Preparing to Respond to Industrial Facilities

By Mark Heeren

If you ask most firefighters about the different types of calls they respond to, they can probably tell you numerous stories about house fires, car wrecks, medical calls, and the “you called-us-for-this?” calls. What about responding to industrial incidents?

Fortunately, industrial incidents do not happen very frequently in most jurisdictions. Industrial facilities each differ in size, specific hazards, the processes performed, layout, and so on. Most departments have some type of formal or informal preincident planning program. Regardless, there are some simple questions to ask while touring the facility and ensuring the right person gives the tour. Although most employees of the facility will know the layout and general processes going on, the facility or operations manager should be able to provide you with more information. Below are seven questions that you should ask during your preincident planning tour of an industrial facility.

Does the facility list your department as its confined space rescue team? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the owner of a building that has a permit-required confined space list a rescue team, which must be able to respond in four to six minutes and begin rescue operations. Most of the time, the property owner lists the local fire department as the rescue team without the department knowing it.

There are two main concerns about this. First, the local fire department may not have a qualified confined-space rescue team or only one or two department members may be qualified. The department may have to request mutual aid to assemble the remainder of the team. This certainly does not meet the response time set by OSHA, but that falls on the shoulders of the property owner, not the fire department.

The second issue is, if the local department does have a confined-space rescue team, it is very rarely notified and likely unaware it has been listed as the rescue team. In the rare case that property owners do notify the fire department, they sometimes let them know only five minutes in advance, which doesn’t allow the department enough time to arrive at the entry site and be fully prepared. Even if the department is given ample time, logistics is often an issue. Most departments do not have all their technical rescue team members in one station; members may be scattered throughout the coverage area. As a result, firefighters would exceed the OSHA four- to six-minute response time standard. Again, this falls on the property owner for not following the OSHA standard.

The solution to this problem is to be proactive by following three steps:

  • Find out which facilities in your coverage area have permit-required confined spaces;
  • Establish a department standard operating guideline (SOG) for responding to confined space rescues; and
  • Put in place an ordinance that requires notification prior to entry.

Although this sounds simple enough, it will take some work. Here’s some guidance on how to make completing the three steps a little easier.

First, during inspections and preplanning, ask about permit-required confined spaces, note it on the preplans, and start compiling a list of facilities in your coverage area that have them. Not only will this let you know where the spaces are, it allows you to inspect the spaces to preplan for a rescue and to practice rescues from those spaces, per OSHA regulations.

If your department does not already have an SOG for responding to confined spaces, develop one. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Talk to other fire departments with such a guideline and ask for a copy. Modify it to fit your department. If you have a technical rescue team (TRT), the SOG should include such information as the scene or central location to which the team members are to respond. If you do not have a team, the SOG should include requesting mutual aid as soon as the call comes in and what your department can do until the TRT arrives.

The final step is to pass an ordinance requiring property owners or their representative to notify the fire department prior to someone entering a permit-required confined space. “Prior” does not mean 10 minutes beforehand; the notification should allow enough time for you to assemble your rescue team, whether composed of personnel from your department or mutual-aid responders. The ordinance should also authorize the fire department to fine violators of the notification requirement, otherwise, property owners have no reason to follow it.

By knowing the location of the permit-required confined spaces in your response area, having a rescue response SOG, authorizing the fire department to enforce notification requirements prior to entry being made, and knowing whether the your department will be the primary rescuers or will just provide assistance to an on-site rescue team will greatly improve your preparedness and operations at confined space rescue incident.

Is there an on-site emergency response team? Typically, smaller independent industrial facilities won’t have an emergency response team (ERT), but the larger and especially national- and global-scale corporations will. The extent of the ERT’s abilities may range from basic first aid to a full fire/EMS brigade; unless you ask, you won’t even know if there is one on-site. If the facility has an established ERT, find out to what level it is trained to. If responding to the facility for a medical call and you know they have medical first responders or EMTs already on-site treating the patient, you can plan for that and not be caught off guard when you walk in and see a non-rebreather mask on the patient and are presented with vital signs and a patient history.

At the same time, if called for a fire or hazmat incident and you know there are already people on scene who are trained and equipped to begin mitigating the problem you won’t be caught off guard thinking, “What the hell, they’re going to get themselves killed.” If the facility has an ERT, try to attend some of their training to get a good idea on what their skill level is and to become more familiar with the facility.

Spending time with the facility ERT enables you assess their skills, learn more about the facility, what special training the ERT has, and what equipment they have and how to use it. Knowing whether the ERT is highly trained or more like the Three Stooges will tell you whether you will be showing up to assist or if you will have to take charge of the scene.

Creating training sessions to simulate potential incidents at that facility, e.g., an entrapment in machinery, a chemical release, or someone hanging from a fall-protection system, will refine the skills of the ERT as well as prepare your department to respond to those type of low-frequency type of calls. During the training, use the on-site specialty equipment. Just as with any of the tools you carry on your apparatus, you trained and practiced with them before you used them, so you should be doing the same with the equipment at the facility. Another plus is that by training with one facility’s on-site specialty equipment, your department will be better prepared when you show up to another facility where they have the same or similar equipment but no ERT.

In addition to improving your ability to work with the on-site ERT, you will be more exposed to the facility and start learning additional information about it. In addition to knowing where the hydrants are and what chemicals are on-site, you also learn where interior roof accesses are, whether the columns are labeled with a letter and number system, and the names for certain areas. Knowing such details (e.g., the building’s southwest corner is column A1 and the letters run north-south and the numbers east-west) gives you a good idea of where to go when you arrive and you are told, “The patient is near column D9” or “The fire is at the Fishing Paint Booth.”

Training with the on-site ERT will make you better prepared to respond to that facility and to industrial facilities in general and is great public relations for the department and that facility.

What do they do or make at the facility? Sometimes the name of the company can be misleading to what actually goes on inside the facility. If you see the name “Acme Chemicals” on the front of the building, you most likely will think the worst. However, they may do nothing more than making distilled water at that site while the facility five miles away is making methylchlorosilane. On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Acme Machine Parts” may be doing much more than machining gears. They may be doing heat treat (heating parts to hundreds of degrees to harden them), processing raw rubber into hydraulic hoses, and who knows what else. You don’t need to know every little thing they are doing, but knowing what type of processes they do there will help you prepare for the day when you respond to a call there.

During preplanning, ask this simple question: When you train new employees, what are the most serious hazards you warn them about? Not only does this tell you right away the top hazards you will need to worry about when responding there, but it also sets the stage for some follow-up questions and dialogue about other hazards at the facility. As you start asking how to mitigate those first hazards you were told about and asking follow-up questions, the facility representative should get a feel for what relevant information you want to know and point out items you would have never thought to ask about.

Ask the facility representative to walk you through the process from start to finish for the products the facility makes. This will give you a chance to ask questions about specific machines, learn how chemicals are used on-site, and get an idea of where things may go wrong (e.g., injuries, fires, or haz-mat spills). During this time, when you notice an area that possesses a high hazard potential, ask how it has been addressed. If the facility manager has not thought about it or made a plan, this should get him thinking about it. It may lead to a joint effort between your department and the facility in developing a response protocol.

Learning what the facility’s primary hazards are, where they are located, and what it’s emergency response plan is will increase your preparedness and the safety of your personnel when operating there.              

Do any of the machines or products require a special extinguishing agent? If so, what is it?  Normally firefighters put a fire out by “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff,” but remember the aforementioned “Acme Machine Parts” and its heat treat process? If you put water on a heat treat oven or exhaust stack, it may be the last thing you do: so much of the water will turn into steam and expand, increasing the pressure in the oven or exhaust stack beyond its limits, and causing an explosion. Many machines, ovens, and process units require carbon dioxide, Class D extinguishers, or something else to safely extinguish the fires involving them. Ask if any of the different machines or “process units” at the facility require special tactics or extinguishing agents to safely put a fire out. If a special agent is needed for fire suppression, ask if it is on site. Some facilities that have the heat treat process have large tanks in the service level that supply a booster reel located near the machine or large-wheeled units. If they do not have a large supply of the extinguishing agent on-site, it may pay off to find out where you can get it, even at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

As mentioned before, walking through the facility with one of its representative and having him to explain the production process from start to finish will inform you of the facility’s specific hazards. As the representative points out machines or processing units that involve extreme heat, high voltage, or other hazards, ask what the dos or don’ts of putting out fires in that machine or processing unit are. If a special extinguishing agent must be used, find out where it is kept on site. If it is not available, strongly urge the facility to purchase it, explaining that if is not available on-site, you will be unable to put the fire out effectively, resulting in more property damage. If the extinguishing agent is on-site, find out its shelf life, whether it must be regularly inspected, and, if part of an extinguishing system, whether it is maintained.

Knowing that when you arrive on scene there you will need to use a different extinguishing agent other than water allows you to adjust your tactics before putting any firefighters in danger. If the extinguishing agent is not on-site, preplan to be delivered to the scene, if time permits. Also, if you know that the water from handlines will not be effective, prepare to go defensive from the beginning and set up aerial devices.

Do they have an accountability system for their employees and visitors? The number-one priority of any firefighter is life safety, which is why we search fire buildings for viable victims. Even searching a “small” industrial facility is a task that will most likely bump up the call to the next alarm level. It makes a huge difference if the facility has an accountability procedure for its employees and visitors. Your search strategy changes if the supervisor or other responsible person can tell you everyone is out or exactly how many people are not accounted for. Often larger facilities will have multiple evacuation rally points based on the employee’s designated work area, with each rally point having a leader. The leader will report to an overall evacuation supervisor, who is in charge of ensuring all the rally point leaders have everyone accounted for and will deal with any unaccounted-for persons. This system will allow the responsible person to tell you not only how many people are not accounted for, but also where in the building they should be. On the opposite end of evacuation is take-cover areas. If you know where employees should be in case of severe weather, you will also know where to start your search if the building is damaged by a tornado, hurricane, or high winds.

If the facility does not have any type of evacuation accountability system, recommend that they get one. This will not only benefit them, but also make your job easier if you respond to an emergency there. If you talk to the head of the facility and get him to set up an evacuation accountability system, he should be able to tell you where any missing people should be when you arrive on scene, making the primary search much quicker and focused. Also, having the employees gather at one or two predetermined points makes it easier for the incident commander to find witnesses and get more information about where the fire is and what is involved. In the case of a hazmat incident, this again makes it easier to get information on what was spilled or is leaking. In addition, it makes it easier to find people who have or may have been exposed and to get them through emergency decontamination.

If the facility has a storm shelter or designated places to take cover, note them on your preplan. If the facility is damaged and you know where the take-cover areas are, start a focused search immediately; this increases the probability of rescuing victims. Along with the take-cover shelters, find out if the facility will have its employees evacuate the building if it is damaged once the threat of a tornado has passed and go to their designated rally point. If so, then the incident commander can quickly find out if any employee is unaccounted for.

If you know when you arrive, you can find out if there are employees unaccounted for or where to begin your collapse search efforts, and thereby remove one variable from the hundreds going through your mind. A facility that has and practices evacuation and take-cover plans will make life easier for everyone when you respond to that facility. Again, if the facility does not have an evacuation accountability system, recommend one.              

What is the status of the facilitys private water supply? Typically, the first thing you read in any textbook about private water supplies is to avoid using them. In most cases, this is probably a good idea, but it is not always the case. Many larger facilities will have their own water tower, water tanks with fire pumps, or a combination of the two to supply the sprinkler system, the standpipes, and the hydrants with enough water for an extended period of time. If the facility does have its own hydrants, make sure you ask about how often they are inspected and maintained and how much water is reserved for fire suppression. If they have water tanks with fire pumps supplying the pressure, ask how often the pumps are tested. If they have a 200,000-gallon water tower that is strictly for fire suppression and hydrants that are flow-tested annually, you may save yourself from laying a lot of large-diameter hose for relay pumping.

When you are doing preplanning and inspections, find out if the water tower on the facility grounds is for production or fire suppression. If it is for fire suppression, find out if they inspect and maintain their hydrants, post indicator valves, and sprinkler system. Even if they do not have a private water tower, find out if their sprinkler system is inspected and maintained according to National Fire Protection Association Standard 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. If the building is sprinklered, ask about hose drops or hose cabinets. If they have them, find out where they are and note them on your preplan. If you have a water connection inside the building that you can rely on, why pull a lot of extra hose when you can bring in a high-rise pack instead? Beware of the hose that is in the hose cabinet or on the hose drop, since they are typically single-jacketed and only get tested every three years, if at all.

If you hear all the right answers and see the documentation showing the private water supply is up to par and the system is inspected and maintained, go ahead and use it, but be prepared to establish your own water supply in case it fails. Unlike municipal water supplies, private water supplies may not see high levels of water flow through them all the time and may fail during fire suppression activities because of the increased pressure put on the system.

Are employees trained on how to de-energize the machines in the facility? Another thing that may be very helpful is knowing if employees are trained on de-energizing equipment in the facility. Often de-energizing is thought of as shutting off the power to the machine, but many machines will also store potential energy in the form of hydraulics, springs, etc.

If a machine has to be disassembled to free a trapped victim, take extreme care to ensure that these potential energy sources are not released, allowing parts to fly, potentially injuring or kill rescuers. Some machines that fall into this category are rolling presses, augers, and conveyor belts. If the facility has robotic units, it is critical that you find out how to shut down and lockout-tagout these machines. Robotic units cannot differentiate between a human and a machine part; the unit may mistake a rescuer for a machine part and reach out and grab him, causing serious injury to or killing the rescuer.

As mentioned earlier, preplanning and walking through the facility with one of its representatives and going through the production process from start to finish will give you an idea of the type of hazards the machines or processing units pose. For specific machines, employees may be trained on how to take it apart to free an entangled co-worker or there may be a box with instructions nearby to guide rescuers on the safest way to untangle someone. If possible, get instructions on how to take apart a piece of equipment, or find out whether the facility has trained its employees and note it in your preplans.

Trying to cut parts of a piece of equipment is can be extremely difficult. Most equipment is made of composite metals and your hydraulic extrication  tools will barely make a scratch. If you can cut parts of the machine, you risk releasing kinetic energy, which may cause pieces to go flying and potentially injure or kill you, your crew, or bystanders.

Remember,  just because the power switch at the machine is shut off does not mean the power is off. Send a crew member with someone from the facility to shut off the breaker that goes to that machine. Once the breaker is off, follow lockout-tagout procedures. If you do not carry lockout-tagout equipment on your apparatus, obtain it from the facility to use or leave a firefighter at the breaker. Keep in mind there may be a natural gas, propane, hydraulic oil, or other type of feed to the machine that will also need to be shut off and locked out-tagged out.

Because there are so many different kinds of machines and pieces of equipment throughout even one industrial facility, there is no way to master disassembling or fully de-energizing them. The best thing you can do is work with the facilities in your coverage area to ensure there is a phone list on-site of contacts to call to respond if someone does become entangled in a piece of equipment.


These seven questions are not by any means the only questions you should ask during an industrial facility tour, but they will give you a good foundation to build on. By asking these simple questions you should get a better understanding of the facility and what to expect if you respond to a call there. These questions will hopefully encourage a dialogue with the person giving the tour that will reveal other information that could be critical to safe and efficient response to that facility.

Not only will asking these questions during a preplan or tour of the facility assist you in preparing to respond to an incident there, it is a great public relations opportunity. Too often, the fire department is seen as the bad guy when it does inspections or tours of industrial facilities because it points out all the bad things along the way. Once you are able to get a dialogue going with the facility representative, that individual will realize that you care about his facility and employees. Also, as you go through the facility, make sure you point out all the good things you notice, e.g., it has an emergency response team, defibrillators and eyewash stations are present, or anything else along those lines. Let the representative know that you think it’s great they have these things. Part of the service part of the fire service is preparing to respond to all types of incidents and helping those who are taking a proactive step in preparing to respond to incidents at their business or home.


Mark Heeren, an eight year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutentant and training officer with the Prophetstown (IL) Fire Department. He is a contract industrial firefighter with the rank of lieutenant for Pinkerton Government Services, assigned to a global heavy construction manufacturer. He is an Illinois-certified Fire Officer I, Hazmat Tech, Confined Space Rescue Tech and Illinois Department of Public Health EMT-Basic.

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