Every industrial firefighter has those “once-in-a-lifetime” fires to reminisce about in retirement. Former Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Bob Zapatka said he is truly lucky to have only one such ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ fire in his resume.
The olefins plant in Baytown, TX, owned by Exxon Chemical Company, was “fairly new and very clean,” he said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of fires.” “But we did have a furnace fire, a big furnace fire,” Zapatka said. “That was the biggest one we ever had. I think it is still the biggest fire on record at that plant.”
Retired since 2011, Zapatka divides his time between working as an adjunct instructor at two fire schools – the Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station, TX, commonly known as TEEX, and the Beaumont Emergency Services Training Complex in Beaumont, TX (BEST).
Adjuncts are brought in whenever the number of students exceeds the capacity of the regular full-time list of instructors, Zapatka said.
“So they bring in adjuncts to take the overflow of the classes or to assist the full-timers,” he said.
Industrial Fire World caught up with Zapatka, who recently passed a milestone of 50 years in the fire service, during the BEST Annual Fall Fire School in Beaumont last October.
Zapatka remembers the date of his biggest emergency in an instant – July 7, 1995. It happened at one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the U.S. Before his promotion to Emergency Preparedness Coordinator in 2007, Zapatka spent 19 years as a process operator and fire brigade volunteer. At 6 a.m. this particular morning, Zapatka was writing permits for work on one of the olefins plant’s 12 furnaces used to manufacture ethylene. His concentration was interrupted by considerable radio traffic about a neighboring furnace.
“I walked outside, looked up and there was fire coming out of every crack and crevice,” Zapatka said.
Zapatka was soon joined by the process team who were conducting a safety meeting in the control center. Together, they began blocking in the fuel and feedstock to get the furnace under control.
“It was about 10 hours before we got everything blocked in,” Zapatka said. “That’s one of those fires where you have the news helicopters overhead and live pictures on every TV. You had flame coming out the top of the stack and black smoke rising hundreds of feet in the air.”
“It was an interesting day,” he said.
Putting out industrial fires in the biggest state in the lower 48 was a far cry from the humble beginning of Zapatka’s fire service career at age 13 with the Watch Hill (R.I.) Volunteer Fire Department.
“It was a very small department in a southern Rhode Island resort town,” Zapatka said. “They had a big brush fire one day. The chief didn’t have enough volunteers so he drafted a bunch of us kids to help pull fire hose through the woods.”
The effort was such a success that the fire chief soon established a junior firefighters group. Zapatka immediately joined. At age 18, Zapatka graduated to a regular volunteer with the department.
“Nobody slept at the station,” he said. “They had a big old horn on top of the fire house that went off whenever there was a fire.” The volunteers also had the old fashioned Plectron units, emergency pagers as big as a toaster. Zapatka’s father and two brothers were also volunteers with the department.
Five to ten fire runs a year were not enough to keep Zapatka satisfied. In 1974 he moved to Wakefield, R.I., a town with a busier volunteer fire department, after his wife Donna started working at the local hospital. In the meantime, Zapatka earned a degree in secondary education from the University of Rhode Island.
But, instead of teaching, Zapatka yearned for a career in firefighting. He and his friend, David Costa, applied to the big city fire departments in Cranston and Providence. Both were accepted by Providence.
“David actually went on to become a firefighter and worked his way up to Chief of the department,” Zapatka said. “I’ve often wondered if I had chosen that career path how far I could have gone.”
By the time the Providence offer came in Zapatka had already landed a good job working on an oil rig off the East Coast managed by Houston-based Zapata Off-Shore Company.
“People were always kidding me about nepotism because the spelling of the company name was so close to mine,” Zapatka said.
In 1982, Zapatka accepted a transfer from Zapata and moved his family to Houston. Everything was great until the epic mid-1980s oil recession in Texas.
“Things really got bad in the oil field,” he said. “I got laid off in 1986 and it was almost a year before I found another job.”
That job was with the olefins plant in Baytown. His municipal fire experience led him to join the plant’s emergency response team as soon as possible.
“I worked my way up to Co-captain, then Captain and Training Officer,” Zapatka said. “The last four years I spent at ExxonMobil was as the plant’s full-time Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.”
“The Emergency Preparedness Coordinator wears a lot of hats,” he said. “I owned the Emergency Plan, planned the training for the emergency response teams, and was responsible for making sure that the plant and its personnel were prepared for any kind of emergency, including fires, vapor releases, hurricanes, freezes and, injured personnel . It was a very busy job.”
Zapatka also found the time to take the required courses necessary to achieve the Industrial Emergency Response Specialist designation that is offered by TEEX.
Running parallel to his industrial career was Zapatka’s municipal fire service career. After having been a volunteer firefighter in Rhode Island for 21 years, he spent an additional 23 years with the Atascocita (TX) Volunteer Fire Department, including 12 years as a chief officer.
When retirement came, Zapatka decided to supplement his income with a new career as a fire instructor.
“I felt I was getting too old for it,” he said. “But by instructing I’m able to keep my hand in and stay in contact with a lot of people I’ve met over the years. I just want to be able to share my experience and education with these younger guys coming al ong.”
“I’m also thrilled to finally be able to put to use that 43-year-old teaching degree,” he adds.
As an instructor at both TEEX and BEST, Zapatka has had the opportunity to train firefighters from all of the major companies, such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell/Motiva, Valero, etc., as well as countless smaller companies from all over North America and the Caribbean.
“A few years back we even had a couple of gold miners out of Alaska in one of our classes,” he added.
One of the highlights of his post-retirement teaching career happened two years ago when TEEX sent him and two other instructors to teach industrial firefighter certification classes at the Ras Laffan Emergency and Safety College in Qatar. Ras Laffan is one of the world’s largest fire training centers.
But Zapatka does draw the line at one thing when it comes to working as a fire instructor. When summer rolls around, he and his wife Donna load the dogs in the motorhome and travel the country for two months.“I do not work in the summer,” he said. “It is too hot.”
Asked how long he plans on working as a firefighting instructor, he states, “When it stops being fun, then I will know that it’s time to quit.”