Specialized training for tank fires is a specific discipline of response that never gets enough attention, says Shane Stuntz, Municipal Deputy Fire Chief and Senior Industrial Emergency Response Specialist.
He is a passionate advocate for training and exercises to ready firefighters to battle tank fires before they start.
There are many variables in tank fires that can greatly influence the response, and they all require competent understanding about the product on fire, tank design, (i.e. internal/external floater, etc.), available fire water supply, ability to manage foam concentrate, is there existing fixed/semi-fixed foam systems that could be used or will the scenario require an over the top application, and the specific risks associated with that material.
For example, weather conditions can alter response decisions and air monitoring concerns can influence tactics firefighters use and how they deploy them.
Another risky response to tank fires concerns fluorine-based foams. Because of the potential risk to people and the environment, fire departments need a robust way to manage run off and capture foam before it can contaminate the ground or water sources—and that requires planning, Stuntz explains.
“Before deciding to deploy any foam, response coordinators must evaluate several factors to determine whether risks are worth the reward,” he says. “Because they must make those decisions quickly in live situations, preplanning, training and emergency response exercises can greatly reduce risks.”
STEPS TO PROPER TRAINING
Stuntz recommends several steps in developing plans for tank fire response. They include:
- Evaluate the size, design, and contents of all tanks at your asset.
- Visit tank storage sites to evaluate logistics in the field. For example, make sure personnel and equipment can even get in position to battle the fire, and determine access and egress pathways from multiple sides of the tank.
- Develop pre-plans, and conduct exercises / drills to test preplan effectiveness and to identify how to change or update those plans.
- Decide how you will deploy resources to make sure the most effective equipment is available around the clock to battle any potential fires.
- Evaluate staff size, experience, and competency to make sure enough trained firefighters are in place to handle the worst-case scenario.
- Look at scheduling to ensure trained responders are available 24 hours a day and identify other resources that you can call out in an emergency, such as mutual aid equipment or staff.
If a fire department uses foams containing polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), add these items as well:
- Where practicable, design and implement a firewater run-off management plan with considerations for containment and disposal and verify having such resources “at the ready” 24/7, whether they are “site-owned” or contracted.
- Firefighters should be made aware of and protected from exposure risks.
- Test pre-plans and proportioning tactics in controlled areas using training foams, not PFAS compounds.
“It is very hard to get clearance to run a drill where you discharge even training foams,” says Stuntz. “To plan for that, you need to work with leadership and environmental groups to frequently exercise the equipment and the staff to test industry standard guidance with regards to application rates. i.e., NFPA 11.
“Even if you can use training foams, it is still important to practice setting up runoff control measures to ensure the foam does not impact the groundwater and other ecological systems,” he adds.
Besides protecting the environment, it is essential that departments ensure the safety of first responders, plant staff, and local residents.
“In consideration of the current pandemic, it’s not as easy as just going somewhere with a bunch of team members to run an exercise,” Stuntz explains. “You need to implement COVID exposure measures, implement requirements for additional personal protective equipment (PPE), isolate any exposed crew members, and deploy disinfecting processes.”
LEVERAGE VIRTUAL TRAINING
Even if COVID concerns make physical exercises impossible, virtual training is better than not conducting training at all, says Stuntz.
“It’s not ideal, but virtual exercises still help develop competencies to support scenarios for all incidents. When we run exercises this way, we are much more capable of planning for the situations,” he adds.
In virtual planning, departments still run exercises with key people on platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams, etc. discussing the actions they would take in a real emergency.
“Virtual planning doesn’t take away from the boots-on-the-ground perspective needed in the field, but it adds a new dynamic to exercises and conducting drills,” Stuntz explains, noting that virtual exercises keep people thinking of how they’ll respond to a situation.
“Proper emergency planning is never a one-person show,” he says. “It should always be a collective group of subject-matter experts who understand all the variables before anyone makes any decisions. The problem is many times someone must make those decisions expediently.”
It’s for that reason, departments cannot develop plans, then leave them in the book. They must regularly study and practice them through training exercises. It all circles back to being prepared, says Stuntz.
“When you work to understand potential situations in advance, then you can make sure someone who is more knowledgeable about the process is available to consult for information prior to an incident occurring,” he says. “It’s much better to ask questions in advance and to know the right people to call for advice before a tank fire erupts in chaos.”
MAKE TRAINING REALISTIC
The more the training mimics an actual fire, the more beneficial the experience will be, says Stuntz.
The challenge is that the potential events could be so large that it’s not practical to make exercises realistic. Still, fire schools, like Texas A&M at College Station, get very close to doing so when leading students through process-related emergencies. In addition, regular drills and exercises that challenge the learner is how we gain confidence for all types of emergencies. Fundamentally you can apply the same incident management / tactical decision-making process for all incidents regardless of size if you have gone through the scenario a few times.
“Simulations are an effective option. But live fire training simulations have not exposed me to anything I would consider as effective as a real process unit or tank fire,” he says. “The dynamics of a real event include variables that we do not have during training events. Emotions add to the challenges, and firefighters are going to pick up on the uneasy sense of urgency to which their leader or captain is reacting in a real event.”
In medical training situations, it helps to use moulage to make wounds look very real. In fire training, adding in the sounds of a real event, and time pressure to react, works to create some realism.
“Making training exercises more realistic will make training experiences more productive every time,” says Stuntz.