Pre-planning for emergencies has its limits when it comes to a small rural fire department protecting a major cluster of oil production facilities in South Mississippi, said Collins, MS, fire chief John Pope.
“We can plan for our tank yards, terminals and loading racks,” he said. “But we can’t pre-plan every single location where we might be called to fight a fire.”
Industrial Fire World featured the Collins Fire Department in its spring 2012 issue, focusing on the successful response to a March 2012 explosion that blew the roofs off two oil storage tanks in an adjoining county.
Despite the fact that Collins has a population of less than 4,000 people, its paid/paid on call fire department is responsible for protecting more than 100 large-diameter petroleum storage tanks, the largest conglomeration of bulk storage facilities in a three-state region, Pope said.
“We are the only department in the region with any large foam capability,” he said.
In the wake of the IFW article, the Collins Fire Department earned wider recognition for its importance in protecting these key facilities, Pope said. However, that recognition has not given the department a reprieve from continuing petroleum fires.
In the 18 months since the twin tank explosions the Collins FD has battled two major petroleum fires – a treater unit fire in May 2013 that threatened to spread and, later, a tank farm fire triggered by lightning.
“The logistics at these sites may always be the same, but there are always key differences that have to be taken into consideration,” Pope said.
WAKE UP CALL
In mid-May 2013, an explosion was reported at a small tank battery less than 10 miles from Collins. Initially, the blast was mistakenly reported to the county sheriff’s dispatcher as a tank fire, Pope said.
“When we arrived on scene and did a size-up, we found a treater tower was on fire,” Pope said. “It was a combination pressure fire and spill fire involving the product inside the treater.”
No tanks were burning, but a real possibility of the fire spreading to multiple tanks existed, he said.
“We immediately made contact with the company involved because until we got on site we had no idea who it belonged to,” Pope said. “There were several production companies working in that area.”
Once the appropriate company was contacted, firefighters were able to determine what valves could be used to isolate the pressure fire. With that resolved, firefighters turned their attention to the ground fire and flame impingement on the treater, Pope said.
“We scanned it with our thermal camera,” he said. “We wanted to be sure we weren’t close to a boilover. The temperatures were safe enough that we didn’t have to worry about that.”
Unfortunately, the explosion had opened a gaping hole in the side of the treater, exposing the product inside to the flames, Pope said.
“The flanging plates had blown off near where the treater connected to a tank,” he said. “We introduced some additional foam solution into the tank itself to suppress any vapors from reaching ignition sources.”
Other than stored waste water, no water existed onsite that could be used for fire fighting. Anticipating the need to shuttle water to the scene, Pope issued a call for mutual aid from surrounding departments before leaving the station.
“We knew we would be rolling up on the scene with a limited amount of water,” he said. “We had enough foam solution to handle the situation, but only if we could find the water to back it up.”
Rural fire departments live or die based on maintaining water shuttles to emergencies such as this, Pope said. Such shuttles must be able to establish enough excess on site to cover until the next trucks arrive with water.
“That’s why it is important to have mutual aid alliances in place,” Pope said. “You can pre-plan the tank farms, terminals and loading racks. You can pre-plan for a tractor-trailer accident in the city limits. But you can’t pre-plan for every production location in a multi-county area.”
In an industrial emergency, a fire chief may have to reach far beyond immediate neighbors for the resources to cope with the job, he said.
“We have logistical plans and mutual aid alliances with folks three, four and five counties away,” Pope said. “We’ve been called that far and further.”
Production companies have called to place Collins firefighters on alert that their help might be needed for emergencies out of state, he said.
“Do you have an interstate mutual aid compact where you can go to an out-of-state event and still have your personnel covered for workman’s comp?” Pope said. “Not only that, but you have to be aware of the resources those other departments have. You don’t want to get there thinking 5-inch hose is available and all they have is 2½-inch.”
At the May fire near Collins, firefighters used nearly 4,000 gallons of water for fire suppression and cooling operations. There was an additional four tankers available with 3,000 gallons each if necessary. Also, an additional 3,000 gallon of foam concentrate was in staging but not used.
“It was a small fire but it required a lot of cooling of surrounding surfaces,” Pope said.
With the fire extinguished, firefighters continued to use a thermal camera to monitor the treater vessel until the contents could be transferred, Pope said.
“Any fire is bad,” he said. “But this was a good experience because we’ve established an even better working relationship with people in our county jurisdiction. It was the first time some of those people responded to a fire like this with us. Now they understand how important logistics are.”
To guarantee that the learning experience continues, Mosbacher Energy, owner of the oil production site, is donating the treater tower, platform and associated piping and hardware to the Collins Fire Department Training Center for use as an industrial fire prop.
“Our plan is to equip the prop with LP gas lines so we can do live-fire simulations involving flame impingement and valve isolation,” Pope said. “We also plan to use it for high angle rope rescue exercises.”
The training center already has vessels and other assorted equipment donated by Chevron for use in fire simulations, he said.
LONG HOT SUMMER
The second big fire that Collins firefighters responded to this summer was a tank battery fire in an adjacent county. The morning fire was believed to have been caused by a lightning strike.
It burned for some time before the Collins FD was summoned to assist, Pope said.
“The firefighters that first tackled it thought they would be able to knock it off quickly with the resources they had,” Pope said. “The county had a great water supply but you need the right equipment and the right foam in a situation like this.”
Fire spread through the combination of standard storage tanks and fiberglass tanks. Most of the fiberglass tanks were destroyed or partially burned by the time Collins FD could arrive, Pope said.
“We used our thermal camera again, reading the bottoms of the tanks because they had been burning for a considerable amount of time,” he said. “The firefighters had already put a lot of water in those tanks.”
Unlike at the May fire, firefighters had a difficult time contacting the owners of the tank farm, largely due to poor cell phone reception in the area, Pope said. Once contact was made, firefighters resolved the fire in much the same way as the earlier blaze near Collins.
“Basically, we held the pressure fire, covered the impingements, checked the exposures and, once we got confirmation that owners concurred with what we suggested, made our move,” Pope said. “It went seamlessly.”
Each company has its own policies and procedures for maintaining its facilities. Companies often build their facilities to a common layout, Pope said. But making decisions on which valves to block requires consultation with the operators before taking action.
“If you start turning valves sending heated product to a vessel that doesn’t need it or that might already be full, you start creating situations you may not want,” Pope said. “If someone has left a top hatch open, you’ve caused a ground spill that might ignite.”
Soon, firefighters may have a fully involved tank pattern where before only a single tank had been burning, he said.
After extinguishing the fire environmental concerns were addressed. Firefighters began working to contain runoff water that threatened to contaminate a nearby stream.
“We had a technician working for the owners who arrived on scene after the fire,” Pope said. “The first words out of his mouth were ‘I thought we had a fire?’ When he asked what else there was to do I said ‘Grab a shovel.’”
Pre-planning each oil production facility in a vast region might be impossible. Still, Pope said he tries to familiarize himself with as many of these facilities as time and travel allows.
“That way, if we get a call when it’s pitch dark and raining, at least I know a little about that facility,” Pope said. “I know how to get my equipment in and where to position my trucks. I know if I have to leave everything on the road and pump from there.”
Collins reputation as a regional center for emergency response continues to grow. The community is soon to be the site of a new ethanol offloading facility capable of handling 115 rail cars at a time. Pope is already talking to railroad and state officials about adding a short-run railroad and several rail cars to the training center to simulate offloading accidents and train derailments.
“They have committed to the project but the ultimate size is still being debated,” Pope said.
Meanwhile, Pope’s own reputation as an industrial fire fighting expert has taken on an international dimension. In July 2013 he made a four-city tour of Taiwan at the request of the government to inspect facilities, speak to conferences and make recommendations on how to be better prepared.
“I’m already scheduled to make two visits in 2014.”