On-target response

Published:  28 March, 2014

The largest mobile fire fighting system in the southern hemisphere is now installed at Caltex Oil Refinery, Lytton, Brisbane (Australia). Jose Sanchez de Muniain speaks with Ian Mortleman, Emergency Response Specialist.

Ian Mortleman is the Fire and Emergency Response Specialist (AKA Fire Chief) of the Caltex refinery in Lytton, Brisbane, Queensland (Australia). Nearly 40 years ago he started as a refinery operator and over time he worked his way to Shift Manager, a role that also included On-Scene Commander (OSC) responsibilities during incidents. His position then developed further to encompass superintendent roles along with risk and project roles relating to process safety – including emergency response.

What does the role of Fire and Emergency Response Specialist cover?

At times it feels as if it covers everything related to the refinery operations, bar actually operating the refinery. Broadly it is about having an overview of all aspects of fire and emergency response, including:

•            Ensuring equipment preparedness – especially portable and appliance-related.

•            Ensuring fixed infrastructure is maintained and ready to be used and, if not (ie out for maintenance), that written and deployed mitigation is in place and communicated to the front-line incident responders.

•            Ensuring that monthly compliance checks are carried out, documented and any rectification carried out.

•           Review of fire studies, layout of fixed fire systems down to number and type of fire extinguishers.

•           Training and exercises, both desktop and real for fire.

•            Emergency response and oil spill to water.

•           Project work interface, not just for fire and emergency-related projects, but all projects, be it a building or a process plant.

•            Working with our municipal responders at Queensland Fire and Emergency Response (QFER), mutual aid groups and our own front-line responders.

Do you have full-time brigades?

We don’t have a full-time brigade on site other than me. I report to a Superintendent – who is also part of the Emergency Response Team – and a Fire Adviser, who along with me would attend the incident scene to advise and assist the OSC and liaison with QFER.

We have a fairly large number of personnel who can – and do – form the Refinery Emergency Management Team which is headed up by a senior manager as Emergency Manager. My Superintendent is part of this team as Emergency Co-coordinator. Our incident structure is closely aligned to the QFER management structure based on AIIMS (Australian Interagency Incident Management System).

The only aspect where we operate without the refinery operators as incident responders is when there is an oil spill to water – we are next to the Brisbane river mouth opening to Moreton Bay, which is a large expanse of water. We have a team of around 20 personnel drawn from mechanical and electrical tradesmen areas along with a cross section of technical roles. This same group is also now becoming the subject matter expert group that would work with QFER personnel to lay out, assemble and operate our high-volume portable pumping and extinguishment system supplied by Hytrans.

Recent exercises have shown that this team is now becoming a confident and innovative group in both high-volume pumping for major fires and in-shore cleaning and formal assessment.

Our strategic response is unlike a number of industries because we don’t rely on fire appliances and brigades of professional firefighters on site 24 hours a day. We do have fire appliances but these are geared toward tank fires – primarily rim seal fires.

Most tanks have dry foam risers and the appliances connect to these along with a flatbed truck with totes of foam that are delivered to the rim seal area.

For process fires we rarely utilise an appliance. What normally occurs – and this is driven by limited responder numbers – is activation of fixed fire monitors and foam resources which are placed alongside the monitor. Typically we have either 200 litres or 1,000 litres of 3% foam drums beside monitors, and 20-litre drums next to hose reels. One person can cover a big area with foam very quickly (or deliver a substantial amount of cooling) and disperse gas without rolling out a hose. Secondary response cuts in shortly after from shipping containers (close to perimeter of process area) of portable ground monitors, fire hose and turnout PPE.

If the incident grows in intensity we have a range of trailer-mounted mobile monitors ranging from 7,500 l/m to 10,000 l/m to 20,000 l/m, all driven by 125 mm hoses or 64 mm hoses breached to the 125 mm inlets.

We previously lacked the ability – as did the QFES and other industries – to attempt or even dream about extinguishing a full surface fire. It took a corporate audit and a funds boost from the board – who could no longer accept the risk of not being able to extinguish a full surface fire on the largest crude oil tank – to put in place what at present is the largest mobile firefighting system in the southern hemisphere.

We had the opportunity to upgrade the fire distribution pipe-line system and the fire water pumping capability as well as to install a fixed foam system to be able to extinguish the one or two tanks.

What was the solution?

The solution comprises two Hytrans 1,200 pumps units with 5 km of 300 mm diameter hose, a hook lift truck, four foam pods each holding 12,000 litres of foam, and two ALCO fire monitors. One is a tiller-operated monitor capable of 8,000 l/m out to 30,000 l/m, and the other is a wheel-operated monitor starting at 20,000 l/min going out to 50,000 l/min.

What this has given us is a pumping capability of up to 60,000 l/min – and options.

We can operate one monitor at 30,000 l/m or two at 60,000 l/m, or operate one monitor at 48,000 l/m. And we can run a 300 mm fire main anywhere, breach it down to 125 mm outlets and again down to 64 mm outlets.

We can use the water from the large river as well as the open sea, or we can shift the whole system to any water storage. We can also supplement the fixed fire main system with one of the mobile pumps and sweep the roads. We have bought a road broom to clear any gravel build-up on the hard-surface roads as the weight and movement of the 300 mm hose can lead to outer skin damage on the hose.

How do you train with this equipment?

There is a downside to training with heavyweight equipment. Deployment is relatively easy – it’s the overhaul that no-one looks forward to. A 300mm hose with a little water inside is very heavy; and a 300mm hose in a long depression where you cannot let water out either end becomes a challenge.

We do exercise. We recently ran a full-surface tank fire exercise with QFES on the basis that they assisted with the overhaul. More than 40 professional firefighters turned out with appliances, aerial appliances, tactical units and command units to work alongside the refinery team to deploy and run the Hytrans system. The next day two appliances turned out to assist with the make-up of hoses.

How have equipment requirements changed and what are the drivers?

One of the noticeable changes with industry-based incident response is the move to doing everything with fewer personnel.

Even though we do train all our operating staff, the actual turnout can be as low as five to six people because the rest are needed to operate the refinery machinery. Equipment requirements are therefore geared towards what one or more people can safely and quickly deploy.

On the other hand large petrochemical fires require large responses. And large tank fires or even large process fires demand large volumes of water – though again with limited resources. In our case we somewhat rely on the QFES to supply the labour force rather than the equipment. QFES is geared towards small industrial and house and grass fires – not large petrochemical facilities with large volumes of hydrocarbons – and in our case hydrofluoric acid butane plants – so there is a reliance on industry to have the equipment available and the expertise to operate it.

How often do you train?

Training and exercises are a regular part of the refinery's preparedness. For front-line incident responders the refinery operators have built into their shift rosters 5x8hr fire training days per year across five shifts. We do most of the training with QFES against a set of Australian standards. SCBA has had more focus in recent times and training now incorporates it, both smoke-filled rooms for recoveries and for isolations with hose teams. We cover hydro-carbon fires in all aspects, from regular hose-handling practice through to rim seal fire attacks on full-sized tanks.

The Refinery Emergency Management Team meets every Friday for one hour to cover either roles or scenarios. And we have built on to this a desktop with QFES prior to the full QFES and site practical exercise. This desktop also includes a security aspect as well.

The Oil Spill Team generally trains monthly and the aim next year is to have six sessions during the year based on shoreline clean up, interspersed with high-volume pump activities.

We often incorporate our terminal on the boundary and our Crisis Management Team, even all the way through to a regional Marine Crisis Management Team in Singapore.

We are fortunate at present to have a large area dedicated to an Emergency Response Centre, along with training room, offices and facilities. We have three redundant full-size floating roof tanks with associated pumping and pipework – great for exercises (even with fire).

Do you have mutual aid arrangements?

We do have a loose formal arrangement with a refinery close by, and if we were to consider training with other brigades it would be more within this mutual aid. This year has seen an increase in training with each other.

How does your approach to emergency response differ from that of others?

I see two strategic approaches within refineries. One is to base the prime tactics around mobile fire appliances. While this is OK in most cases, it appears to me that it ties up an expensive piece of kit while not always offering the flexibility to be innovative in terms of tactics. And it often requires trained professionals to operate the equipment.

There have been recent cases where an appliance has got so close that it has become involved in a fire as it has escalated. A very traditional firefighters’ approach, which no doubt comes from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade's approach, where they do need a vehicle to get to the incident loaded with everything that may be needed.

The other approach is not based around traditional fire appliances but rather based around a combination of fixed systems in process areas and mobile ground monitors of varying sizes, moved by small vehicles and trailers. I am a great believer in trailers loaded with hose, ground monitors or rescue gear. Why? Because in most businesses there are always a number of utilities or light trucks available, and so one or two persons can mobilise equipment into very tight areas. And once unloaded the trailer can be pushed out of the way so there is no big appliance blocking up access ways.

Where did that approach come from?

I can’t take credit for any inspirational ideas, as it is something that’s grown over time, most likely from a low capital funding base. For instance we have flatbed truck loaded with 10,000 litres of 3% foam in totes and with a fixed monitor mounted on the tray. Hook it up to the fire main and you make a lot of finished foam.

What do most refinery fires need?

Lots of water, lots of foam and placement in restricted areas. This can be achieved with low-cost options made up of normal commercial vehicles rather than purpose-built fire appliances. I have an upgrade of one of our appliances happening at present. I replaced it with a 4.5-tonne flatbed hire truck. We loaded hose, in-line foam proportioners, 200-litres of foam and breaching couplings. Then we mounted a William Daspit tool monitor on the cage behind the cabin – and now we have a rapid-response vehicle that when hooked up to a fire main can place water and foam with minimal manning.

What safety regime challenges have you had to overcome, and what hurdles do you still see in the future?

Over the last 30 to 40 years I have seen a change from basic PPE – which was ahead of the community standards – to turnout gear that puts you far closer to the incident than perhaps is wise. SCBA use and the awareness of the health hazards have also certainly grown in recent times. We have thermal imaging cameras now that allow a more targeted approach, yet it still relies on the employee – often in a secondary role – to put the wet stuff on the red stuff.

There is a growing reluctance to be involved in the front line of incident response, so our hurdles will be to change the incident response model. To some degree we have done this with the high-volume pumping and oil spill team. Will we have a small highly-trained team on shift for all incident responses? Unlikely, in present economic times that we would ever have a full-time 24-hr emergency response team. So the hurdles for the future are not technology-based but people-based.

Can you talk about your pollution incident response management plan?

Our team focus is more on the fire emergency response preparedness and tactics. Yes we do have a pollution management plan, as we have to comply and be licenced to discharge both into the air and water, but I don’t get fully involved in these as we have an environmental team for this.

What is going to become an issue is the use of fire fighting foams. Presently, fluoro-based foams are still legal to use in Australia, however environmental protection authorities are saying they would expect that we contain any run-off and dispose of it properly. The balance between acceptable foams for the environment and the extinguishment of a large full surface fire in a tank is the debate yet to happen between industry and the authorities.

This article first appeared in Industrial Fire Journal Spring 2014, issue no. 95.

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