Oil Fields Put New Pressure on Fire Depts.

The energy boom in rural America creates a new set of challenges for local fire departments, reports a trade journal. If a mid-sized city with a professional department is having trouble getting prepared, what does that mean for the small, mostly volunteer departments that protect rural America?

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The nation’s energy boom is bringing jobs, lower prices and – according to an article in a national firefighters’ journal – increased risk of new kinds of fires that may catch local fire departments unprepared.

Here’s one example, according to NFPA Journal:   

In March 2014 near Greeley, Colorado, a spark ignited flowback water, a flammable liquid that rises to the surface when an oil well is pumping. The blast shook houses and shot flames that were visible for miles. When nearby fire departments arrived, they didn’t have the materials they needed to extinguish the blaze. They had to wait for a foam trailer and water tankers. Two workers were injured.

“For a department more accustomed to fighting structure fires, it was an incident that required not just the proper suppressants, but the right training, equipment, and tactical approach to handle the fire safely and effectively,” writes Ashely Smith in the national journal.

Greeley, Colorado, is a city of nearly 100,000 residents that has a professional department with more than 100 firefighters.  If Greeley and its 110-member professional fire department are finding the oil and gas boom challenging, what’s it like for rural, volunteer departments in oil and gas country?

Smith’s report gives us a clue:

Advances in oil and gas drilling and exploration … have created a dramatic increase in oil and gas extraction activities in many parts of the United States … bringing with them activities and processes that can be unfamiliar to local fire response agencies. [Many of those agencies] are staffed by volunteers trained primarily in fighting structure fires. Departments often don’t have enough water, equipment, firefighters, training, or expertise to deal with fires when such a large amount of flammable material is concentrated in one area.

There are no national figures on explosions and fires in the recently expanded oil and gas fields. But the oil and gas industry accounts for 10% of deaths from fires and explosions each year – 13 in 2013.

The risk of emergency personnel handling unfamiliar fires was tragically obvious in the 2013 West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, where 14 people (including 11 firefighters) died when they rushed to extinguish a blaze. The volunteers didn’t realize they were putting themselves at risk because they didn’t know explosive chemicals were on site. And they didn’t have the training or equipment to deal with the blaze.

Fires at oil and gas wells have always been dangerous because the extracted petroleum products themselves are flammable. But new technology like hydraulic fracking brings even more risk, because it uses flammable materials like diesel fuel as part of the extraction process.

The presence of such materials means that small departments need training for not only residential fires but industrial accidents.

Energy Information Administration
Hyrdaulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling have opened shale fields (shown in map) to new oil and gas production.
 
“Regular firefighting and industrial firefighting are two different things, and they have really never intermingled—but now we’re forced to make that happen,” says Neal Nanna, chief of the Harmony Volunteer Department in Pennsylvania. “You can’t just run into these fires—you have to be trained. And there is not a lot of training available yet because it’s such a new thing.”

Because oil and gas drilling requires room and access to land, they tend to occur in less populated areas. That means smaller fire departments. And smaller departments aren’t generally first in line when it comes to new training and equipment.

Chief Nanna in Pennsylvania is trying to fix that. He’s reaching out to oil and gas companies in his 46-squre-mile service area to assess the risk, get companies to store fire-fighting materials on site, and help pay for firefighting training, Smith reports.

In the meantime, small fire departments aren’t getting much guidance on how to train and prepare for oil and gas well fires, Smith writes. Chief Nanna, for example, had to come up with his own system for working with oil and gas companies, acquiring equipment and training firefighters. “There was no manual dropped on Nanna’s desk to prepare for fires at drilling sites,” Smith writes.

The fire marshal back in Greeley, Colorado, Dale Lyman, says he might ask the National Fire Protection Association to develop a uniform set of guidelines that could help local departments get trained and ready.

The American Petroleum Institute, a private industry group, and various regulatory bodies have guidelines, but there’s no single set of standards, Smith reports. Until there is, small departments that have a lot of other work on their plates are responsible for digging through various reports to find the best approaches for dealing with the risk of explosions in their communities.

 

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