Are You Prepared to Handle an Ethanol Disaster?

IF YOU THINK AN ETHANOL/ alcohol disaster cannot happen in your district, think again. U.S. ethanol production is in excess of six billion gallons per year and growing; ethanol plants are located in more than 20 states. Being corrosive, ethanol cannot be piped to the blending terminals. It must be transported by tank truck, rail car, or barge. The chances are great that your community is responsible for protecting a major highway or railroad on which ethanol is transported or a refinery where ethanol is produced. Now, imagine that a disaster strikes. You need to be prepared to deal with it.


These incidents can easily involve hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. If, like most departments, you haven’t dealt with a Class B incident in awhile, let me just say that we are talking big water! How big? A good place to start is to dust off your copy of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Standard for Low-, Medium-, and High-Expansion Foam. The standard spells out the minimum flow rate per square foot of surface area along with the minimum duration of foam solution flow for various situations. For a given type of incident, you can determine the minimum water flow rate, total amount of water, and how much concentrate you will need.


For alcohol-spill fires in diked areas, the minimum application rate is 0.16 gallons per minute (gpm) per square foot for a minimum duration of 30 minutes. Consider a 200-foot × 200-foot spill area. Doing the math, we need to apply 6,400 gpm of foam solution. Doing that for 30 minutes will require 192,000 gallons of water.

NFPA 11 standards are minimum recommendations. Increase these flow rates and durations by at least 50 percent, preferably more.

You are probably thinking that you could provide those flows with the help of your mutual-aid departments. The problem is, how do you treat that amount of water with foam concentrate?


Class A and AFFF foams will not work on ethanol fires. What is needed is an AR-AFFF, the AR standing for “Alcohol Resistant.” Since ARFF trucks carry only AFFF, they are not a viable option in these circumstances.

Most AR concentrates must be proportioned at 3.0 percent or higher. So, with the higher proportioning rates and larger water flows, we are not talking just big water but also big foam.

Take the minimum application rate of 6,400 gpm in our example and assume we use a 3.0 percent AR-AFFF concentrate; you will need to proportion 192 gpm of concentrate. Now, build in the 50-plus percent safety margin, and the proportioning requirements go well out of reach. Here is where most departments’ capabilities to handle a major ethanol disaster begin to come up short.


Your department can consider building Class A and B capability on the majority of its apparatus or having specialty equipment specific for Class B incidents. Most departments will choose the latter. These options include jet ratio controllers, foam trailers, and industrial-type apparatus.

In choosing what is best for your department, you must consider several factors. First, you are going to be flowing a lot of water. You want to simplify/optimize hose and pumping requirements. Second, you are going to be moving a lot of foam concentrate. Therefore, you want a system that will efficiently use your resources. Third, you need to consider your department’s budget constraints by balancing the initial investment with the ongoing operational costs and logistics.

One of the biggest factors impacting your costs will be the accuracy of the proportioning system. Consider two systems: One runs up to 5 percent rich, whereas another typically runs 30 percent rich. In our example, where 5,760 gallons of concentrate would be required, the actual consumption would be 6,048 and 7,488 gallons, respectively. At $30 per gallon, the extra 1,440 gallons will cost you $43,200 because of inaccuracy!


The Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) is charged with setting direction for the enhancement of regional response capability and capacity. Its role is to ensure potential targets (critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, and ports, for example) are identified, assessed, and protected. UASI and the FIRE Act grants are available for this type of equipment.

BILL BALLANTYNE is vice president of FoamPro Division-Hypro LLC in New Brighton, Minnesota. He serves as a principal member of the NFPA 1901 committee and chairs the Foam subcommittee of that group. He is also active in the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association, having served as its president in 2004.


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