Published on July 7, 2015.

Who’s expected to extinguish fires at oil and gas wells?

[Editor’s note: This letter was co-authored by Chief Gates and the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.]

As a first responder living and working in an area of increased oil and gas activity, it was with great interest that I read the recent NFPA Journal article on the fire hazards faced by small, mostly volunteer fire departments at oil and gas drilling facilities (“New Frontier,” March/April). I was immediately struck by the first quote in the article—from the chief of a volunteer fire department in Western Pennsylvania—and quickly realized this set a tone of misinformation that carried throughout. “You can’t just run into these fires—you have to be trained,” the chief said. “And there is not a lot of training available yet because it’s such a new thing.”

As a fire chief and certified instructor, I steadfastly agree with the first statement and believe training in all types of fires and incidents should be a top priority for all departments. I am deeply concerned by the second statement and the following content, however, specifically the reporting on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and wells that may be on fire. I was particularly concerned by the implication that a responding fire department bears the burden to extinguish the fire.

As for the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, biocides and acids by themselves are not flammable. The chemical identification numbers provided on containers and placards on trucks carrying these materials allow firefighters to reference the U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook and determine how to properly manage an incident that would involve fires or spills. Other resources available to firefighters include manufacturer Safety Data Sheets, as well as CHEMTREC and CAMEO (resources for response information on incidents involving hazardous materials). While hydraulic fracturing fluid can contain multiple chemicals, it alone is not flammable. Hydraulic fracturing fluid is 90 percent water and nine percent sand, with less than one percent of chemicals added. The critical information for firefighters is that after a well has been hydraulically fractured, the fluid flowing back to the surface may contain hydrocarbons, making the vapors emitted from the water flammable. That is an important distinction that was not conveyed.

In regard to the reporting regarding fires or other well-control issues, the oil and gas industry has never expected local fire departments to mitigate these types of incidents. In almost all situations, a highly trained well-control specialist is needed to assess, manage, and ultimately gain control of the situation. Local fire departments may be called upon to serve in the unified command structure, as supporting parties with oil and gas industry experts, other first responders, and regulatory agencies to ensure the situation is safely and successfully mitigated.

This information is critical for first responders to know and also a large part of first-responder training programs that are already active in several of the states mentioned in the article. I personally have been involved with a very successful oil and gas emergency response training program developed by representatives of the oil and gas industry, the fire service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. This program, facilitated by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, has trained more than 1,200 firefighters from Ohio and seven other states. The accredited and certified workshops are two-day sessions that include classroom instruction and field demonstrations. First responders learn basic information regarding Ohio oil and gas activity and development; the differences between emergencies, non-emergencies, and common oilfield practices; common terminology and types of equipment used during oilfield activity; and hands-on techniques for responding to potential incidents, including live demonstrations. I know this curriculum has been shared with parties in other states, and other training programs exist nationwide.

In the end we have to ensure that all firefighters know “you can’t just run into these fires.” All fires and emergency incidents deserve to be treated with respect, especially incidents involving the oil and gas industry. That respect, best shown through situational awareness and situational understanding, is being taught in places like Ohio, and the fire service, the oil and gas industry, and our communities are better for it.

Chief, New Concord (Ohio) Fire Department and NFPA Member
Ohio Fire Chiefs Association, Board of Directors
Ohio Society of Fire Service
International Society of Fire Service Instructors

Chief Neal Nanna responds:

I am the fire chief from Western Pennsylvania that Mr. Gates and OOGEEP refer to. I manage three stations, 80 volunteer firefighters, and 13 pieces of apparatus. I carry some Pro Board certifications, among other qualifications. We protect 48 square miles and a population of about 15,000. Our coverage area includes 46 well pads—with anywhere from two to seven well heads on each—and a processing plant.

The advice of Chief Gates and OOGEEP is essentially to stand back and let the pros handle fires or other emergencies at oil and gas facilities. That’s not how it works, though; whenever 911 is called, you’re going to be dispatched, even if it’s a problem with a well, and you are going to be expected to mitigate that problem. The only situation you’re not asked to handle at a well is a blowout. If you had to wait for experts for every situation, you could end up waiting 12 to 24 hours until they arrived on scene. Also, the local fire company is not to notify the well fire specialists—that task is handled by the gas company, as there are substantial fees involved with bringing well fire specialists to a site.

Chief Gates also states that the oil and gas emergency response training program that he is involved in has trained more than 1,200 firefighters in Ohio and seven other states. While any kind of training like this is commendable, that number represents only a small fraction of the firefighters in those areas—a situation that I believe is both commonplace and inadequate. I can only speak to what is available in our area, but this type of training is very limited.

Even though the average firefighter is not normally trained to handle gas well emergencies, the gas companies expect fire departments like ours to mitigate an emergency after fracking with unified command and the gas company representative. This is why it is imperative that firefighters are trained in industrial techniques—not just fire, but also rescue, entrapment, medical emergencies, and other situations—and that fire departments establish a good rapport with gas companies, since most of them seem willing to pay for this training. I’m pleased to report that this training is now available to us at Butler County Community College. MarkWest Energy Partners and several other gas companies in our area have been instrumental in the training process.

It is great to have this conversation started, and I’m happy to talk with anyone interested in the training and facilities that are available in our area.

Chief, Harmony Area Fire District
Harmony, Pennsylvania

Emergency power: What exactly should be expected?

Your recent “Perspectives” interview with Eric Cote on emergency power needs [“Powered Up,” March/April] was great, but perhaps it should be expanded.

Cote tells the story of a doctor being interviewed about the loss of power at his hospital; he’s asked, “Sir, what happened to your generators? Why didn’t they work as expected?” The point missed here is “what is expected?”

On more than one occasion, my office has received calls about the failure of emergency lighting systems. Upon investigation we have found, for instance, that a facility lost power at 2 a.m.; that people got up to go to work at the facility at 5:30 a.m.; that they arrived at a dark building and were outraged that the “emergency lighting didn’t work”; that in fact the emergency lighting did work—the system came on at 2 a.m. when power was lost, lasted as planned for 90 minutes, and went out at about 3:30 a.m.

The “expectation” by much of the public is that emergency lighting should work as long as there’s a power failure. The “expectation” of the code, including NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, is that emergency lighting should work for 90 minutes.

I worked in the health care industry for a number of years, and our emergency generators were natural-gas-powered and had the capability of running as long as there was a supply of gas from the public utility. We exceeded the code, but were not required to do so; we took these extra measures by choice. Interestingly, the reasoning behind the purchase of these huge generators was to do “peak shaving” on our electric bills; it had nothing to do with providing almost unlimited emergency power, as long as we had natural gas. That was a happy by-product.

But the question that still needs to be answered in these situations is, “What is expected?”

Chief Fire Marshal
Director/Safety &
Codes Enforcement
Upper Merion Township,

Emergency power: Hospitals can learn from hotel story

With respect to the issue of emergency power needs and power outage events [“Powered Up,” March/April], as hospitals and other critical care facilities evaluate how to operate during times of major power interruptions, they might benefit from the experience of the lodging industry in dealing with large numbers of stranded employees and patrons in darkened hotels during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Limited power or the complete loss of power, often with the commensurate loss of traditional communications, drives decision making like no other event.

Many patrons of hotels in New Orleans either could not or did not evacuate as Hurricane Katrina approached the city. For those Hilton patrons remaining, Hilton’s management closed its four smaller hotels in the area and concentrated it resources and patrons in its largest hotel, the 1,200-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside and Towers. When the hurricane hit, normal commercial power was lost to the hotel district, as was all routine communication capabilities.

The hotel’s emergency generator, routinely tested and maintained, worked flawlessly. But as with most such “emergency” generators, it was both limited in its supply of fuel, its ability to operate for long periods, and the amount of equipment, systems, and lighting it could support; when operating at full load, the fuel consumption of the hotel’s generator was voluminous.

But it operated long enough to allow Hilton executives to devise an evacuation plan for the hotel’s employees and guests. Charter buses were contracted from around the region, and more than 1,200 people were safely transported to Baton Rouge. Inside Hilton, this event was called “The Great Escape.”

We learned a number of lessons regarding emergency power:

» In a catastrophic event, the vendors who typically supply fuel and repair/maintenance services for commercial building generators will not be available—you are on your own.

» Supplemental fuel supplies, typically 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel, need to be acquired and stored (outdoors) to provide critical extra time for the facility’s emergency generator to operate while evacuation plans are made.

» Knowing what the generator’s fuel consumption is in gallons per hour when fully loaded, as well as the amount of available fuel, are key metrics in real-time decision making.

» Material-handling equipment capable of moving fuel drums, as well as manually operated pumps to transfer fuel, must be acquired in advance. In addition, spare parts and materials including oil, oil filters, fuel filters, air filters, and batteries should be secured. The knowledge of on-site engineering personnel to service the generator is critical for keeping the generator running.

» Generator fuel tanks need to be periodically emptied, cleaned, and re-fueled with filtered fuel to avoid clogging the generator’s fuel system.

The positive experience of our guests in this crisis and their complimentary letters thereafter were better than any loyalty program we could have ever concocted.

The Hospitality Security
Consulting Group
Former chair, NFPA Lodging Industry Section
Reno, Nevada

From the editor:

Mr. Waters and Mr. Daly both make good points about the expectations and requirements of emergency power. Some buildings, such as hotels or office buildings, can be evacuated or closed, but those options are near the bottom of the list for hospitals and nursing homes during loss-of-power events. For those facilities, the emergency power systems are expected to run for many hours, if not days. As Mr. Daly notes, the facility does have to look at the scenario of “being on your own” and what that might mean in terms of on-site fuel storage or replenishment.

In the healthcare arena, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will soon finalize a rule (CMS-3178-P) dealing with emergency power requirements in hospitals and nursing homes, among other occupancies. If the rules stay as proposed, healthcare facilities will be required to have power supply requirements that exceed current capacities. In addition, contingencies will have to be evaluated that look at on-site resource capabilities after 96 hours of sustainability (including fuel availability) and determine how to manage that challenge.

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