In Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, responsibility for emergency response is divided between two men named Thomas Stone. At the 135,000-barrels-a-day Valero refinery in Meraux, the site is protected by a 75-member strong emergency response team under the command of Thomas Stone Jr.
Stone is the only fulltime paid responder on the Meraux ERT. Everyone else volunteers to serve above and beyond their paid duties as refinery personnel.
“I get guys who volunteer their time to train for free,” Stone Jr. said. “They come in before work. They come in after work. They come in on their days off.”
Beyond the refinery gates, everything else emergency related in the parish falls under the purview of Fire Chief Thomas Stone Sr. As with Stone Jr., Stone Sr. takes great pride in his team for a different reason.
“We are a career fire department,” Stone Sr. said, chuckling. “We’re just paid like volunteers.”
A southeastern suburb of New Orleans, the parish once supported its career department with an industrial base that included four gas plants, two oil refineries, oil and gas pipelines including a storage terminal and the largest sugar refinery in North America.
Unfortunately, that was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 devastated or damaged almost every structure in the parish. Today, three of the gas plants remain shuttered and the parish population has dropped by almost half.
But St. Bernard Parish still hangs on to its career fire department.
“If it wasn’t for industry, we wouldn’t have a community in St. Bernard Parish,” Stone Sr. said.
By coincidence, both Stone Sr. and Jr. found themselves at the Brayton Fire Training Field in April. Nearly 130 Valero responders, including Stone Jr., attended the Valero corporate fire school held semi-annually at Brayton in College Station, TX.
In the past Stone Sr. has taught at Valero’s school. But on this occasion he was visiting Brayton to teach ExxonMobil responders sharing the fire field with Valero. However, that did not prevent him from pitching in with an impromptu 45-minute lecture when lightning confined the Valero responders to the classroom, delaying the live-fire training schedule.
Moonlighting as an industrial fire instructor has helped Stone Sr. keep food on the table and a roof over his family’s heads. But since Stone Jr. has become an industrial fire protection expert in his own right, the confusion over having two Thomas Stones in the same business has become a constant source of comedy.
“At fire conference’s people assume that the ‘Tommy Stone’ listed in the speaker’s program is me when it’s actually my father and vice versa,” Stone Jr. said.
For nearly 30 years, Stone Sr. spent more than 40 weekends annually teaching responders at the Delgado Community College fire school in New Orleans. The last two years has seen him in house training at refineries in Baton Rouge, LA; Joliet, IL and Baytown, TX.
Teaching as a sideline cost him too much time with his children as they grew up, he said. But, on the positive side, it has given him the chance to teach at “the most prestigious industrial training school in the western hemisphere” – Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station, TX.
“Don’t get me in trouble saying that though,” Stone Sr. said. “All my rookies go to LSU.”
Today he still carries a heavy class load as an instructor. His work at Brayton included teaching industrial interior firefighting, also known as NFPA 1081. The previous weekend saw him instruct on advanced incident command system courses ICS-300 and ICS-400.
St. Bernard Parish holds an important place in the history of industrial emergency response. In August 1983, the father and son firefighting team of Les and Dwight Williams made their reputations for extinguishing large volume flammable liquid fires by putting out a burning 150-foot diameter gasoline storage tank in Chalmette, the parish seat.
“Dwight’s daddy Les was still with him then,” Stone Sr. said. “It was the first fire where they used the foam footprint methodology.”
It was a game changing event in industrial emergency response that Stone Sr. witnessed in person.
“Tommy Jr. was only five weeks old when I got the call ordering me back to duty for the 1983 fire,” Stone Sr. said.
Years later, Stone Sr. was privileged to be on hand for another important episode in the Williams family history book. In 2001, Dwight Williams and his team extinguished a 270-foot diameter gasoline storage tank in Norco, LA, saving half the contents despite the tank battery being flooded by an ongoing tropical storm.
George Shawver, Valero Energy’s director of health, safety & emergency preparedness, attended the extinguishment with Stone Sr. He introduced Stone Sr. as “someone you need to interview.”
“Back in the day we did mutual aid training together, both municipal and industrial,” Stone Sr. said.
Beside Valero and PBF Energy, Stone Sr. has had a long standing relationship with ExxonMobil, having missed only two of their corporate fire schools since 2000.
“One year the Chalmette refinery was in turnaround and I didn’t come,” Stone Sr. said. “The other time it was scheduled the same weekend as Mardi Gras. That’s a big family holiday for us.”
At St. Bernard Parish Fire Department, Stone Sr. commands 110 fulltime firefighters spread among 10 fire stations, still close to the pre-Katrina staffing levels. Maintaining those levels despite the population drop helps keep fire insurance ratings and the premiums based on them low.
Stone Sr.’s close relationship with the parish’s industrial fire brigades helps keep the training budget in check. For example, Valero generously covers the cost for several St. Bernard Parish responders to attend the company fire schools at Brayton. Likewise, Stone Sr. has a special deal with ExxonMobil for his people to attend their fire schools.
“That’s how they pay me for teaching, by letting my firefighters attend free,” he said.
Stone Jr. is the only fulltime emergency responder on the Meraux ERT. Operating his department on a volunteer basis presents him with a set of problems quite different from those of his father. At some refineries it is not unusual for the fire chief to make a pitch at the employee’s indoctrination to join the ERT.
At Meraux, no one with less than a year on the refinery payroll is considered for ERT membership, Stone Jr. said.
“New hires are always gung ho and ready for action,” Stone Jr. said. “But after a year of balancing a new job and serving on the brigade that can change. It’s better to give them a chance to get their feet down in their regular job before taking on more responsibility.”
A Valero facility since 2011, the 135,000 barrels a day Meraux refinery operates with one fire station and three pieces of rolling stock – a 2014 Ferrara pumper, a 2002 E-One aerial and a 1984 GMC pumper that Stone Jr. classifies as “an oldie but a goodie.”
“It still passes the pump test,” he said. “If it ever fails I’m turning it into my new New Orleans Saints tailgate truck.”
As with other ERTs, maintaining an adequate training schedule tends to be the fire chief’s biggest headache, Stone Jr. said.
“It’s especially difficult when you have guys that work a lot of overtime,” he said. “Particularly when they finally get a day off and you schedule them for training. Like anybody else, they’d like to spend more time with their families.”
And, yet, the benefit of a volunteer ERT compared to mandatory service is that you “get the people who really want to be there,” Stone Jr. said.
“We’ve got one guy who’d come in for pump ops training in the morning and then stay late for extra fire training,” Stone Jr. said. “That added up to two 16-hour days back-to-back to get his certificates.”
Corporate incentives are one way to recruit volunteers. However, competitive incentives such as representing the refinery in the International Rescue and Emergency Care Association Rescue Challenge can be just as motivating, Stone Jr. said.
“We’ve been on the IRECA circuit for the last two years,” he said. “At the Walnut Creek, CA, competition in 2016 our four-member team won first place in the first responder rescue challenge. Last year at Champaign, IL, our three member medical team came in first and the four-man team came in third.”
Stone Jr. brought 10 responders to the Valero corporate fire school, mainly concentrating on the pump ops and safety officer classes. More than 130 Valero responders from Tennessee, California, Louisiana and Texas attended the spring session of the semi-annual school.
Industrial fire response is a mission handed from father to son in the Stone family. However, that is not to say that Stone Sr. liked the idea.
“After my college graduation ceremony my father asked me what I was going to do with my life,” Stone Jr. said. “I told him I wanted to be a firefighter, expecting to see tears of pride rolling down his cheeks.”
Instead, his father said he was crazy.
“He said he didn’t spend the money for me to go to school for me to become a firefighter like him,” Stone Jr. said, laughing.
Eventually, Stone Sr. relented, guiding his son down a career path he felt was better suited to family life than the one he chose for himself.
“You should go to work for industry and fight fire, not work two and three jobs all your life like me,” Stone Sr. said.