Industrial Firefighting: Preparing Your Fire Department for Response

The oil and chemical processing industry drives the community where I live and serve. Love it or hate it, that industry has put many meals on many tables and is a fixture in our community. Not surprisingly, that industry’s influence has extended deep into the fire service.

Municipal firefighters train on liquefied petroleum gas fire control to become more familiar with the behavior of light end gases when released under high pressure. (Photos by Matthew Ison Photography.)

(1) Municipal firefighters train on liquefied petroleum gas fire control to become more familiar with the behavior of light end gases when released under high pressure. (Photos by Matthew Ison Photography.)

Some of my early live fire training experiences were not your typical flashover container or “hay barrel hidden in a room” type fires. The first memorable burns I took part in involved diesel fuel, liquefied petroleum gas-fueled flange leaks, and punctured vessels. I quickly noticed that we trained differently compared to other regions. From satellite crude oil tanks and pumping stations to full-blown refineries, it is normal for us to train for incidents involving these structures just as it is for us to train for the next structure fire.

The influence of industrial facilities may not be as far reaching in other communities as it is in mine. But whether you’re a small volunteer or a larger metropolitan department, you have some sort of industrial facility in your response area. Many facilities have their own on-site emergency response teams, and most facilities operate without incident. But when a large and dynamic incident does occur, mutual aid from surrounding municipalities will quickly pour in. But, the time to prepare for that is long before the tone goes out.

One of the more tragic examples of this occurred April 17, 2013, when the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing 10 first responders and five civilians and injuring more than 200. When the tones dropped, firefighters rushed in. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms investigators determined the fire and explosion were the result of an intentional act or arson.

Hazardous materials knowledge plays a big part in successful planning for a large-scale industrial incident. When hazmat is mentioned, many think of the gasoline tanker rolling on the highway or the railroad crossing down the street. However, with industrial incidents, we must be prepared for something much larger. Consider how many tractor trailers or railcars are delivering hazmats to the same facility in your response district on an average day. Imagine if your next tone out would be to a fire at the same place. We need to have this perspective about facilities in our area.

These are real hazards, and the Emergency Response Guidebook will only get you so far. Crews need members capable of researching the involved materials beyond just identification. They must be prepared to delve into the by-products of combustion and other advanced preparation tactics. We all have a member who is calling out placards as we ride back from a response. Spot these members with an interest in this area, and give them the tools and training to shine.


Smartphone and tablet technology made a large amount of hazmat information available to download and use in training and on the fire scene, including truck trailer and railcar container identification, manufacturers, chemical information, and mapping applications. It has removed the intimidation about hazmat from the equation.

Identifying Industrial Equipment

Although the firefighting world has many hazardous environments, the industrial setting may be one of the most dangerous emergencies to mitigate because of skyrocketing process temperatures and massive rotating equipment blades. Becoming familiar with the equipment and processes beforehand is just as important as making a preincident plan for the local elementary school. Every year, injuries and deaths occur from inadvertent contact with rotating equipment parts. Being able to identify this type of equipment and similar other process hazards can prevent a disastrous and time-wasting initial attack line placement.

Remember, an industrial site may not be permanently fixed. It is common for an oil or gas drilling site to be erected and functional in a matter of days. Yet, you should treat temporary sites with the same respect as fixed facilities, since those temporary process lines may operate under thousands of pounds of pressure. All sites present hazards, and knowing the unique hazards of each is critical.

Although large-diameter streams are key for providing adequate cooling, learning to use a smaller attack line on lazy fires (small unpressurized flames generally offset from a main incident) and spills is key to success in an industrial incident.

(2) Although large-diameter streams are key for providing adequate cooling, learning to use a smaller attack line on lazy fires (small unpressurized flames generally offset from a main incident) and spills is key to success in an industrial incident.

Building Relationships

Municipal fire departments must build strong relationships with the industrial operators in their jurisdictions and use these relationships to set up site tours; classroom training on site with the plant’s responder team; and, whenever possible, hands-on training at the site tackling the most likely kinds of emergencies. As with auto extrication or residential fires, this can’t be a one-time, walk-through training. Training with and at the industrial site must be repeated often and be part of the municipal department’s regular training program. Repetition to build muscle memory is just as important in these scenarios as it is for popping a car door at a motor vehicle accident.

It may seem somewhat overwhelming to prepare for an incident of this nature without having intimate knowledge of the facilities or sites in your area. There are a few key skills to hit during training that will prepare your teams to tackle a dynamic event.

Large-Diameter Hose and Appliances

Big fire means big water, which is why we train with master streams as the first-deployed line. In the municipal world, you wouldn’t expect a small handline to extinguish a fire in a fully involved three-story hotel. Just as we practice in decontamination: gross, then technical. Knock down the heat, cool the exposures, and get a handle on the situation before making a surgical, precise movement. Firefighters on the ground need to demonstrate precision and alacrity in setting up ground monitors and maneuvering large-diameter hose (LDH).

Where possible, setting up ground monitors to begin cooling provides a simple and relatively staffing-friendly way of keeping a growing situation in check. However, portable monitor technology advances and the growing “set it and forget it” mentality may not allow for this type of setup. At an industrial site with miles of spaghetti-like piping and temporary work platforms and scaffolding, the odds are very small of having a fire in the perfect spot for your monitor to reach with little effort. Such situations almost always require a team carrying a 2½-inch attack line to place themselves into a position underneath a vessel or a pipe rack to make a precise encapsulation of the source.

Monitors are great for cooling exposures and protecting a wide area from spreading heat without tying up personnel, but they can never replace the need for a well-trained hose team that can adjust with conditions. Drills to prepare for this type of hose handling should include assuming you will always need a 2½-inch attack line. Train your team to adjust and move nozzle streams effectively on predetermined targets.

Hazmat Container Recognition

Just as learning building construction can aid in predicting hazards and fire spread through a compartment, recognizing the types of hazmat containers and fittings gives us the same insights during an incident. The ability to identify weak points, estimate pressure, and narrow the possible product origins is easy to learn with little more than operations-level hazmat training. A trip to a local hardware store to view the various pressurized container shapes, pipe fittings, and valve assemblies can provide a visual representation that may help someone identify a potential hazard before it becomes a large one.

Basic shapes are your first key to identification. A processing facility will likely have many vessels of various shapes and orientations (vertical and horizontal), each with its own tell-tale signs of possible problems. Vessels containing dangerous amounts of pressure will have rounded ends (“bullet tanks”), some more exaggerated than others. Vessels with rounded ends with long bodies signify the product inside is already under some level of pressure. But containers or tanks with 90° angles and flat sides or bottoms will be under little to no pressure.

Pressurized products are stored in containers with few hard angles because this helps spread the force the product exerts equally throughout the container. Fewer seams mean fewer weak spots, which decreases the chances of leak or failure. Vessels of this nature are generally constructed in three parts: a cylindrical body with a rounded cap welded onto each end; hence, the end is the most likely spot for a failure to occur, regardless of whether the vessel is horizontal or vertical.

Train with Facility Firefighters

Before I began working in industrial facilities, it never occurred to me that fixed sites may have their own response teams. Surprisingly, these teams can usually produce more personnel on a scene within minutes than your company can for a three-alarm structure. Here is the kicker: What municipal responders consider bread-and-butter calls, such as a room-and-contents or vehicle fire, is almost as foreign to industrial response teams as industrial incidents are to the municipal department.

Building a solid relationship with the industrial responders before you have to respond is the first step in being prepared. Engage in joint training, and allow each side to take turns in hosting a training session. This will foster a mutual understanding of each other’s daily responsibilities. Participate in their drills and classroom sessions as often as possible. Also, ask them to share any training materials they use for new recruits and their standard operating procedures; you can use these for further in-house training at your department. Tabletop exercises that go over how and where to deploy mutual-aid resources at the different parts of the facility can remove a lot of confusion when the tone drops. If your department has multiple stations, be sure the crews who work outside the first-due station train at the facility. This will help when more than one station is called to assist or when firefighters are covering shifts at that first-due station.

Water Shuttles

The oil industry is not particularly worried about its drilling site being conveniently located for you to tie into a hydrant. This may mean your only option for big water flow may be shuttling. Can you supply enough water to flow master streams long enough to make appropriate rescues and secure the scene? During a well blowout to which my small municipal department responded, the nearest hydrant was more than a mile away, and we were ecstatic. Coordinating among other parish volunteers and departments, we established shifts and tankers on standby to fill tanks should the need for rescue arise during the well-plugging process. With the leaking product contained (not controlled), we planned for continuous master stream flow to the site to provide enough protection for well workers to be rescued if the situation went south.

This setup involves a great deal of planning and involves more than just a layout of drop tanks and siphon hoses. Plan for primary and alternate driving routes. Consider turnaround spots for tankers and possible secondary and tertiary fill sites. For smaller departments, running the tankers through these routes offers driver training. The best way for your department to train for a no-water-source situation is to do a good old-fashioned water shuttle. Pick a water source and another site two miles away to serve as your facility experiencing an emergency. Run the drill as though it were the worst case for an industrial site in your jurisdiction. See how long you can continuously flow master stream gallons per minute and how many people it takes to pull that off. Then evaluate your effectiveness and look for ways to improve on it for the next training scenario.

Industrial facilities and the hazards that are contained within their pipes may be some of the most volatile situations lying in wait. We need to be well-prepared for these incidents. The emergency doesn’t begin and end with the on-site responders assigned to protect their company. If we are unprepared, we have officially hindered the fight. Through training as simple as operations-level hazmat and LDH-handling operations, departments surrounding industrial sites will be much better prepared to protect their communities.

RYAN HENRY is the training officer for two volunteer fire departments in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. He works in operations at a major gulf coast oil refinery where he serves as an emergency response team firefighter and as hazardous material response team training coordinator. He has an associate degree in process plant technology and is a Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute lead evaluator for Louisiana. He is also senior editor for, a site dedicated to educating firefighters about hazardous materials threats and solutions.

FE Volume 171 Issue 11

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