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When facing a fire event at a large storage terminal, the WF&HC response team shifts their tactics to match the evolving conditions.

Fire-response team meets industrial fires head on

The threat of fire is always present. Environmental and mechanical factors can spark a fire when you least expect it. Particularly harrowing are industrial fires, where heavy equipment, large storage tanks or even entire facilities can catch fire, and escalate quickly into a large-scale event. As circumstances evolve during an industrial fire event, so must the tactics and equipment used to fight it. For the Williams Fire & Hazard Control Response Team, these decisions begin with the initial call.

As a global leader in fire suppression and response services, and part of Tyco Fire Protection Products, Williams Fire & Hazard Control (WF&HC) has successfully responded to over 200 industrial fires since the company’s founding in 1980. The organization also provides a full line of emergency response equipment, including specialty foam nozzles, high-flow transportable firewater pumps, foam concentrates and portable fire equipment. All are tools used by the WF&HC response team when responding to industrial fires around the globe – developed by firefighters, for firefighters. In addition, the experienced response team provides facility evaluations for emergency response readiness and on-site training for in-house response teams. From its inception, WF&HC has been on the forefront of fire suppression product design, tactical response and crisis control and mitigation, enabling the company to respond to serious industrial events that few other organizations are qualified to handle.

Headquartered in Port Arthur, Texas, WF&HC is often tapped to respond to regional emergencies like a recent seal fire in south central Texas. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, WF&HC remained on site to monitor the threat of remaining fuel reigniting until the affected tank was emptied. In another instance, WF&HC responded to a fire in a grain silo, supplying the manpower and equipment necessary to bring the highly combustible fire under control.

Once the call about an industrial fire comes in, the WF&HC response team sizes up the emergency by gathering all of the information possible, then mobilizes a response team for duty. The variety of industrial fires never allows WF&HC to rest for long. The team fights major fires every few months – sometimes traveling to far-off places like Turkey and the Amazon to combat international industrial disasters.

That was the case last August, when WF&HC was called to respond to an emergency at a storage terminal in Central America. Chauncey Naylor, (Director of Emergency Response and Training), took the initial phone call around 9 p.m. on August 17. Authorities reported a seal fire on a 150-foot fuel tank, which is capable of holding 144,000 barrels of crude. Within four hours, the seal fire had turned into a full surface tank fire.

Due to the unpredictable nature of industrial fires, preparation is essential.

Industrial fires aren’t extinguished easily – fueled by oil, gasoline and other flammable liquids, they burn hotter and longer than almost all other fires. What’s more, industrial fires can be explosive, sometimes flashing from dangerous to catastrophic in just a matter of seconds. Extinguishing industrial fires requires special chemicals, firefighting discipline and complicated tactics. Having faced gas fires in refineries, storage terminals, vessels at sea, gas wells and exploration platforms, WF&HC has developed unique firefighting techniques, as well as equipment specifically designed to respond to particularly dangerous fires and explosions.

As WF&HC learned the details of the crude oil tank fire, the team immediately began putting together a plan to extinguish the fire. The team determined that the facility had both water and foam agent supplies, as well as small hoses for distribution. After gathering additional information relating to environmental, elevation and topography conditions, the five-man response team chartered a jet to Central America, with the expectation of using a foam system to extinguish the fire and subsequent cleanup of the crude oil tank.

Upon their arrival the following afternoon, the response team learned that the crude oil in the tank where the fire began had boiled over. Although typically considered a relatively friendly product within the industry, crude oil conducts heat as it burns. When contained inside a tank, this heat sinks through liquid product, leaving behind heavy particles. Once the heat reaches the water at the bottom of the tank, the water’s flash point is raised. As a result, the water steams rapidly, pushing out of the tank through the path of least resistance – up. The crude oil, previously confined to the tank, flooded into the dike containment area, igniting a second 150-foot tank containing naphtha, an intermediate hydrocarbon liquid derived from the refining of crude oil.

With a second full-surface fire now raging, the response team members reassessed the original response plan. They quickly determined there was not enough suitable foam agent available on site to extinguish both tank fires and ordered an additional 18 totes of THUNDERSTORM 1×3 AR-AFFF foam. Introduced to the industry by WF&HC in 2000, THUNDERSTORM AR-AFFF foams have become the gold standard in fighting both hydrocarbon and polar solvent fires. Along with the additional foam, the team also requested a 7.25-inch supply line to replace the above-ground fire water main that had been compromised during the boil-over.

While awaiting the arrival of the equipment and foam, the response team continued to monitor the situation and staged crews and equipment in anticipation of execution. As equipment was en route to the site, the second fuel tank experienced a sudden failure, spilling 15 feet of burning product into the dike containment area, further comprising the site and continuing to fuel the already raging fire. Within a few hours of the failure, the tank erupted into a steam explosion, launching naphtha 800 feet into the air and consuming the majority of the fuel left in the tank.

Industrial fires can escalate quickly, often fueled by oil, gasoline or other flammable liquids.

Industrial fires can escalate quickly, often fueled by oil, gasoline or other flammable liquids.

The tank failure and subsequent collapse significantly impacted the efforts of the response team as it attempted to contain the fire. The pipes in the facility’s above-ground fire water system had broken, and fuel from the tanks was bleeding into the containment area. With no isolation valves to help contain the fuel, the level of spillover continued to rise.

As the industrial fire continued to intensify, the response team determined there were two options – extinguish the fire or let it burn out. The team presented the situation and its professional recommendation to both facility operators and local government officials.

At this point, extinguishing the fire immediately would save the remaining fuel that hadn’t already burned or spilled into the containment area. However, this option posed a significant long-term hazard that would expose cleanup workers and prolong the interruption to business operations.

The second option was to allow the remaining hydrocarbons to burn out, rendering the site basically gas free. Work could then start immediately to put the facility back in service.

Facility operators and government officials agreed with the response team’s assessment, and decided that letting the fire burn out was the appropriate course of action. Safety was the driving factor in the final decision.

Sixteen hours after the second fuel tank’s collapse, the fire finally burned out. The WF&HC response team remained on site during that time to monitor the fire and provide prevention training to facility personnel. Along with its professional guidance and expertise, the response team also provided facility workers with the proper equipment to prevent a reflash during the cleanup process. Additionally, team members demonstrated how to effectively use the portable pieces of equipment the facility already possessed.

“Providing (facility personnel) with the knowledge and experience to combat fires in the future is the ultimate goal, paired with instilling the confidence they need for the future,” explained Naylor.

So much of emergency response to industrial fires hinges on preparedness. Today, the storage terminal is back up and operating, and, with the help of the WF&HC team, facility personnel have an emergency response plan in place with the proper equipment on hand to help defend against similar events in the future.

The quick-changing nature of this storage terminal fire is evidence that no industrial fire is ever the same. As each incident unfolds, the WF&HC response team must evolve their tactics and expertise, better preparing them to fight the fires of the future.

For more information, go to www.williamsfire.com

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Lee Hall is the Senior Technical Trainer for the Williams Fire & Hazard Control Team. Prior to this position, Lee served as an Emergency Response Superintendent at Valero Energy Corporation, after twelve years with Texas A&M’s Emergency Response Services Technical Institute as their Private Sector Program Director.