the work load at the Pascagoula refinery was so heavy in April that Hopson was only able to bring himself and one battalion chief to the Chevron school.

“Typically we got lot of ERT members here,” Hopson said. “We also bring two or three different responders from the county and city fire departments. Johnson County operates a career fire department and we like to give them experience in industrial fire when we can.”

The Pascagoula ERT also has the advantage of having its own fire training field on site back home, he said. Among the projects available is a three-level prop, a small process unit, a small chemical plant project rigged with LPG pressure fires, fire pits and pump pads.

“Other Chevron refineries such as Belle Chasse, LA, come to train on our fire field,” Hopson said.

In most places on-site fire training fields have long ago been absorbed by the production demands of the refinery. Anyone proposing that in Pascagoula is likely to meet stiff resistance, Hopson said.

“I’m pretty sure that has been discussed,” he said. “But Pascagoula has a strong commitment to training.”