BY ROBERT E. ZAPATKA
It is estimated that there are more than one million firefighters in the United States today, consisting of career, volunteer, part-time paid, municipal, marine, military, wildland, and various combinations of each. The vast majority of these firefighters fall under the banner of municipal, though that one-size-fits-all designation can be broken down even further to big city, county, small town, or rural. These are the individuals and departments that get all of the attention in the mainstream media whenever there is a major incident, and by all means these brave firefighters should be recognized for their efforts. Even publications such as this one and others are geared toward the municipal firefighter because that’s where the largest customer base can be found.
But, there is one fairly significant type of firefighter who does not get a whole lot of recognition today-the industrial firefighter. These are the firefighters who protect the thousands of manufacturing facilities throughout the country and the world, everything from machine shops to widget makers, from metal foundries to automobile manufacturers, from the smallest chemical plants to the largest refineries and petrochemical facilities. I do not know if there has ever been a census taken to determine the number of firefighters who fall in this category, but the number has to be in the tens of thousands in this country alone, considering the huge manufacturing base that exists throughout the United States.
So why does the public not hear very much about industrial firefighters? I imagine a lot of it has to do with the fact that most industrial incidents are handled internally, within the industrial facility itself, quietly and efficiently by that facility’s internal fire brigade, without having any effect whatsoever on the world outside the facility. And that’s the way we like it to be. If the incident does not make it to even the local newspaper, then management is happy, and the industrial fire brigade is proud of itself for a job well done.
Now, every once in a while an industrial incident will make the local news and perhaps even the national news if the event is big enough. And what will most of the viewing public see on the television broadcasts? Usually film shot from a helicopter, showing flames and smoke rising “hundreds of feet in the air” and, oh yeah, a bunch of master streams that seemed to have popped up out of nowhere to magically surround the fire in a valiant effort to extinguish the flames. Very little is ever said about the individuals the cameras cannot spot, the industrial brigade members busting their tails on the ground, in full bunker gear and breathing air, risking their lives to bring the situation under control. We in the industrial community know the kinds of dangers those men and women are facing.
You see, industrial firefighting is a whole different ballgame from municipal firefighting. The tactics may be similar, but, for the most part, the strategy is not. Very simply put, the municipal fire team enters the building, locates the fire, and extinguishes it. Of course, other activities take place as well, usually simultaneously, such as search and rescue, ventilation, salvage and overhaul, and so on.
The industrial fire brigade, on the other hand, enters the “area” to locate the fire, uses its streams to protect exposures, finds the nearest isolation point to block out the fuel, and waits for the leak to depressure and for the fire basically to go out on its own. That’s because in many instances you do not want to extinguish the fire because the resulting vapor release will create an even more dangerous situation. (Peripheral activities will almost certainly be taking place here as well, such as search and rescue, overhaul, runoff containment, and so on.)
The dangers may be different as well. The municipal firefighter needs to be constantly aware of such hazards as unstable structures and poor visibility, running out of breathing air within the structure, and such phenomena as flashover and backdraft. The industrial firefighter, depending on the type of industry he is in, must always be on the lookout for other types of hazards, such as falling debris, failed steel structures, hazardous chemicals, and high-pressure lines. In a chemical plant such as mine, hundreds of miles of pipes are filled with such dangerous or highly flammable chemicals as ethylene, propylene, methane, hydrogen, and chlorine, with line pressures in some areas approaching 2,000 psi.
Another type of industrial incident where the strategy is different from municipal, one that is almost certainly confined to the petrochemical industry, is the hydrocarbon tank fire. The surround-and-drown tactics used here may be similar to what municipal firefighters may use in a fully involved structure, where the only sensible attack is defensive. The incident commander (IC) in this type of situation will have only one thing in mind, and that is the industrial firefighter’s favorite four-letter word, foam, as well as enough water flow to deliver that foam. While the news helicopter cameras are showing a number of master streams putting water in what appears to be a hopeless battle to extinguish the fire, the IC’s intent is merely to keep the metal of the structure cool while he’s waiting for the foam to arrive. Only after the foam- and water-delivery appliances are in place, and his foam application calculations are complete, will the IC direct the attack on the main body of the fire. The personnel doing all that work are none other than our heroes, the industrial firefighters-the well-trained industrial firefighters, that is.
One of the many misconceptions municipal firefighters may have about their industrial counterparts is that the industrial firefighters are not as highly trained as municipal firefighters. In most cases, nothing is further from the truth. Just as the municipal fire service has established minimum standards for career and volunteer firefighters, so, too, does industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) set minimum standards for industrial firefighters.
As an example, my facility is a fairly large chemical plant, the largest producer of ethylene in the world. All of our firefighters are highly skilled in practically all aspects of firefighting, including interior (we don’t train for brush fires, though). Every fire brigade member is certified to the new NFPA 1081, Standard for Industrial Fire Brigade Member Professional Qualifications (2001). A number of the brigade members have more than 25 years of experience, and intensive training takes place throughout the year for every firefighter. Additionally, we have a separate, highly trained, EMS/rescue squad whose members are nationally certified and have, in addition to a medical rating, years of experience in high-angle, confined-space, and trench rescue. They may not be trained to extricate a victim from a wrecked car, or even have the tools to do so, but they can certainly extricate him safely and quickly from inside a knockout drum or from the top of a 100-foot distillation tower.
A typical training scenario for industrial firefighters most likely will be at one of the few training facilities in the country designed for industrial fire training, such as those at Texas A & M, Louisiana State University, or Elko, Nevada. In such scenarios, firefighters are trained to direct their attacks on projects that might include leaking propane flanges and pumps, gasoline spills, and large pits full of burning diesel. Multiple fixed and portable monitors and attack lines, foam lines, and dry chem extinguishers may all be called into play together on one project in a coordinated attack that almost always uses that very familiar strategy: cool the structure, isolate the fuel sources, and extinguish the remaining fire. The incident command system is always used throughout industry, much the same as in municipal firefighting, to safely accomplish the objectives.
Despite the many misconceptions one type of firefighter may have of the other, however, I have found one thing to be mostly true in my years of experience in the fire service: Municipal firefighters don’t like to do industrial, and industrial firefighters don’t like to do interior. As much as the municipals don’t want to have anything to do with all of those chemicals and high pressures and foam and big water, the industrials could care less about crawling around in the dark with SCBA on, looking for a victim who may or may not be there. Again, some may consider this to be an overgeneralization, but it is something I have found to be true in many cases.
Industrial firefighters are pretty much low key as opposed to the municipal firefighters, especially the volunteer firefighters, who will proudly wear their department T-shirt until it literally falls apart. The industrial firefighter doesn’t usually advertise his affiliation. You probably won’t see him drive down the road with the light bar, stickers, and bells and whistles on his pickup. Public adoration is not his thing. At some industrial facilities, membership on the industrial fire brigade is a job requirement; at others, the brigade members are volunteers. Either way, the industrial firefighter takes his job seriously, takes his fire training seriously, and considers himself as much of a professional as the guy who does firefighting for a living. To think any less of himself would be a disservice to himself, his fellow brigade members, and his employer.
Having attended many fire service conferences nationwide over the years, I have been disappointed in the lack of programs for industrial firefighters.
So the next time you see that helicopter news shot of the industrial facility fire being surrounded by 10 or 12 master streams, the “big fire-big water” events that are all too commonplace in industry, keep in mind the efforts of those courageous, dedicated, and highly trained industrial firefighters on the ground. After all, they’re firefighters, too. ■
■ ROBERT E. ZAPATKA has more than 40 years of experience in the municipal volunteer fire service with departments in Rhode Island and Texas. He has been with the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department in Humble, Texas, for 22 years, serving as a chief officer for 11 years. He is a Texas-certified volunteer firefighter and Level II instructor. He also has 16 years experience as an industrial firefighter with ExxonMobil Chemical Company’s Baytown Olefins Plant in Baytown, Texas, where he is currently captain and training officer, and is NFPA 1081 certified. He has a B.A. in education from the University of Rhode Island. He is a member of the Industrial Fire and Safety Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.