Training is a word often used around the fire house to describe gaining knowledge, whether theoretical or practical, pertaining to topics such as ladders, hoses, medical treatment, or similar job-related functions to ensure we are prepared when the tones drop.
Larger departments will include sessions on inspections, district familiarization, or emergency response planning (ERP). These tend to center on occupancies such as healthcare facilities, educational facilities/universities, or large assemblies like malls or stadiums.
However, large industrial occupancies like refineries, chemical/petrochemical plants, and other continuous process facilities tend to go untouched. Whether it is due to mutual aid agreements, lack of familiarity, or because they have their own brigade, these large facilities covering thousands of acres are cities in and of themselves and require some special attention.
Having travelled to many of these large process facilities both domestically and internationally, I've found myself asking, "Has the local fire department stopped in lately?" Generally, the response is a blank stare or some roundabout variant of "I think so."
I then respond with a standard statement of encouragement to reach out to the local fire department and discuss future training together. Besides, I always say, you may get a cool blue T-shirt.
Responsibility lies on both sides of the table, when it comes to who should initiate joint training. Frequently, misunderstandings about jurisdictions, company policy, and lack of communication drive this. Generally, there is a gap that needs to be crossed to promote training.
A Successful Industrial Response
Firefighting in process industries is very different than the type of firefighting conducted by our brothers and sisters who respond to municipal incidents, whether urban, suburban or rural. In process industries, it's not about speed or dealing with a common combustible, but more about slow and deliberate responses to control fuel or processes as well as exposures.
Because of this, training, working together, and clear and concise communications are vital to the success of any industrial response, let alone a municipal response.
Unfortunately, industrial fire training opportunities are not as prevalent as other training, and with budget cuts as well as additional expenses required for travel and meals, sometimes it's not an option. Looking into what needs to be done regarding training, a good framework would consist of:
- Equipment review and compatibility assessment
- Communications analysis
- Site pre-planning and familiarization
Take the time to review the different types of equipment commonly found in a process facility and their compatibility to those of the local jurisdiction's fire department. It could save time and effort during emergencies. Industrial engines tend to have five- or six-inch inlets and outlets — and sometimes larger — and they may not use standardized FD connections (i.e., Storz). Other important factors to consider include:
- Fire hydrant connections
- Large flow hydrant manifolds
- Semi-fixed foam connections
- Dry risers, standpipes, and FDCs
- Manual foam equipment like Jet Ratio Controllers (JRCs)
- Large trailer-mounted equipment such as pumps and monitor nozzles
This is largely due to process facilities using equipment with diameters of up to 14 inches. Reviewing the equipment available and its compatibility could save time and improve the overall pace of the emergency response operations.
Communication can be a struggle when dealing with your own jurisdictions, let alone with large facilities. Some of these facilities may have communication-restricted areas or limitations, and many times are located outside large populated areas miles away from fire department radio communication towers and repeaters. Identifying communication gaps could include:
- Radio frequency compatibility issues (Trunking, P25, VHF/UHF, etc.)
- Intrinsically safe radios (ATEX, Class 1/Division 1)
- Legal issues with radio equipment exchanges
- Range, interference, and function
Ensuring radio communication before an incident cannot be overstressed. Being able to communicate to command centers, dispatch, as well as the crews is vital to the success of operations.
With the assurance that your equipment and radios will be compatible and functioning properly, conducting a site review of the overall facility will also aid in responding to the appropriate area via a dedicated route. Some things to consider while visiting the site and developing response plans include:
- Access points, gates, staging areas
- Road layout, height limitations, dedicated routes
- Fire hydrant and manifold locations
- Types and functions of fixed and semi-fixed suppression systems
- Site warning sirens and public address systems
- Hazardous and restricted areas
These process facilities can be as large as subdivisions or small cities. Therefore, knowing access locations, roads, routes, and restricted areas can save time and provide a safe operation during an emergency.
Drills Are Crucial
To bring all this together, conducting tabletop and large-scale drills will aid in making sure all the components are there for a successful emergency response. This aspect of a good training program ensures that the equipment you plan to use and the communication systems in use are truly going to be functional when needed. Using a realistic approach to training by first conducting a tabletop exercise followed up by an actual drill will reinforce the importance of having a good plan.
Drills are critical to the overall success in any emergency, not just those in industrial or process occupancies. Drills validate the intent behind executing a specific incident type. In process facilities, these drills are crucial and tend to be more complicated than those commonly found in municipal firefighting drills.
Drills usually consist of multiple fire apparatus, mobile equipment, and large flows. They generally cover large process units or areas of the plant. The ability to provide sufficient water or a water-foam solution to a location inside the plant must be verified. Additionally, this gives the opportunity to look at the overall incident command or incident management system and structure to help facilitate the necessary communication to eliminate confusion.
While training is often discussed around the kitchen table in the fire house, sometimes these large and complex industrial facilities may be overlooked. Making sure equipment, communications, pre-plans, and large-scale drills are identified, tested, and documented will save time, effort, and increase overall safety for those involved.
Tony Cole, P.E., CFPS, CFEI, MIFireE, has 26 years of experience in industrial fire protection engineering and process/technical safety as well as 32 years in firefighting and emergency preparedness/response, with more than 21 years of international and multicultural work experience. Tony has earned a bachelor’s degree in fire protection engineering technology from Eastern Kentucky University and a master’s degree in fire protection engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.