In the teeth of the fire
Published: 01 April, 2006
The Europe, Africa and Middle East Manager for Williams Fire & Hazard Control Inc, one of the world’s leading industrial firefighting companies, Kelvin Hardingham told IFJ:
“Each of our industrial teams at Buncefield had an important piece of the puzzle and, as we extinguished fires in different sectors, the site became increasingly more secure. This was how the fires were eventually put out.”
The Lead Firefighter for the EMEA Region, Kelvin had been officially requested to attend in support of Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) as a ‘Technical Advisor to the Incident Commander and Onsite Fire-fighting Operations Co-ordinator working with the HFRS Fireground Commander’ at Buncefield. Kelvin himself is a former DO with the Essex County Fire & Rescue Service.
Kelvin arrived at Buncefield at around 8pm on Sunday, December 11th, 2005, for a crisis meeting with the HFRS Bronze Command Officer.
“Following my introduction with the Bronze Commander I walked the site along with industry expert Dr. Niall Ramsden and we indentified the problem areas. These included a number of pressure fires, an internal floating roof tank fire, bund fires and breached bunds.
“Accompanied by Arnie Arnold of BP Coryton who was already onsite, we went back to Bronze Command and put our proposed firefighting strategy to Hertfordshire. They were certainly in command of the incident but they clearly saw their role to listen and evaluate our advice,” he explains.
“There very little significant firefighting action visible when I arrived - except for cooling some tanks near the road loading stands on the west side, a successful attack on two tank rim seal fires and the laying out hoses and establishing command structures. The fire had been burning for about 12 hours by this time.
“Operations were delayed because the site firewater system had been destroyed and there was a fear of contaminating the North London’s drinking water supplies which were nearby.”
A small 1,000gpm water supply was available and was used for the above cooling operations. New Dimensions water relay pumps and hoses to supply adequate water supplies were also set up by the fire crews.
Advantages in personnel & equipment
Answering a nationwide mutual support call were specialist teams attending from Sembcorp’s Teeside emergency division, myself from WF&HC and specially-trained officers from Essex County Fire & Rescue Service (ECFRS). Also attending were personnel from Total’s LOR refinery and from BP Coryton’s Essex Refinery.
“In late 1980s I was very much involved in the purchase of the 2x6 GUN as part of the Mobil, Shell & Essex mutual aid purchase when I was a serving Fire service Officer with ECRFS. It was natural they should use LightWater ATC foam agent too - it at that time it was clearly the best firefighting foam in the world for the Petroleum Industry.
“With the Lindsey Oil TOTAL truck on the west side we set up the 2x6 GUN in the south-east area of the site. We tackled between 18 and 20 tank fires and managed to prevent the fire spreading to the other 8 unaffected adjacent tanks over the next three days. The wind was light most of the time and fortunately did not hamper firefighting operations,” he comments.
By midnight Sunday Kevin Westwood and his colleagues from SembCorp were busy getting their PATRIOT 11 trailer monitor set up alongside the 2 x 6 GUN in preparation for start of operations to tackle the burning tanks etc.
Explains Kelvin: “We had to wait three hours before the firewater supplies were available after setting up the PATRIOT II alongside the 2x6 GUN to begin our attack. The fire teams nearly ran out of LDH hose establishing the water relay - they used around 18 miles of 6” LDH hose laying out,” comments Kelvin.
“Eventually we had some water supplies made available - this was around 4,000 gallons at lower than desired pressures by about 4am. We were in the process of moving further into the fire when the firewater was shut down! At that point we had put out the three most serious tank fires and their bunds on the SE side with the and the PATRIOT II and the 2x6 GUN.”
This pattern kept repeating - the fire water would often be shut off for two or three hours at a time, largely as a result of concerns about pollutants contaminating water supplies, he recalls.
By this time the HRFS Incident Commander had opted for an ‘aggressive fire attack’ as th way to tackle the Buncefield tanks rather than adopting a ‘let-it-burn’ approach.
This made a difficult operation almost impossible as a continuous and considerabe firewater supply was required.
Flooded and dangerous
By now, conditions onsite were almost intolerable: the drainage system was flooded - a large number of drain covers were missing and firefighters had to be careful to avoid falling down drains and some of these drains were at times on fire because of product spills. Because continuous fire-fighting operation required thousands of litres, successfully containing the firewater proved a serious problem.
Explains Kelvin: “We had extinguished four Tank and bund area fires and Total’s LOR crew, under Carl Lamb, had put out another three tanks ands some bund areas by mid-morning Monday. LOR crew’s water supply, just 1,000 gpm, had thankfully been maintained during operations.”
He comments: “The 2 x 6 GUN was repositioned to deal with the the fire on the East side and the PATRIOT 11 was moved to the west side to work with the LOR crew. Two of the tanks we had previously extinguished reignited during the period whilst the firewater supply had been shut down. As soon as the water returned we had to extinguish them again.”
“During the first two days we had a variety of foams onsite, some good and not so good. It got occasionally frustrating - tanks which had been extinguished then reignited because the foam blanket couldn’t be maintained.”
As it turned out, one of these ‘poor quality foam’ incidents led to a general concern that an as yet un-ignited tank might catch alight.
The industrial teams were asked by the Hertfordshire Incident Commander to move the 2x6 GUN monitor to extinguish the fires that were affecting this unburnt tank
Kelvin recalls: “At that time the crews working the 2 x 6 GUN were surrounded 220 by fire from tanks and bund fires, and the foam concentrate was extremely poor - we were being supplied with high expansion foam at that time. The concensus was it would be too dangerous to shut down the 2x6 GUN and try and move it. Conditions generally were hot and smoky and we were wearing full bunker gear without BA, at the time.”
The Hertfordshire Commander felt he had no option at that time except to evacuate the site, so on Monday night everyone had to leave the area. This gave an advantage to the industrial fire teams who could not only find two hours’ sleep but also and plan their re-entry strategies.
“In due course we returned to set up water curtains to protect all the tanks which had not caught alight. This was achieved thanks to the 2x6 GUN - we also used and ground monitors to throw up water curtain around these tanks to cool the steel structures. From these cooling operations we gradually progressed back into the site to our original incident point and over the next 18 hours we extinguished most of the tanks and bund fires,” says Kelvin.
“Kevin Westwood and the SembCorp team deserve a special mention for their sterling handling of the pressure fires on the west side of the site,” he reports.
“On Tuesday afternoon we tackled the 45m tank to the North of the site that we had let burn because of its remoteness. We were then confronted with a large bund fire around this tank which we extinguished again using the 2x6 GUN. The last tank we faced was an internal floating roof tank on the west side. In order to ascertain the condition of this tank external and internal roof structures I elevated over the tank using the HRFS aerial ladder and fortunately, I could see that the tanks external roof had split giving us access to the open interior which was fully ablaze. There were a number of pressure fires being fed and these fires kept reigniting under a surge or pulse of fuel.”
The fire team considered water bottoming the tank to raise the water level to above the discharge level. This proved unfeasible due to the difficulty of getting water into the tank as the pipework was severely distorted from the heat loading it had been subjected too. By now there was only two metres of product left in the tank, so we made the decision to allow the tank contents to burn itself out
Kelvin explains: “Essentially, the product in the tank keep the tank walls cool to the level of the product, this is especially relevant with blended and lighter products but is not so much the case with heavy oils like crude oil. If you look at a tank which has been subject to fire the level of product in these finished and light product tanks is clearly shown by the ‘clean line’ which shows that that part of the tank has been unaffected by heat.”
Another useful tool at the Buncefield fire proved to be thermal imaging pictures obtained from a police helicopter. It was during the reviewing these images on the ground that the authorities identified the heat footprint coming off one of the unaffected tanks that led them to their decision to evacuated the site on Monday night. This was the tank which they had asked the industrial fire team to cool by relocating the 2x6 GUN.
“However, it all turned out alright in the end. We returned after resting for a few hours and proceeded with extinguishing the remaining tank fire. By late on Tuesday, December 13th, the incident was largely over. When I walked the site there were only a few small fires left which were swiftly cleared up,” says Kelvin.
Credit to those involved
Although this fire did burn for a long time before finally being fully extinguished, the whole operation was a credit to the expertise and commitment of all the fire service parties involved. HFRS for their Command and Control at the incident, industrial fire teams from BP’s Coryton , TOTAL’s LOR and Sembcorp’s Refinery fire teams as well as ECFRS for their combined expertise on the fireground.
It proved a very difficult and frustrating first two days when the firewater supplies to the fireground where initially very poor and then - once set up - were continually subject to being shut down, in order to prevent the London drinking water reservoirs from becoming contaminated.
In fact, the protection of these reservoirs were the Risk Assessment’s number One priority
Bbecause of these interruptions in Fire Water supplies during the first two days some of the tank were extinguished up to FOUR times over the first two days and nights, causing certain of the foams to breakdown their vapour barriers without having the capability of replenishing the blankets due to lack of fire water.
“I feel over the next months and years a number of lessons will likely be learned from Buncefield,” says Kelvin.
“Much of the firefighting operations carried out at this incident endorsed most of our own philosophies at WF&HC when dealing with such incidents under such difficult and at times frustrating circumstances.
“The Mutual aid support from both municipal and industrial groups showed how well things operate in a LESS formalised structure,” says Kelvin.
“I’ve also have no doubts that - in light of the experience of Buncefield - the UK’s HSE will revisit the current standards for preplanning,” he says.
“This three-day incident readily demonstrated the value of portable high-volume water and foam long range trailer monitors like those brought to Buncefield by both BP and Total’s LOR crews, in comparison to Pod or skid designed monitor units, when it comes to necessary mobility in foaming and cooling operations.”
Kelvin also feels there is a very real need for today’s petrochemical facilities to be able to handle substantial pressure fires.
“We were able to handle them at Buncefield thanks to the WF&HC HydroChem units brought on site by Kevin Westwood and his team from SembCorp.
“The value of specialist training in the petrochemical sector was more than proven by the Essex Fire & Rescue Services firefighting team. They had all been trained - along with personnel from BP, Total/Lindsey Oil Refinery and SembCorp - by the Williams Fire & Hazard Control Firefighters,” he concludes.