Minnesota’s 300,000-barrels-per-day Pine Bend Refinery is the largest U.S. oil refinery to be found in a state without its own oil. That isolation from petroleum industry neighbors drives a pursuit for fire protection independence, said refinery Fire Chief Rolf Peterson.
“Our size refineries are usually dependent on mutual aid organizations,” Peterson said. “They have other industries within a reasonable distance whose fire brigade could respond to help. “
Pine Bend Refinery, owned by Flint Hills Resources, is located in the Twin Cities suburb of Rosemount. The closest refinery is 16 miles away and only one-quarter the capacity of Pine Bend.
“We can draw from a lot of great municipal fire departments, including St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Peterson said. “But to deal with what could be our worst case scenario, we really had to beef up our internal resources.”
Having switched from a mandatory fire brigade to a volunteer/paid brigade 23 years ago, Pine Bend has 101 responders. Of those, 71 are volunteers drawn from other jobs in the refinery and 15 are contract firefighters provided by Illinois-based Kurtz Industrial Firefighters, Inc.
Split between two fire stations, the available apparatus includes four engines, an incident command vehicle, spill response boats, a haz mat response trailer, trailer-mounted nozzles and pumps and two aerial ladders, including a new Sutphen 110-foot aerial ladder delivered in November.
“Our philosophy is if we’re going to build up our people resources we’ve got to give them the equipment to support them,” Peterson said.
Based on 2011 data for operable capacity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks Pine Bend as the 15th largest refinery in the country. Built in 1955, the refinery specializes in processing crude oil taken from the bitumininous or oil sands in Canada into gasoline meeting U.S. quality specifications.
“Not a lot of refineries have the ability to deal with the residual bottoms that you get out of synthetic crudes,” said Ken Bloch, a loss control engineer with Pine Bend’s safety department.
To get the job done, Pine Bend operates three coker units that process heavy residual oils into gasoline and diesel fuel, leaving petroleum coke as a residual product.
“With the light stuff you get from the gulf, maybe only 20 percent of it goes to the coker,” Bloch said. “With the stuff from Canada you might send 50 percent to the coker to crack into other fuel products and the rest sold as asphalt.”
The last major fire reported at Pine Bend was in one of those coker units — nearly nine years ago.
“We’re a pretty profitable place and, quite honestly, one of the reasons is we don’t have the incidents to distract us from what we’re doing,” Bloch said.
Before 1991, Pine Bend had no official fire brigade, said Pete Herpst, former fire chief and current deputy fire chief.
“Before that, everybody working in the process units and in maintenance was required to have hose team and fire extinguisher training annually,” he said. “If we had an incident those people would come running.”
A van stocked with fire gear and breathing apparatus was kept on standby as transportation for the hose team.
“I can remember times when we would have an incident and be waiting for that van,” Herpst said. “It would be taking its time and wouldn’t get there until the incident was under control or finished. That wasn’t real effective.”
The only fully trained firefighters belonged to the safety department, Herpst said. Two were assigned to every 12-hour shift, not only covering emergency response, but any safety or security concerns.
Other than refinery personnel, the only other immediate resource in a fire emergency were the surrounding fire departments belonging to a county mutual aid organization, Herpst said.
“We sit mostly on Rosemount Fire Department’s turf,” he said. “They have allowed us to be one of their dependents over the years due to the unique hazards and exposures we have.”
Voluntary Emergency Response Brigade
In the early 1990s, management began a transition toward a more structured emergency response brigade, he said.
“We had a new safety department manager come in who understood that we were a refinery in a region without much petroleum industry,” Herpst said. “Looking at our internal capabilities and those of the local fire departments, we made the determination that we had to beef up our own emergency response and make it an official fire brigade.”
Grade school English teaches us that verbs are words that as a part of speech convey actions. It seemed very appropriate to designate the new brigade at Pine Bend as VERB – Voluntary Emergency Response Brigade.
“We sent everybody to hazmat, fire and medical training,” Herpst said. “The fire training was done at Texas A&M. Everybody earned their first responder certification from the state.” As for rescue training, personnel trained in both Level I and II at a Minnesota school.
Changing from a mandatory hose team to a volunteer fire brigade sparked a motivational shift as well.
“With volunteers as part of the brigade we were getting people who really wanted to participate,” Herpst said.
Membership peaked in the mid 1990s at 120 volunteers. However, lower participation later in the decade forced a further evolution in the brigade’s organization.
“The staffing situation at the refinery made it impossible for the volunteers to separate from their primary role if an emergency occurred,” Herpst said. “It made us more dependent on outside help. We didn’t like that.”
Pine Bend sends one firefighter from each of the four surrounding communities to train annually with the Refinery Terminal Fire Company, a non profit industrial fire fighting group in Corpus Christi, TX. Every two years, the refinery sponsors a joint training exercise for the departments at its own in house training facility, Peterson said.
“We burn some pretty big props so our firefighters get teamwork evolutions both defensive and offensive,” he said. “We burn training fuel, diesel, propane and one pan is designated for ethanol.”
Still, in an actual emergency, management prefers to hold the area departments in reserve unless absolutely necessary, Herpst said.
“We don’t want to expose them to these hazards unnecessarily,” he said. “Their focus is on what their communities need them for.”
Two options remained, Herpst said. Pine Bend could either staff its own full-time fire brigade to supplement the volunteers or contract with an outside company to provide the full-time firefighters.
“Most often that was done in the coastal regions or the Chicago area,” he said. “Contracting for firefighters was unheard of in this area at the time.”
Research led Pine Bend to Illinois-based Kurtz Industrial Firefighters, Inc., a fire services contractor that today provides contract firefighters to seven chemical and petrochemical facilities in Illinois, Minnisota, New Mexico and Virginia.
“We worked with Kurtz to hire people from our area,” Herpst said. “Kurtz interviewed 150 to 200 people from the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. We had minimum requirements for the certification of anyone we hired. In the end, we pretty much hired everyone from local fire departments.”
To accommodate the change, Pine Bend built a second fire station complete with living quarters. Today the brigade roster includes 71 volunteers, 15 contract personnel working 24-hour shifts, four shift assistant chiefs working 12-hour shifts and two shift captains working 12-hour shifts. Four industrial hygienists, two deputy chiefs, a rescue chief, a fire marshal and a fire chief work days.
Too often, firefighters are regarded as akin to the Maytag repairman of advertising lore – a highly trained professional with way too much down time on his hands. Peterson said nothing could be further from the truth about the full-time Pine Bend brigade members.
“They have about 3,400 mechanical integrity checks to be performed on an annual basis,” Peterson said. “The firefighters are checking any piece of fire equipment -- such as fire extinguishers, deluge systems and fire alarm panels – that we have oversight of.”
That fire equipment also includes Pine Bend’s own inventory of rolling stock. The new Sutphen aerial includes a 3,000 gpm pump and twin 2,000 gpm nozzles mounted on the ladder.
“It’s going to be really good for us out here with the tall superstructure of these big coker units,” Peterson said. “We also have a large tank farm to protect.”
The Sutphen replaced a 1,250-gpm E-One with a much shorter 55-foot “stick.”
“It was worn out,” Peterson said. “It was beyond its service life so we met with management and discussed replacing it.”
The brigade also has a 3,000 gpm E-One aerial with a 90-foot ladder.
As for engines, the brigade has a 1,500 gpm Peterbilt with rescue and hazmat equipment, a 3,500 gpm Pierce, a 3,000 gpm E-One pumper-tanker and a 3,000 gpm E-One pumper-tanker.
In 1995, Pine Bend bought a 35-foot Grumman van which the brigade adapted into its own incident command vehicles, Peterson said.
“We just bought it bare bones and had the refinery’s internal construction people build the interior the way we wanted it, Peterson said. “We just did a refit on it in the last couple of years.”
Pine Bend has recently switched to a 1x3 percent foam, keeping about 24,000 gallons of concentrate on hand. To move it to where it is needed, the brigade has two 2,500 gpm portable pumps, two 8,000 gpm nozzles and a 2,000 gpm nozzle, all trailer mounted.
“When we were using 3x6 percent foam we had to keep nearly 53,000 gallons of concentrate on hand,” Peterson said.
The brigade also maintains a haz mat response trailer for spills on shore. For spills on the inland waterway that serves the refinery, the brigade maintains two 22-foot response boats powered by Evinrude Twin 70s. The boats carry nearly 700 feet of spill boom for containment.
“We are right on the Mississippi River,” Peterson said. “We need to be prepared for anything that could happen in the barge dock areas.”
Pine Bend participates in an emergency response cooperative that monitors the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Prescott, WI, he said.
“We all pitched in some money and bought equipment necessary to exercise these spill response strategies,” Peterson said. “The equipment, which includes about 15,000 feet of boom, is in product boxes strategically placed along the river. We get together with the others every summer and do structured training.”
On shore, the refinery brigade training ground is moving into its busy season as well.
“We do three sets of evolutions every three months,” Peterson said. “In the summertime we are burning every week. When we have mutual aid firefighters come in we do that in the evening in early summer or late in the fall.”
Every graduating class of rookie firefighters in Minneapolis and St. Paul spend one day at the Pine Bend training ground studying combustible liquids fire tactics, he said. Yet, despite all the training exercises, the live fires at the training ground are rarely mistaken for an actual emergency at the refinery.
“The training ground is located in a low spot on the southwest side of the refinery,” Peterson said. “You can see the smoke but you can’t see any of the flames.”
Needing such an extensive training facility on site is another example of how isolated the Minnesota refinery is from the bulk of the petroleum industry in America.
“There are no other industrial training grounds in the area,” Peterson said. “It’s more convenient than sending everybody to Texas.”
Pine Bend refinery shows how a unified strategy by management, personnel and community responders can yield the greatest returns from the assets each contributes to prepare for and respond to potential emergencies. Flint Hills Resources have found a way to keep both fire protection and its profits up.