The Netherlands may be a small country, but it’s home to the largest seaport in Europe, the Port of Rotterdam.
The bustling port attracts thousands of container ships each year; many vessels loaded with containers full of hazardous substances. The port also attracts its share of refineries, chemical plants, and other industries with tank storage. In fact, Shell operates the largest refinery in Europe in Rotterdam, and the port is home to BP and Exxon refineries as well.
Being home to so many tanks full of flammable and combustible liquids puts the 60-kilometer by 20-kilometer port at tremendous risk for large tank fires and tankbund fires, which can halt port business and cause costly property and environmental damage.
The Unified Industrial Fire Department of Rotterdam is a joint public-private firefighting corps tasked with keeping this area safe. This firefighting brigade encompasses the local municipality, the Rotterdam-Rijnmond fire brigade, and high-risk industry in the Port of Rotterdam who jointly respond to area fires, spills, and incidents, whether in urban surroundings, along transport routes, or at refineries, chemical facilities, and tank farms.
It’s a big job to keep this area safe from tank fires, reports A.J. Kleijwegt, a member of the management team for the Unified Fire Department. He explains, “The Netherlands is a small country, but the port is large, and companies are close to each other. Urban areas are also very close to industrial areas. Letting tank fires go for a couple of days is not realistic; 380,000 people work in this harbor every day.”
Recognizing the risks, the Netherlands government set new regulations surrounding tankbund fires in 2016. The new legislation required companies who owned storage tanks to install expensive fixed firefighting systems.
The high costs involved set Kleijwegt on a path to find an alternative. In the end, he convinced authorities in late 2019 that a mobile solution would also work and under certain circumstances probably even better. “The authorities gave us a year’s time to see if it was possible to extinguish a tankbund fire with a mobile system,” Kleijwegt reports.
During that year, Kleijwegt studied earlier tankbund fires and their outcomes, heat radiation, and how close the department could safely send in personnel. “We studied the characteristics and size of past burns, and in the end, our research convinced authorities to accept a mobile strategy for tankbund fires in the Port of Rotterdam,” he says. “Companies were also in favor of it because they did not have to invest in expensive fixed systems.”
While response times for fixed fire response systems are better, the fires they are designed to fight can take them out. In contrast, mobile systems are always available. “Response time for a fixed system is a matter of seconds, perhaps a minute. Our response is slower,” Kleijwegt admits. “But we are assuming a fixed system will always work. But there is always a reason for a tankbund fire. Maybe it’s an explosion, or maybe it’s something else. How does a fixed system react? There is no guarantee that a fixed system will work 100% of the time.”
The fire department and its mobile systems are available 24/7, 365 days a year. The Unified Fire Department operates eight fire stations in the area and staffs six of them 24 hours a day. From those stations, personnel can respond to every tank incident within six minutes.
Tank fires are complex events that require volumes of water and many gallons of firefighting foam for extinguishment, cooling and vapor suppression. “A mobile system is better on the water supply. We can deliver a decent water and foam supply,” says Jan Waals, managing director of the Joint Fire Department. “We have almost 200 cubic meters of foam.”
THE NEW MOBILE SYSTEM
The Unified Fire Department invested around $6 million to make its mobile system for tank and tank farm fires concrete in resources and vehicles.
First, the Unified Fire Department developed a flexible strategy with a dynamic stretch. The system needed to be fast, as close to business as usual for personnel, and above all, safe.
Department leaders decided the best approach involved submersible pumps and a hose system that gave firefighters quick access to the water supply. The department had used submersible pumps in other applications in the past.
“Submersible pumps are much faster,” Kleijwegt explains. “We once used port authority vessels, which were excellent sources of water, but were not as fast. Sometimes it took four hours to establish a water supply, which is too long. With our submersible pumps, we can establish a water supply within one hour.”
The department also employs drones and will add remote control fire monitors to gather information about tank and tankbund fires without putting personnel in harm’s way. The drones give detailed situation reports that help firefighters set and change strategy as the tank burns.
“We have used drones for two years and have had great experiences with them,” Kleijwegt says. “The drones show us the efficiency of the foam blanket. We can see all hotspots, gauge monitor efficiency, and see if we need to change monitor directions or replace monitors entirely. The drones can even detect smoke and wind direction, which is important because wind can carry smoke great distances.”
Heat radiation is always a concern and using this equipment allows firefighters to battle fires smartly from a safe distance.
“These are large fires, and it is tricky to get close to them,” says Kleijwegt. “But there is no need to get close to extinguish a tank fire. We start at 60 meters away and can move in closer if we want. With the monitors and the drone team, it’s possible to do this safely.”
PREPLAN AND TRAIN
“Everything in our strategy focuses on dynamic, flexible and fast response. These fires are risk-full scenarios. You must understand the risks and respond safely. That’s why we added drones and monitors. The third part of our strategy is to prepare. To take care of the logistics and plan for the big one,” says Kleijwegt.
Keeping personnel and people in the area safe is the biggest concern, one that requires a well-planned and tested preplan. Moving to a mobile strategy required the department to adjust preplans for every site. “We are making a preplan for every tank and tankbund in the Port of Rotterdam,” he says. “The logistics plan tells everyone where to go and what to do, and in what order. We also are developing a yearly practice plan where we train bodily, but also train with the entire system as well.”
Once new equipment is in place, the department plans to put members through specialized tank fire training in the second half of 2021. “We must train officers in the new strategy and we have to orientate all the companies,” Kleijwegt says.
The department will use a train-the-trainer strategy to train its members in the new system. Each member must learn about every site and the impact weather might have on it. Personnel also must learn to use new foams, pumps, hoses, and monitors. “The remote-control monitors are new for us, so we must train all personnel to work with them,” Kleijwegt explains.
The department hasn’t had many large tank fires. It battled a refinery fire in 2017, a rimsealfire, a fullsurface tankfire following an explosion, and a handful of other incidents over the past years.
Though the area has been fortunate and fast response times keep big incidents small, tank fires are complex and need proper planning, preparation, and use of resources during an event. Kleijwegt says the Unified Fire Department can rest easier knowing they are better prepared for the next big event.