- Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

An oft quoted idiom states that variety is the spice of life. Lyle Hawsey, safety and security coordinator for ConocoPhillips' Lake Charles, LA, refinery insists that variety is also important when it comes to training volunteers serving on the refinery fire brigade.

"Keeping people interested is a challenge," Hawsey said. "One way to do it is to give people a varied training background and offer the opportunity to learn several tasks and responsibilities within the brigade."

To guarantee that variety the University of Nevada at Reno Fire Science Academy near Elko is included in the rotation of fire schools used for annual certification, he said. A group of ConocoPhillips fire brigade volunteers from Lake Charles and Ponca City, OK, recently made the yearly trip to FSA with Hawsey in charge.

The Lake Charles refinery also utilizes Texas Engineering Extension Service in College Station and the Beaumont Emergency Services Training complex in Beaumont, Texas, for annual fire training. However, despite the added distance and expense, FSA remains essential to ConocoPhillips' training triad.

"When we become stagnant in our training, people become disinterested," Hawsey said. "To keep people interested it's good to mix things up, so to speak."

Each school offers assorted live fire training "props" that burn differently from props available at any other location. The result is a well-rounded training experience for brigade members, Hawsey said.

Chief among the range of props available at FSA is the tri-level process unit, consisting of multiple levels, stairs, limited access situations and 48 burnable isolation valves. Flanges, seals, overhead fire and a tee pan fire that challenges the most experienced firefighters.

The prop can handle as many as six attack groups with dedicated safety lines at one time.

"It has a lot of stair activity and maneuvering around the different pumps and exchangers," Hawsey said. "It tends to be more dynamic because there is a lot more structure involved. It is definitely eye catching."

Many FSA props are designed with maximum versatility in mind. A single prop can be reconfigured to accommodate an endless number of training scenarios.

"We don't have to change props as often as we do at other fire schools," Hawsey said. "They can change the valve lineup and flanges to give us a completely different scenario each time. We typically work one prop in the morning and another in the afternoon, burning each prop five times. Each burn is completely different."

This puts firefighters in scenarios they may not be accustomed to while maintaining a safely controlled environment, he said.

"We can move people a step further from their comfort zone and get them to take on added responsibilities," Hawsey said. "We can give them more confidence while increasing their skill set."

This year's ConocoPhillips contingent to FSA included 16 members of the Lake Charles brigade and 11 members of the Ponca City brigade. Ordinarily, the ConocoPhillips fire brigade from Billings, MT, would have participated, but scheduling conflicted with a turnaround at the facility.

"Overall it was a great school," Hawsey said. "We had excellent cooperation from the FSA people."

Located in Westlake, La., the Lake Charles refinery has a crude oil processing capacity of 239,000 barrels a day and processes mainly heavy, high-sulfur crude oil, as well as low-sulfur and acidic crude oil. The refinery receives domestic and foreign crude oil. The majority of its foreign crude oil is heavy oil delivered via tanker.

Interstate 10 runs between the refinery and the dock facilities on the Calcasieu River. Because of the dock facilities, the refinery is regulated under the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA). Hawsey serves as facility security officer (FSO) under MTSA regulations.

The refinery boasts a 75 member emergency response team of which 50 belong to the fire brigade. Other divisions of the ERT include an air monitoring team, hazmat team and a rescue team. All four divisions fall under the authority of Jeff Cordell, emergency response lead. Both Cordell and Hawsey report directly to Burt Bure, the safety manager for the Lake Charles refinery.

"There are no positions on any of our teams that are a job requirement," Hawsey said. "The ERT is all volunteers drawn from ConocoPhillips personnel."

The safety department staff includes five emergency response specialists (ERS) who maintain the fire equipment in addition to handling off hours permitting for confined space and fire work. The refinery's safety department building serves as the fire house.

Equipment includes three pumpers, a breathing air trailer, a command trailer, hazmat trailer, three 1x3 monitors and a 1x6 Big Gun monitor. To feed the monitor, the brigade has an ample quantity of five-inch supply line.

"We have two portable pumps and nine stationary pumps," Hawsey said. "We can basically pull straight out of the river if we need to."

Aside from the river, the fire brigade can draw water from various fire water ponds and water mains ranging from eight to 18 inches in diameter throughout the facility.

"We have the capability to flow in excess of 35,000 gallons of water per minute," Hawsey said.

Volunteer firefighters in plants and refineries do answer to more than one work group – the fire brigade itself and their supervisor. Sometimes conflicts do arise, Hawsey said.

"We maintain a good relationship with our supervisors," he said. "Operations employees are the majority of our brigade. There are times when these operators are training for the next job up, so it makes it difficult for them to break away for ERT training."

Fortunately, operations supervisors at Lake Charles make every effort to accommodate the fire brigade when possible, Hawsey said.

"Supervisors will make concessions when they can and have other people cover jobs so that our volunteers can come to training," he said.

To work around the schedule, the fire brigade offers the same training twice a month on every other Tuesday to accommodate the various shifts.

Of the three fire schools in the Lake Charles training rotations, the refinery leans most heavily on TEEX, making three annual trips to College Station as opposed to one annual trip to Elko and Beaumont.

"Our goal is to have all of our fire brigade members NFPA 1081 certified," Hawsey said. "We try to go to Texas A&M and have one 1081 course annually to assure our new fire brigade members are up to speed and 1081 certified. "

Still, the annual trip to Nevada remains indispensable for firefighter training at Lake Charles, Hawsey said. He, like many others responsible for fire training nationwide, has followed the recent news about FSA's future with great concern.

"We want to support the school," Hawsey said. "We really enjoy going there."

A state budget crisis in Nevada threatened to close FSA, a state supported institute affiliated with the University of Nevada at Reno. FSA won a two-year reprieve in February while a plan to co-locate a Nevada National Guard training facility at the school is pursued.

"FSA offers us something different," Hawsey said. "It offers us the opportunity to expose our fire brigade to different situations to maintain their interest. If we can make that trip and remain financially responsible to the refinery, we will always make that effort."