Railcars transport millions of gallons of oil and other hazardous materials every year. Measures are in place to ensure safe transport of these flammable materials, but several contributing factors—including collisions and derailments—can lead to unexpected fires and pragmatic railway companies put safeguards in place to ensure that the impact from these fires is minimal.
Fort Worth, Texas-based Specialized Resource Solutions (SRS) a US Ecology Company, is a global provider of Hazardous Material Emergency Response and Industrial Firefighting, and they work with some of the largest railway companies in the world, including BNSF, CP Rail, and Canadian National Rail. Since SRS started business in 2000, the company has been called on to extinguish over 250 flammable liquid fires in railroad cars or bulk storage tanks.
Due to the hazardous materials being carried on train cars, firefighting foam is needed to ensure that once a fire ignites it can be extinguished. Firefighting foam is effective on both fuel in depth and shallow spill fires. The foam blanket separates fuel from the oxygen, continually cools the surface, and helps to prevent reignition. Other agents, like dry chemical are effective at extinguishing flammable liquid fires but don’t have the foam blanket that helps to minimize the chance of reignition.When called into action, SRS mobilizes out of its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas or from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but they have taken steps to ensure quick response should a rail fire start anywhere in the region they serve. The company has strategically staged totes of firefighting foam along rail lines throughout the U.S. and Canada, typically locating them on railroads that carry the most flammable liquid shipments.
Besides being staged on rail lines, foam is also placed on firefighting trailers that SRS builds and uses to apply the foam, according to Bobby Breed, Vice President and General Manager at SRS. These trailers are spread out on railways every 250 to 500 miles.
Having served the rail industry for 20 years, Breed has witnessed firsthand how firefighting in this sector has evolved.
“In the recent past, changes in the firefighting foam industry have caused challenges for us as a firefighting company and our customers. Navigating through the rapid changes related to PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances], PFOS [Perfluorooctane sulfonate], and PFOA [perfluorooctanoic acid] have impacted the industry, requiring significant changes to foam supplies, and heightening environmental considerations,” said Breed.
SRS, like other organizations involved in fire management, used to rely heavily on fluorinated foam products. They used aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) for hydrocarbon-based fires, and alcohol-resistant AFFF (AR-AFFF) foams for fires that involved polar solvents.
These foams are effective, but because of environmental regulations and inherent environmental concerns surrounding their use, including the bio-persistence of PFAS chemicals, organizations like SRS are quickly moving to fluorine-free alternatives.
When SRS started considering a foam alternative, they wanted to move to a 3x3 fluorine-free, alcohol-resistant solution that could be used to extinguish fires that are started with hydrocarbon fuels or polar solvents. But, they needed a foam that does more than just extinguish fires. They also needed a foam that when applied to a spill could prevent it from catching fire, and if applied to a massive spill, it could prevent vapors from escaping the solution, protecting firefighters and others in the vicinity from adverse effects.
SRS also needed a foam solution that worked well with their proportioning and discharge devices. Depending on the size of the fire they are fighting, they may need to pump up to 3,500 gallons of finished foam per minute.
Reviewing the requirements by SRS, and the capabilities needed to address the fires and spills on railways, Perimeter Solutions’ SOLBERG® VERSAGARD™ AS-100 was chosen as the best option. VERSAGARD is a fluorine-free alcohol type concentrate (ATC™) proportioned at 3% that can be used to extinguish both hydrocarbon and polar solvent fuel fires and can be applied at high rates needed for major fires and spills. It also is more environmentally safe than AAAF, allowing SRS to use it to for fires, spills and vapor mitigation without having to be concerned about the environmental impact.
“As a firefighting company, we have had the opportunity to use and see the effectiveness of many brands of firefighting foams. We have extensively tested new fluorine-free products including VERSAGARD, and we have found it to be a dependable and effective foam for our required applications,” says Breed.
SRS and its transition demonstrate that fluorine-free foams can now meet the needs of end-users who are looking for alternatives to legacy AFFF and AR-AFFF foams. It will still be some time before AFFF and AR-AFF foams are completely replaced by fluorine-free alternatives, but we will see more of it in the next few years as regulations and requirements are updated. In fact, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which follows the U.S. MIL-SPEC for firefighting foams, recently issued a certification alert that removed a mandate to use fluorinated foams. The FAA didn’t alter the existing performance specifications within the certification, so fluorine-free solutions must meet those specifications, but this shows that US agencies are creating inroads for fluorine-free technology.
The U.S. MIL-SPEC is also expected to transition to fluorine-free foam, and the U.S. military has stated that it will no longer purchase and/or use fluorinated foams starting in 2024, except for shipboard for the navy. For those of you that have been around since the early days of AFFF and AR-AFFF, you may recall that they were proportioned up to 9% foam concentrate. Through continued innovation, those percentages dropped to 3% and sometimes to 1%, meeting or exceeding the same level of effectiveness. It is likely that fluorine-free foams will see the same type of development and will ultimately catch up to the legacy foams with the same proportioning percentage and application rates.