Conducting routine checks and flow tests on fixed systems to ensure their operational readiness is an important part of any emergency pre-planning. -

Conducting routine checks and flow tests on fixed systems to ensure their operational readiness is an important part of any emergency pre-planning.

Industrial firefighters and operations personnel are highly familiar with the products, manufacturing processes, storage and distribution systems within their facilities. Many of them participate in emergency response training on a monthly, quarterly, and annual basis to better prepare for unforeseen and undesired challenges in their workplaces.

Municipal firefighters and first responders typically are not as familiar with their local plants and industrial hazards as the industrial responders who work within these facilities every day. Most National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) based Fire Fighter 1 and 2 curriculums don't devote the same amount of class time and hands-on effort to industrial facilities or hazards as they do to residential dwellings, apartments, and light commercial occupancies.

Industrial firefighters more frequently use fire training as listed in NFPA 1081 which devotes class time and learning objectives to industrial fire brigade duties and occupational health and safety. Industrial responder training should focus on the specific hazards of their plant as well as the tools and equipment the industrial responder will have to work with.

In the rare event of a petroleum storage tank fire, both industrial and municipal responders will need to work together to provide the water, foam concentrate, equipment, and access to the burning tank that's needed for a safe and successful extinguishment.

Pre-planning of industrial hazards such as above-ground petroleum storage tanks is highly valuable to industrial and municipal responders to provide initial steps that must be taken by each group.



Pre-planning is an all-encompassing term with a broad range of formats and intended uses. The pre-planning process can be comprehensive and meets the requirements of NFPA 1620 or required segments of a local governmental agency. 

Alternatively, pre-planning can be a more streamlined process used to provide specific technical guidance to identified groups of employees and responders for foreseeable emergencies to which industry wants their employees to respond in a pre-decided manner or using pre-planned equipment or techniques.


The lessons learned from prior emergencies have included the realization that even the most knowledgeable responders and employees may look at a particular hazard and have different ideas of how they would deal with an emergency involving that hazard. Clear strategic and tactical guidance from the authority with jurisdiction, the facility owner, or the facility responders will assist in rapidly developing an Incident Action Plan that should allow for the safest and most desired conclusion of that emergency.

Tactical pre-plans should be concise and reflect the strategic thinking of the facility owners and stakeholders. Tactical pre-plans can be organized into incident command assignments such as IC, operations, planning, logistics and administration for group leaders and can also include other response positions or requirements such as notifications (to local, state and federal agencies), staging, public information officer, foam control, etc.

Petroleum Storage Tanks

When pre-planning above ground petroleum storage tanks, it's generally helpful to look at the issue from two perspectives: the overall tank facility and the individual storage tank.   

Overall planning includes drawings or global imaging of the facility that reflect adjacent or possibly affected property such as electrical transmission lines, pipelines, creeks or other bodies of water, buildings, or life hazards. Digital technology can provide the ability to layer different infrastructure onto the base map so that specific work can be identified and accomplished. One example would be the plant’s private fire water system.

A petroleum refinery's fire water system can utilize large volume pumps from a river or fixed body of water and can have multiple firewater storage tanks onsite as well. These private fire water systems will typically be looped systems with many sectional block valves to isolate the system for maintenance and repairs. Additional fire-water pumps may be located within the process or storage areas of the facility to ensure both adequate volume and pressure in the event of a fire. 

Each layer of the digital pre-plan of resources and infrastructure may be retrieved as needed, such as the fire-water system, places for the use of specialized tools like the Daspit tools, foam wands, dry chemical agent, employee accountability readers, product line and utility lines, sewer systems and other items that may make the difference between a successful and less-than-successful response.

Other layers can include information such as distances from the center of the emergency, on and off-site life hazards, and utility systems including electrical, stream and plant utility air.

Pre-plan documents can attach product hazard indicators such as the NFPA 704 system to provide initial hazard information of the products or fuels that are involved. Additionally, prevailing wind direction and the direction and distances of exposures can be included on the appropriate layer of the electronic preplan file.

Stored Products

Stored products, or the service that the tank is in, includes all of the categories from flammable and combustible manufacturing stocks such as crude oil to process intermediates that are used within the facility or sold outright, to finished products and blend stocks for motor fuels and lubricants. Stored products can also include wastewater streams and effluent.

Extinguishing agents such as low expansion foams, dry chemical agents need to meet the fire extinguishment requirements posed by the fuels and hazards within the plant. In addition to extinguishment, foam concentrates must meet environmental concerns such as the amount of Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and other pollutants that are in the foam concentrate.

Tank Construction

The construction of above ground petroleum storage tanks in the U.S. should comply with the American Petroleum Institute (API) Standard 650, Welded Tanks for Oil Storage. This standard provides for construction continuity and thereby a degree of standardized firefighting tactics for tanks with similar roof construction. Oil storage tanks typically use roof designs such as cone roof structure, external floating roofs, or internal floating roofs. The roof design is generally identifiable from the ground and from outside the tank containment dike or berm.

External and internal floating roof tanks have a seal area inside the tank wall so the floating roof can move up or down as the tank is emptied or filled. A fire in the seal area is an emergency that needs to be extinguished while it's in the seal area. Otherwise, if the buoyancy of the roof is overcome and the roof tips or sinks, then the entire surface of the tank may become involved.

Foam chambers designed to discharge foam solution into the seal area must be identified on the pre-plan including the type of system (semi-fixed or fixed) and how to access the system for activation. System piping, manifolds, drainage points need to be identified on the pre-emergency plan.

Tailoring for the Type of Emergency

System familiarity among response personnel is one of the most critical components for effective pre-planning and emergency response. -

System familiarity among response personnel is one of the most critical components for effective pre-planning and emergency response.

A basic electronic pre-emergency plan file for a specific plant asset may have tabs for the various hazards you need to prepare for:

  • Fire: grouping storage tank access roads, fire water lines and hydrants, prevailing winds, exposure hazards
  • Hazardous materials spills and releases: with information on the chemical hazards of the materials, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for offensive and defensive operations, decontamination solutions and equipment
  • Waterborne spills: including oil spill contractors, environmental contractors, agency notifications, thresholds for shelter-in-place verses evacuation
  • Weather-related and natural disasters: including local, state and national agency notification contact numbers.

Living Documents and User Familiarity

Successful pre-emergency plans for above ground petroleum storage tanks should be used by the members of the emergency response group that has responsibility for each segment of the plan.  By doing so, each member will gain invaluable knowledge of the plan and how the company wants to handle emergencies. Pre-plans should be thought of as living documents for a safe and effective emergency response.

Fred Welsh is a 44-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He has served as a career firefighter with the Fairfax County (Virgina) Fire and Rescue Department, as well as a company officer, command officer, and chief in career, industrial, and combination fire departments. During Chief Welsh’s industrial tenure, he has served as deputy chief of Refinery Terminal Fire Company, as well as chief of a domestic petroleum refinery and a major international oil and gas production facility in the former Soviet Union.