Initially, the biggest hurdle for BP firefighters from Prudhoe Bay, AK, training at the Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy in Axis, AL, in April proved to be the weather. Not so much the heat as the sudden shift from one end of the humidity scale to the other.
Prudhoe Bay Assistant Chief Mike Albee admits the first day of training was a challenge secondary to the high humidity for all 24 firefighters brought from Alaska, including himself.
“You have to acclimatize to this weather,” Chief Albee said. “Our humidity in Prudhoe Bay in winter is basically zero. The first day here it was 95 percent humidity and hot. You have to stay hydrated because the heat and humidity sucks the energy right out of you.”
However, beyond that first day, the Prudhoe Bay responders were ready for anything the 52-acre industrial emergency response training center north of Mobile could muster, Chief Albee said.
“I’d fight fire with any of them,” he said.
WAY UP NORTH
Located on the northern slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range along the Arctic Ocean is a 558-square-mile region known as Prudhoe Bay. Slightly more than 2,100 people live there – none permanently. Nearby is the largest oil field in the United States. Depending on the time of year, the transient population fluctuates by several thousand additional workers.
“We have extreme temperatures on the North Slope of Alaska with readings from as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to as high as 80 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods of time in the summer,” Chief Albee said.
Of necessity, most work is done indoors. Production facilities and oil rigs are completely enclosed with heated interiors. Entry requires passing through a thermal barrier called an Arctic entry.
Protecting this silent, snowbound community from fire is the job of the Greater Prudhoe Bay Fire Department. The GPBFD provides fire, medical, hazmat, heavy and technical rescue and confined space rescue response throughout Prudhoe Bay, including the nearby town of Deadhorse. All responses off the BP properties are done under a Good Samaritan basis.
Staffed by BP and contractor volunteers, the department is neither an industrial fire brigade nor emergency response team but a full fire department registered as the third largest in Alaska.
“We train all personnel to NFPA 472 (Hazmat Operations level),” Chief Albee said “Additionally, we train to NFPA 1001 for Firefighter I and Firefighter II, NFPA 1410 for timed response evolutions and follow NFPA 1403 for live fire training. Hazmat team members are trained to NFPA 472 hazmat technician level. Rescue team members train to the NFPA 1006 and 1670 standards. Engineers are trained to the NFPA 1002 standard.”
Many volunteer firefighters are certified by the state of Alaska at the following IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress) certification levels: Firefighter I, Firefighter II, Fire Instructor I, Fire Instructor II and Hazmat Operations.
Assistant Chief Albee, Assistant Chief Jeff Dobson, and Capt. Rocky Jones are also certifying officers for the State of Alaska.
Several GPBFD firefighters and officers volunteer in their home community fire departments. This additional participation benefits both departments, Chief Albee said.
In 2012, the Alaska Fire Standards Council became accredited by the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualification (ProBoard). This is in addition to the current IFSAC accreditation.
GPBFD consists of two fulltime chiefs and seven fulltime assistant chiefs. Another 280 volunteers are divided between five fire stations, most at stations one and two.
Finding industrial emergency responders trained to meet broad certifications such as IFSAC and ProBoard is unusual. GPBFD has pushed in that direction since Chief Albee’s earliest days with the department in the late 1980s.
“It took me four or five years of training at the station to qualify for the Firefighter I test,” Chief Albee said. “Chief Doug Frey ultimately wanted all the officers trained to Firefighter II level with firefighters trained to the Firefighter I level.”
The department alternates Firefighter I and Firefighter II classes annually, he said. However, some years the classes are run in conjunction with one focusing solely on engineers.
“The ultimate philosophy was we wanted to have the safest and best prepared firefighters we could,” Chief Albee said. “We won’t send inexperienced people into a burning structure.”
Average response time out of the station is eight minutes.
“That’s not too bad,” Chief Albee said. “The volunteers all carry pagers. If the pager goes off, it is either 6:30 p.m. when we do the test page or it’s a call. If it’s a call, they haul. It’s just like a volunteer department in a small community.”
BRINGING THE HEAT
Operating in a sub-zero environment calls for special measures.
“We have to make sure our pump compartments are heated,” Albee said. “We run dry pumps in the wintertime because the travel distances can be as long as 20 to 30 minutes. Even little things can freeze up. Earth Friendly Glycol is applied to everything — fittings, discharges and the intakes.”
The first priority once the vehicle returns to the station is to generously reapply the glycol so that nothing freezes when the truck is needed again, Albee said.
When it comes to freezing, large diameter hose is generally not a problem whereas small lines on an apparatus can be.
“It’s going to take a longer time to affect a big water hose,” Chief Albee said.
When an attack line is not in use, the nozzle is never shut completely, allowing some water movement so there is less chance the entire line will freeze. In Prudhoe Bay, responders occassionally fight fires at -27 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, not counting the wind chill factor.
Over time, GPBFD has evolved some special techniques to deal with cold weather operations. At Station Two, Albee’s personnel use a special vehicle known as “Power One” to respond to all motor vehicle accidents.
“If anyone is trapped, we have a parachute that we throw over the vehicle,” he said. “The power truck has a telescoping boom for lighting and a big heater that feeds through a large diameter (12 inch) hose called an elephant trunk.”
The firefighters take the elephant trunk and stuff it underneath the parachute, which inflates like a tent.
“At 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit below zero outside, it gets so hot under that parachute that firefighters want to take off their coats,” Albee said.
One case where the parachute heating system came in handy involved a vehicle accident several years ago, he said.
“A guy was driving behind a snow blower which was blowing a large plume of snow into the air and partially obscuring the roadway,” Albee said. “When the snow blower suddenly stopped, the vehicle following the snow blower rear-ended it, pinning the driver behind his steering wheel.”
Albee recalls that it was a beautiful day – only 10 or 20 degrees below zero. It was also windy. To hold the parachute down, firefighters weighted the edges with big steel bolts.
“We didn’t have enough steel bolts so I used the security guys – ‘You stand there and you stand there …,’” Albee said.
GPBFD averages between 80 to 100 emergency calls each year. Of those, about 80 percent are medical in nature. Albee’s station is equipped for all emergencies, medical and otherwise.
“We have one truck that is strictly set up for structural fires,” Albee said. “It has 3,000 gallons of water and Class A foam with 2½-inch eductors so we can get big foam quickly. It carries six people – a driver-engineer, an officer and four firefighters.”
Station Two also has a heavy rescue truck designed for confined space and high angle rescues, with heavy hydraulic tools and air bags for extrications.
The station’s Engine 1 carries 500 gallons of Class B foam and 500 gallons of water. “The engine carries five people – three firefighters, an officer and an engineer,” Chief Albee said.
Ladder 1, a 75-foot aerial also carries 500 gallons of Class B foam, 500 gallons of water and one additional firefighter.
Ladder 2, which is being replaced in May, is a 100-foot aerial platform carrying a driver-engineer, officer and four firefighters. The new ladder, a 100-foot Smeal aerial platform, will carry 500 gallons of water and 500 gallons of Class B foam.
Next, Station Two has an Oshkosh T-3000 crash truck with 3,000 gallons of water, 405 gallons of Class B foam and 500 pounds of dry chemical. The vehicle usually operates with only two personnel. The station also has an 8,000-gallon water tanker.
Station One and Station Two each have two ambulances, part of the elaborate medical facilities available in Prudhoe Bay.
“At the MCC (Main Construction Camp) clinic, we are fully staffed with two trauma bays and two clinical physician assistants (PA-C),” Chief Albee said. “One PA is on duty at night and two during the day. A clinic on the other side of the field keeps a PA on duty during days and one at night.”
Nearby Deadhorse is the home of the region’s only airport and numerous businesses servicing the oil field. It has no permanent population, but up to 3,000 temporary workers live there.
“As far as fire protection, Deadhorse has nothing,” Albee said. “We respond with EMS, fire and hazmat.”
THE DALTON GANG
GPBFD also responds nearly 180 miles south of Deadhorse along the James W. Dalton Highway, built as a supply road to service the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
“That’s just a horrible ride,” Albee said. “We had a call to go to pipeline mile post 104, starting from Deadhorse. Four young adults were enroute from Anchorage to go caribou hunting and were really trucking. When they left the road and stopped flipping, they ended up closer to the pipeline than the roadway.”
The impact caved in the center of the truck roof all the way down to the center console, he said.
“I’d never seen anything like it before,” Albee said. “It left a little bit of room on each side for everyone to get out. Seat belts saved their lives.”
Albee called a medical helicopter to the scene even before leaving Deadhorse. ERA Helicopters, stationed in Deadhorse, provide emergency helicopter service.
“We operate on the basis that if one person is reported critical or unstable then everyone is critical until proven otherwise,” Albee said.
Regardless of the nature of the emergency, training is the key. GPBFD firefighters have access to a three-acre fire training site split between hydrocarbon training on one side and Class A firefighting on the other.
“BP had some old living quarters being torn down because of asbestos issues,” Albee said. “We acquired two ends of one set of living quarters, tied them together, mitigated the asbestos issue and made it a structural training area. We can now do all types of evolutions year around.”
On the industrial side of the training ground, firefighters have access to a two-story pipe rack prop, well house and vessels in various configurations. Training fires are fueled by propane and diesel.
“We can have multiple variations of fires,” Albee said. “Our props allow us to set up difficult to attack fires. We have one using two pipes with flanges designed to leak – one shoots propane and the other diesel. It makes a big fire.”
Recruiting firefighters for the volunteer fire department is no problem, he said.
“I have a waiting list about an inch thick,” he said.
Part of the attraction is the camaraderie among friends and workers. Part of it is an appreciated change of pace.
“It’s a little bit of a break from their normal job,” he said. “Shifts are 12 hours long up there. Some work as long as three weeks on, three weeks off. So if it’s something different to do, they’re interested.”
GPBFD firefighters visit certified fire training schools as well. When Nevada’s Fire Science Academy closed, GPBFD was forced to find a replacement.
The two chosen were the Refinery Terminal Fire Company training facility in Corpus Christi, TX, and GCERA. The annual class that was about 40 firefighters has had to be reduced by nearly half.
Mike McCreary, director of GCERA, said he was impressed by the GPBFD firefighters on their first trip to Axis.
“The way they run their team is very professional,” McCreary said.
David White, publisher of Industrial Fire World, mirrored McCreary’s comments.
“They train to meet the unique challenges they face,” he said. “They are not just a fine fire department on paper. GPBFD is well trained and well equipped for the task at hand."