Ethanol fire know-how when it’s needed

Classroom training provides invaluable information for boots-on-the-ground firefighters and emergency responders. This story appears in the December issue of EPM.
By Ann Bailey | November 13, 2015

William “Bill” Brobst Jr. knows first-hand that the Renewable Fuels Association’s ethanol safety training makes a difference when it comes to responding to fires.

In the past three years, Brobst, a hazmat captain in the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire has responded to both train and tanker ethanol emergencies. In 2012 Brobst responded to an emergency stemming from a train derailment in which a car carrying 2 percent denatured alcohol caught fire and two other cars burst and leaked the fuel.

Earlier this year, Brobst responded to another ethanol emergency, this time one that occurred after an ethanol tanker on the freeway near Columbus overturned and instantly burst into flames. Though Brobst had training in handling hazardous materials fires, he didn’t have specific safety training in ethanol emergencies when he and his crew responded to the 2012 train derailment.

“We had to research that night what we were dealing with,” Brobst says. “We needed to do research on how to fight an ethanol fire.” He was able to access the Internet on his smart phone and look up the information, but he could have saved time if he had ethanol safety training, he says.

After the fire, the International Association of Fire Chiefs asked Brobst to give a presentation on the lessons he learned from responding to the railcar ethanol emergency. Since early last year, Brobst has been an ethanol safety instructor, traveling across the United States teaching for the RFA’s Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition.

Safety First
The EERC was developed by RFA to support transporting and handling of ethanol and ethanol-blended fuels safety concerns, says Missy Ruff, RFA technical services manager. The amount of renewable fuels is increasing, which makes it critical that first responders have the knowledge necessary to respond to ethanol and ethanol blended fuel emergencies, she says.

In 2006, the “Training Guide to Ethanol Emergency” training program was launched. Since then, the RFA has distributed more than 10,000 copies of the DVD across the United States and internationally, Ruff says. The RFA began holding ethanol safety seminars, funded by a U.S. DOE grant, in December 2010.

The goal is to give attendees the tools they can immediately use in the field and share with other first responder teams. In the past five years, more than 4,800 emergency responders in 29 states have been trained, Ruff says. During 2015, the RFA held 15 seminars in North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois. There is no fee for the seminars, which are targeted at hazmat teams, safety managers, local emergencies planning committees and the general public, she says, adding that attendees receive a certificate at the end of the training.

Lessons Learned
The seminars cover several areas, including an introduction to ethanol and ethanol-blended fuels, chemical and physical characteristics of ethanol and hydrocarbon fuels and firefighting foam principals.
Using foam instead of water to fight ethanol fires was one of the valuable lessons Brobst learned from his ethanol safety training seminars and something he passed on when the tanker overturned on the interstate near Columbus a few months ago, he says. Responding firefighters knew they should apply foam, not water, to extinguish the fire, after their experience with the rail car fire.

When Borbst arrived, he shared with the firefighters just how the foam should be applied. “You don’t put foam down like you’re fighting a house fire,” he says.

Another point that the ethanol safety seminar drives home to attendees is that emergency responders should be sure of what kind of fire they dealing with before they begin to fight it, says Joel Hendelman, an ethanol safety seminar instructor and former Fairfax (Virginia) Battalion chief.
“You have to know the animal you are dealing with,” he told emergency responders and firefighters who attended a RFA Ethanol Safety Seminar in Larimore, North Dakota, in August. “If you don’t know, the bear will eat you. Period.”

Be Prepared
When responding to a fire involving railcars or tankers carrying fuel, fire fighters should err on the side of caution and take foam with them, in case the cars or tankers are carrying ethanol, Hendelman says. The foam will also be effective in extinguishing hydrocarbon and gasoline fires, so firefighters have nothing to lose.

“As far as I’m concerned, whenever we get involved with a firefighting situation involving blended fuels, I assume we’re dealing with ethanol,” Hendelman says. “Pre-planning is extremely important. I would rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”

Another important lesson the seminars teach is the importance of local emergency responders getting to know ethanol suppliers in their area. “We have got to collaborate with these kinds of operations,” Hendelman told about a dozen emergency responders and firefighters in Larimore. “We need to put a little fertilizer on these relationships.” Meeting the suppliers’ key personnel and knowing the lay of the land will help the responders fight the fires more effectively, he says. “Let’s be proactive, not reactive.”
The EERC updated its DVD in 2014 and will introduce a new version of the training program in 2016. The new program will include an updated version of the module’s PowerPoint presentations imbedded with instructor notes, instructor manual and student guide. The 2016 version also will include a walk-around rail video, and a video version of each of the modules, Ruff says.

Author: Ann Bailey
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine