Propane Emergencies: Plan for Worst-Case Scenario

BY JOHN SPAULDING

On September 1, 2011, at 1503 hours, the most devastating call the Mumford (NY) Fire Department (MFD) could ever respond to erupted with an explosion at the local propane distribution plant. The department had planned for such a call for years, right down to the worst time of day and day of week it could happen. The firefighters knew the possible outcome if they didn’t do everything correctly. The courage they showed was typical of that of firefighters; they knowingly put themselves in harm’s way knowing that their village of 600 residents would be wiped from existence if they didn’t act correctly and expeditiously.

(1) The fire had fully engulfed the building originally built as a cabbage storage warehouse as firefighters arrived. (Photos by author.)

The call for a man burned after an explosion at the Burnwell Gas Company, at 1104 Main Street, Wheatland, New York, was quickly upgraded to a structure assignment after dispatch received additional calls for a large fire.

ON SCENE

The first-arriving lieutenant confirmed a working fire and immediately asked for a second alarm. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon with temperatures in the low 80s with a light westerly wind and 65 percent humidity. The high school, about one-half mile away, had just dismissed for the day. A third alarm was struck just eight minutes into the fire. The only employee at the site was blown from the inside of the building after he noticed a spark. He was found walking down the sidewalk by emergency medical services (EMS) personnel and was transported to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, with second-degree burns over 20 percent of his body.

(2) The heavy fire load from hundreds of tanks quickly engulfed the building and this service van.

Multiple 100-pound and 250-pound cylinders were on fire and venting on arrival. Initial efforts to cool these tanks were quickly abandoned, and efforts were orchestrated to cool the large tanks. The building was quickly determined to be a total loss. It was estimated that most of the hamlet of Mumford would be completely destroyed if a boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) of the 30,000-gallon tank were to occur. Many of the smaller cylinders fell over, which caused more cylinders’ safety valves to fail, creating several smaller BLEVEs. One of the 100-pound tanks launched from the dock after the valve failed. It narrowly missed an engine, skidded across the street between two groups of firefighters, and came to rest on a neighbor’s front lawn.

(3) The fire reached heights of 100 feet or more during the incident.

Three utility vehicles were special called to the scene; they provided much-needed support within the scene, delivering bottled water and supplies. Fuel trucks were brought to the scene to resupply apparatus. During the incident, a crash truck was brought in from the Greater Rochester International Airport. This apparatus was equipped with a thermal imaging camera at the end of the articulated boom that was used for reconnaissance and identified several hot cylinders in the basement, which prompted filling the basement with foam. The local Department of Public Works provided street barricades and construction lighting for overnight operations. Ladies’ auxiliary members from several departments provided food and water.

The Monroe County Office of Emergency Management was partially activated, and workers began preparing for a worst-case scenario should cooling efforts fail. A secondary staging area was established some 15 miles away with seven pieces of apparatus and two chiefs. Personnel and apparatus were queried for fill-ins and relief for the overnight. Updates were provided to noninvolved companies to prepare if needed.

(4) These 250-pound cylinders vented to the atmosphere as efforts were diverted to save the town by cooling the fixed tanks.

The facility was in steady decline of use over the past few years; in fact, the property was for sale. The community expressed concern that such a dangerous business would be allowed to operate in a populated area. The fire department reported very few incidents over the years; there was only one minor fire back in the early 1980s. The fire department recently stored its apparatus in the gated area a few years ago while it rebuilt the station.

(5) A 100-pound cylinder landed in a front yard of a firefighter’s residence after narrowly missing the Avon (NY) Fire Department’s quint.

Burnwell Gas’s parent company is investigating the cause of the fire, as is the Monroe County Fire Bureau. The owners conducted a transfer to tractor trailers followed by a flaring operation to recover about 8,000 gallons of product. Injection of nitrogen stabilized the tanks in the following days.

THE STRUCTURE

The Burnwell Gas Company has existed since the 1950s on Main Street. The building that housed Burnwell Gas was once a cold storage facility for this agricultural community. It was constructed of heavy timber and concrete block; it is a single-story building with a full basement and metal siding. This facility was a distribution site for propane that housed mostly 100- and 250-pound tanks that were fed by 12,000-, 18,000-, and 30,000-gallon stationary tanks on a rail line. The rail line currently runs four trains on that track daily, and its operations were also stopped.

(6) These utility vehicles were highly successful in moving personnel and supplies such as drinking water and hose.

COMMUNICATIONS

The largest issue was operating agencies from three counties on three different radio bands (low band, UHF, and VHF). MFD’s rescue has patch capability; after several attempts to initiate this feature, the equipment failed. This prompted the response of Monroe County’s Mobile Communications Unit-1 Mobile (MCU). It was later realized that because of the geographical location, no cellular data signal was available, and a satellite connection was attempted; however, no patch was completed. There were not enough portable radios available, and poor reception from portables caused more delays.

(7) Scene control was an issue discussed at length in the postincident critique. Freelancing, lack of law enforcement or fire police, numerous roads, and school dismissal were contributing factors.

Early in the incident, the command post was established with a chief officer from all three counties, which facilitated face-to-face orders. This was a key component in effective communication throughout the incident. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office enacted ‘Hyper-reach” (allows the 911 center to quickly send a recorded message to telephones in specific areas) shortly into the incident to aid in notifying the neighbors of the danger. The local school was occupied only by athletes and minimal staff, who were sheltered in place. Text messaging was also used to send a message without a complete interruption. The noted drawback in texting is the loss of urgency of a message; however, it did help firefighters reach out to loved ones to let them know they were okay. Other social media were not used officially. It is still believed that there needs to be a separation between professional and social use.

WATER SUPPLY SECTOR

The eight-inch water main running under Main Street was at capacity after the first two engines began flowing water. According to the Monroe County Water Authority, this was the worst time of day for water supply because of demand and level in supply towers. The incident included four aerial devices and three master streams in addition to several handlines. Seven water supply sites had been established, using two frequencies and two chiefs using two different county water systems and a multitude of tankers and pumpers. One creek used was very shallow, causing strainers to become occluded with silt and organic material. To compensate, a small damn was constructed to create a pool. Backup engines were prepared to replace others in the event of a failure. Both municipal water supply authorities were notified of high use and increased supply to its capacity. Two mechanics from the nearby fire equipment dealer were also at the scene.

(8) A tertiary drafting site was established in nearby Spring Creek.

HAZARDOUS MATERIALS SECTOR

At 1537 hours, command requested a Level One response from the Monroe County Fire Bureau. The volunteer team responded, and recon work was initiated. Later in the incident, a Level Two was declared, which increased notifications and resources. The Wheatland Fire Marshal’s Office provided plans and diagrams that enabled the team to enter and close liquid and gas valves, marking the turning point in the incident. A cold weather front was approaching, and it rained in the evening. The team provided perimeter air monitoring for the duration of the incident.

(9) Access to the stationary tanks proved difficult for master streams.

In all, 76 fire and EMS apparatus from 29 fire departments responded, excluding chiefs, fire police, and law enforcement. Three hundred responders used 5,600 feet of supply line, and 25,000 gallons of water were being transported at any given time. We used one million gallons of municipal water and one million gallons of water by tanker/drafting.

The 25-hour operation, which necessitated that the state road be closed, involved evacuating approximately 1,000 persons and managing 19,000 gallons of product in tanks cumulatively.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Unified command. Unified command was partly established but did not include law enforcement and EMS. Fire police units responsible for road closures were overwhelmed by and understaffed for the traffic at rush hour, as students’ parents were attempting to get to the school. The tasks of evacuating and denying access were more involved than anticipated.

Freelancing. Ignoring of orders from juniors officers resulted in freelancing of firefighters. This also interfered with the completing of an accurate personnel accountability report. By nature, firefighters want to be a part of the action, and firefighters wanted to partake in suppression activities and not ‘stand around” in a staging area.

Self-dispatching. Fire units self-dispatched to the scene. Agencies assumed they were dispatched or were needed because of the large scope of the incident and the unique nature of the call. Command was unsure of which of the needed resources had arrived and which were still needed.

Volunteers’ cars lined the roads, narrowing roadways and limiting apparatus movement. Many firefighters were on their way home from work or left work. The supply line was initially laid down the centerline of streets, necessitating personnel to later move hose to one side for additional apparatus placement.

Communications. Communicating among counties and geographical regions was difficult. More infrastructure and portable radios are required. This battalion in Monroe County is scheduled to be part of a test trial for a new 700 MHz radio system created by Harris Communication that will mirror military communications and have the ability to bridge frequencies and bands.

Water supply. In a district with partial hydrants and frequent use of drafting, relays, and tanker operations, obtaining a water supply went particularly well. Multiple supply sites and a redundant apparatus system were established. The limitations of the municipal water supply were not totally realized in the beginning of the incident, but they were eventually overcome.

During preplanning and drills, the MFD knew it would need water—and lots of it—to cool these tanks. Identifying this need before the incident greatly contributed to preventing a catastrophic BLEVE of the large tanks.

Mutual aid. Monroe County is considered the birthplace of the automatic mutual-aid plan and, as shown throughout time, this incident would not have been controlled without it.

Planning for the worst-case scenario. Units from a wide geographical area were staged a significant distance from the scene. Personnel and supplies were relocated to cover normal call volume from agencies already involved in the incident and to relieve responders working at the scene.

EMS sector. After the initial patient was transported, EMS assisted with accountability. Efforts to provide rehab then became the major focus, as did preparing for the worst-case scenario. Seven advanced life support ambulances were brought to staging. It was not excessively hot and firefighters did not endure extraordinary heat conditions; rehab was virtually nonexistent, except for the distribution of copious amounts of water. The regional medical director was called to the scene, as was the county EMS coordinator.

•••

One week after the fire, the MFD conducted a debriefing and critique in which 50 emergency service personnel and government officials participated. The goal was to present the entire incident from all aspects and views of those involved and identify problems and solutions, not ‘to pat each other on the back,” as one chief officer said. One firefighter sustained a minor hand injury. The only exposure was melted siding on a nearby home owned by the parent corporation of the gas company. Preincident planning clearly identified the need for water supply and additional apparatus. Officials had a tremendous grasp on the resources needed and forethought to begin planning for an extended operation and possible catastrophic events. In the shadow of 9/11, communications have been in the sights of virtually all aspects of public safety. Steps toward achieving interoperability have been initiated, but small communities and agencies with small budgets will continue to operate inadequately.

JOHN SPAULDING is a 24-year veteran of the Chili (NY) Fire Department, where he serves as captain. He is a national certified fire service instructor 1, New York fire investigator 1, hazmat specialist, and New York State paramedic. He is a freelance photographer and writer for several news outlets in western New York. He is an exam proctor for the Emergency Vehicle Technician exams and is a member of the Finger Lakes Regional Burn Association.

Propane Emergencies: Making a Difference

BY GREGORY G. NOLL

In 1998, the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), in cooperation with the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), developed a comprehensive training program on propane emergencies for the fire service. Entitled Propane Emergencies, its primary goal is to improve firefighter safety in responding to propane emergencies. The propane emergencies (PE) program was developed through a partnership of fire service/hazardous materials responders and a team of product and container specialists from the propane industry. Additional technical support and fi nal review were subsequently provided by a team of fire service instructors and responders.

Now in its third edition, the PE curriculum has grown from a single textbook to a comprehensive training program adopted by 27 state fire training agencies and propane marketers.

Textbook

The PE textbook, written by Mike Hildebrand and Greg Noll, is funded by propane industry assessments paid to the PERC. The propane industry’s financial commitment has permitted the creation of a 300-page textbook covering the following topics:

  • Propane Standards, Codes and Regulations
  • Physical Properties and Characteristics of Propane
  • Design and Construction Features of Bulk and Non-Bulk Propane Containers
  • Design and Construction Features of Bulk Transportation Containers
  • Bulk Plants and Bulk Storage Tanks
  • General Emergency Response Procedures
  • Tactical Response Guidelines for Propane Emergencies, including 20 typical emergency scenarios involving propane.

The third-edition PE textbook can be ordered by calling (866) 905-1075. It can also be downloaded as a pdf at www.propanesafety.com and clicking on the Propane Emergencies link.

Facilitator’s Guide

A comprehensive Facilitator’s Guide for trainers and instructors supports the PE program curriculum. Developed by Michael Callan, the package includes comprehensive lesson plans for course deliveries in either an 8-, a 16-, or a 24-hour format. The curriculum includes a CD-ROM with lesson plans, interactive training scenarios and overheads, titles slides, and a full-scale animated PowerPoint® presentation. In addition, the training package is supported by a 50-minute video produced by the Emergency Film Group of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The videotape is divided into two major segments: Segment 1 focuses on the properties and characteristics of propane; the second segment focuses on tactical considerations using the Eight Step Process© as the framework. Future plans are to make the videotape available in a DVD format.

Web Site

The PE program also has a dedicated and comprehensive Web site, www.propanesafety.com. The site provides an overview of the program, instructional tips, background information on how to make training props, up-todate changes to lesson plans, and downloadable graphics support for the instructor. It also provides a PE Marketer Outreach Kit that can be used by propane marketers and industry personnel to deliver emergency responder training and walk-throughs at their marketing and distribution facilities.

For more information on the PE program, including procedures for ordering the textbook and curriculum, consult the Propane Emergencies Web site at www.propanesafety.com.

GREGORY G. NOLL, C.S.P., is a senior partner with Hildebrand and Noll Associates, Inc., an emergency planning and response consulting business. He is a certified safety professional (CSP) and coauthor of the Propane Emergencies textbook and six other hazardous materials textbooks, including Hazardous Materials: Managing the Incident. Noll is the assistant chief of the Lancaster County Hazmat Response Team and a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and the FDIC advisory board.

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