Training to deploy equipment for putting out a fire or providing vapor suppression is important. But the real key to success in battling tank fires is to complete a dynamic risk assessment at the onset of an incident.
“It is essential to understand the variables in any situation and how they impact the response or potential for escalation,” says Shane Stuntz, Municipal Deputy Fire Chief and Senior Industrial Emergency Response Specialist.
“It would be helpful to have a crystal ball for answers to questions about variables—even questions you don’t know to ask,” he says. “Absent that, it is important to involve the right people from the onset, especially people who work at the tank farm. These individuals can offer insight about things you don’t even know to ask about.”
When arriving at any incident involving an active or potential tank fire, Stuntz says scene commanders must make a quick assessment of these factors:
- Account for everyone by checking with other workers to learn who if others were in the area and to ensure all personnel have left or are removed.
- Quickly determine the potential for escalation or exposure and summon additional help. The goal is to ensure the original incident doesn’t expand into multiple events or spread to other equipment.
- Determine what can mitigate the problem now. For example, can valves be closed remotely from a computer screen?
- Look for fixed air monitoring equipment that can provide data to monitor the incident’s impact or spread.
“It’s probably easy to identify any fixed systems in place, but it doesn’t hurt to verify that important information by speaking with people who work on the equipment,” says Stuntz.
When combating a tank fire, Stuntz says there are several variables to consider, such as:
- Construction and design of the tank.
- A tank’s physical condition.
- The type of material being held in the tank. Is it flammable, explosive, corrosive, or toxic?
- How heavy is the material in the tank? Is it gasoline or crude oil?
- The quantity of material in the tank.
- Is the tank on fire, or will the situation require vapor suppression?
- Weather conditions for potential lightning strikes or high winds that could spread dangerous fumes.
- Is there an existing foam system on the tank that members can deploy to suppress a fire? Who decides to deploy it?
- The potential for a situation to escalate.
- The need to conduct air monitoring. Results of that monitoring could require changing tactics or increasing the footprint of exclusion. For example, would certain roads have to be closed or neighborhoods evacuated because of air quality concerns or a breach of containment?
“Many variables can be addressed by consulting with production specialists themselves because they’ll be able to identify process information associated with a tank and quickly identify key elements, says Stuntz.
For example, production workers would know whether it is an internal floating roof tank, one with a fixed cone roof or an external floating roof.
“Technology has made some incredible advances in the last decade,” says Stuntz. “We can use thermal imaging cameras to indicate the tank level. We can use drones to gather intelligence and even attach thermal imaging cameras to those drones.
“In the past, we required people to walk around and conduct a 360-degree evaluation of the area. Now we can use drones to get still images and videos of the situation,” he added.
Deploying technology is one thing, but the ability to use it properly and efficiently under pressure is a different matter.
To effectively use technology, departments need to train staff not just for familiarization of the equipment but test their knowledge and practice skills to prove competency in operating the equipment.
“Response organizations with progressive training programs measure competencies. They just don’t get certificates and qualifications by sitting in a classroom and checking off the box,” says Stuntz. “They test competencies annually for all responses to ensure that people will be safe, effective and capable of doing what we hope they can do in an actual emergency.”
To measure competencies, departments must test the training by physically observing people completing the skills. For example, test training by observing a firefighter tested for competency in using a fixed monitor operating the equipment.
That may require a lot of training hours to ensure individual competency, so Stuntz recommends dividing people into specialized teams, such as one that can manage drones while another manages fire response including pump operations, foam proportioning and delivery equipment.
“Make sure they are trained and competent, then balance that by ensuring the right people are available 24/7,” he explains. “That poses additional challenges when emergency response organizations are staffed by volunteers or people temporarily pulled from production or maintenance positions. For them, firefighting is not a full-time job.”
Still, it is important to ensure each person gets an adequate amount of refresher training every year on the response disciplines in which they are certified, he noted.
“That applies to someone who is trained in medical rescues, fighting fires and contending with hazardous materials, as well as incident command, trench rescue, extrication or using drones,” says Stuntz.
By creating specialized teams, departments can better manage training time. For example, someone who is a production operator may volunteer as a medical responder, but not as a firefighter. That person would only be required to attend training for the discipline in which he or she is trained.
Depending upon the industry, training programs can be extremely complicated, Stuntz explained, noting that requires lessons to be broken down into smaller segments taught monthly. But, to develop and maintain competencies, training should be quarterly at a minimum.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that people trained in certain disciplines must complete a specific number of hours of refresher classes every year.
“It is preferred that companies and communities use technology to help fight fires in ways that reduce risk and exposure to first responders, but the staff must be able to use the equipment effectively when needed,” says Stuntz.
“If we can sit in an explosion-resistant building and work equipment with a joystick and a computer, that would be the preferred way to fight fires,” he adds. “There seems to be a big push in developing robotics and combining that equipment with the science of fire suppression.”
An effective training program ensures key mistakes are not made during any type of incident.
“It all goes back to risk assessment and verifying data rather than assuming it and asking the right questions before deploying tactics to suppress a fire or contain a leak,” says Stuntz.
For example, if someone doesn’t understand static discharge might be a risk, then a vapor suppression effort might turn into a fire control effort because tactics deployed to suppress vapors created a static charge that ignited the fuel.
“Everyone wants to put a fire out as quickly as possible. However, by taking a defensive approach initially with cooling exposures, asking questions and verifying data can buy some time to ensure everyone gets out of an area. You also can take additional measures to reduce exposures that could escalate the problem, like removing or isolating equipment in an adjacent area,” says Stuntz.
There are a lot of potential risks with any fire incident. For that reason, fire departments should develop plans to address potential incidents, and routinely practice those responses, he explained.
For example, the risk of boil over may be high if crude oil is on fire. Typically there are pockets of water throughout the tank, and water under the crude oil at the bottom of a tank. During a fire, there is a thermal layer well above waters boiling point in a tank that poses extreme danger as it progresses downward , says Stuntz.
“If the thermal layer of burning oil moves down through those pockets of water, then we have what’s called froth over and, potentially, a boil over situation,” he explained. “That’s when those pockets turn into steam and expel burning oil out of the top.
“In a boil over, burning oil can get thrown several hundred yards outside the tank,” says Stuntz. “That’s why it is critically important to know what type of material is inside a tank. Because, if it is crude oil, that’s a game changer. Then the timeline gets shorter because we’ve got to do something before a thermal layer reaches the water and creates a nightmare.”
Knowing the variables helps develop safe evacuation routes, and distances. It won’t help to evacuate people from one area to another if winds are going to shift and cause contaminants to drift into a populated area, he explained. If the material is crude oil, wider evacuation distances are needed, and evacuation times are shorter.
Wind direction can also play a factor because it could cause radiant heat to potentially ignite other tanks or materials, says Stuntz.
“That’s why air monitoring is so important. It can influence evacuation areas and routes and exposure to nearby materials,” he added.
Routinely practicing different responses ensures members manage potential incidents to prevent a big problem from growing even larger.