Exercise Proactive

Published:  30 November, 2017

Setting up a complex water-relay system to deal with contaminated run-off from a 25m-diameter tank’s bund was part of the unusual scenario of a  training exercise that took place recently at the Dorset & Wiltshire FRS Training Centre, reports Jose Sanchez de Muniain

Take time to fully assess an incident and a site before beginning operations, prioritise tasks according to importance and do not work in cells. These were some of the learning points that were picked up during Exercise Proactive, which took place on Sunday 17 September 2017.

It is a sign of these troubled times that an actual terrorist incident happens in London on the day before the exercise, which is itself simulating a terrorist threat. It results in two fire departments near the UK capital being unable to travel to the training centre, which is located within the confines of a military fuel depot, 120km away in southwest England.

The main effect of the terrorist attack is a reduction in participating high-volume pump teams from six to four, which come from Hampshire FRS, Dorset and Wiltshire FRS, Oxfordshire FRS and West Sussex FRS.

In today’s scenario, intelligence has been received that a petrochemical site is a current terrorist target. A backup firefighting main has been requested as well as the means to collect and contain any firefighting media run-off in a nearby lake. The participants are obliged to also consider that the lake is in an area that is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means the location has legal protection and must not be contaminated. Furthermore, in order to use the lake as a containment area for firewater, it will first need emptying into a nearby (simulated) river.

The provision of a firefighting main and run-off containment requires the deployment of a number of HVPs. There are 51 such units shared by 40 fire departments across England and Wales, deployable both locally as well as nationwide. Their first large-scale deployment was to the Buncefield fire in 2005, and since then they have been used mainly for wide-area flooding, coastal tidal surges, and wildfire incidents.

Prior to the start of the exercise, each participating fire department is tasked with devising a deployment and recovery plan. During the exercise, they have to formulate, agree and implement the plans in coordination with their fellow fire departments on site at the West Moors fuel depot.

Sitting in the briefing area are crew manager (Ringwood) Patrick West, Hampshire FRS, who is directing the exercise, and watch manager Matt Kiddell, Dorset & Wiltshire FRS, who is in charge of liaison and safety. They run through the timetable and the exercise amendments that have resulted from the last-minute absence of colleagues.

West explains that the water in the containment area will only be temporarily removed and that instead of being pumped into a river – as would happen in the real event – it will be pumped in a long hose loop back into the containment lake. He adds that on-site hydrants are not to be used; a TETRA radio must be present at each location, and participants should be aware that as a military site there are guard patrols with dogs (‘they do bite but they are on a lead’).

West also chooses the incident commander for the day, and designates West Sussex FRS to deal with the supply of water to the fire monitor. The teams then have a few minutes to formulate their plans, identify the locations for the equipment, and ascertain which roads require hose ramps so that they can remain open.

After only a matter of minutes, the action begins and all personnel deploy to the exercise area, which consists of a 25m-diameter storage tank containing diesel, a pond (the water supply) and a lake (the run-off containment area) situated 800m and 900m away, respectively.

The equipment focus of the day is the HVP sets, each of which consists of two modules carried by a prime mover vehicle. The HVP pump module carries the Hydrosub submersible pump module and a hose box containing 1km of 150mm delivery hose in 50m lengths. The second HVP module consists of two individual hose boxes, each containing 1 km of 150-mm delivery hose in 50m lengths.

The teams split into two working areas, one for water supply and another for run-off containment. The containment working area involves two HVPs and three hose lines, boosted mid-point at around 700 m. One hose line will empty the containment area at around 4,000 lpm, while the second pump will run a twin line, fulfilling the same task at around 7,000 lpm. These lines will run a 1.4 km loop that simulates the water being pumped out of the containment area into a nearby river.

'One roadway has to be maintained open, so that road will have three ramps, one for a single line and one for a twin. And there’s a ramp section for twin lines that has to be done over the water supply way as well,' explains Kiddell.

Just now common is this type of scenario, where the emphasis is not on putting a fire out, but on dealing with contaminated runoff? 'For a large scale incident it will always be a consideration,' says Kiddell. 'We have to manage the environment and we cannot let contaminated water run down the road, particularly if fuel is leaking into the bund area. You could potentially have a running fuel fire if we are not managing that, so it is about getting that out of the way and dealing with it.

'In any incident, we have to protect the environment. If it’s a large-risk incident then the environment becomes a lower priority, but at some point, we have to focus on it.'

The shadow of Buncefield hangs over the whole exercise, which picks up several learning points from the COMAH report ‘Buncefield: Why did it happen?’ This report outlined the underlying causes of the explosion and fire at the oil storage depot in Hemel Hempstead on 11 December 2015, where bunding arrangements for managing firewater were a major factor in the devastation.

When bunds fill to the point of overflowing, burning fuel (which floats on water) can escape over the top of a bund. The bunding at Buncefield had many flaws, which caused large volumes of fuel, foam and firefighting water to leak out of the bunds. Those bunds, which were neither impermeable nor fire resistant, were unable to handle the large volumes of firewater involved in the incident. The pollutants at Buncefield flowed as far as the M1 motorway several hundreds of metres away, and also penetrated the chalk stratum to a potable water aquifer.

Walking towards the location of the second working group, which is working on containment, a firefighter is at the halfway point of the twin hose line converting one of the Hydrosubs into a relay – or booster – pump. This is done by simply detaching the strainer and attaching the twin hose (converted into a single line) instead. Highlighting the logistical complexity of organising such training opportunities is exercise co-organiser Chas McGill of Hampshire FRS. 'The trouble is you don’t get a chance to do this sort of relay if you don’t have two HVPs. You can’t do it without resources.'

It is now nearly 11 am, around one and a half hours since the exercise started, and the twin-hose water-relay system of the water containment group is nearly ready to charge, with one Hampshire firefighter walking the line to check all the couplings along the 1.4 km loop. 'Operationally, that is a really good lay. If this was a road system on a chemical plant, this could not snake,' observes McGill.

Also witnessing the exercise is Colin Falconer, air separation plant manager – process operations, at BOC Gases in Southampton. He is highly aware of the many factors and firefighting technologies that contribute to the successful management of a significant incident in an industrial plant, including the importance of access to a plentiful supply of water. An even cooling of a storage tank is crucial in the event of a fire, in order to avoid the tank shell tearing as a result of the temperature differential between the hot part and the cool section.

'Many process tanks have sprinkler systems to provide cooling so you don’t get tearing, but the big problem with these systems is that they have to be maintained, tested, and flushed through,' he explains. 'And if it is a facility with salt water, that can be corrosive.'

Falconer recounts an incident involving a lightning strike on a crude oil tank, which started a rim seal fire. The industrial brigade applied foam, which collapsed the roof and turned the rim seal fire into a full surface fire. 'Then the localised cooling of the vessel ended with a tear, and the contents spilling into the bunded area – which had 110% capacity of the tank – and then coming out of the bund.'

Here, at West Moors, with its wide-open spaces, such a scenario might not be too catastrophic. 'However, if you are in the middle of a chemical plant or refinery, you have congestion of live pipework to other vessels,' says Falconer.

Exercise director Patrick West arrives at the containment area and immediately picks up on some learning points for the firefighters working near the water. 'They are in the warm zone and it is safety critical that they wear proper gear to go into the water and that they have a safety officer with a throw line. We’ll correct this at lunchtime.' The firefighters realise that something is not right and PPE is quickly donned while red tape is also strung across the area.

I ask West if he is happy with what he is seeing and whether the objectives are being met. 'They are communicating but they have shown up some rustiness in working with each other. I think that is highlighted by the fact that a few people are working in cells, which I can understand in terms of accomplishing bite-sized tasks, but there needs to be an overriding aim to bring it all together. We have people now not gainfully employed whilst others have not finished their task. They should be redeployed to carry out this task. And this is the ideal opportunity to introduce these people, so next time this happens for real they will know each other and work together.'

Operationally, West thinks things could have been done more quickly. 'The important thing is what needs to be done immediately, before starting to work, and in this case that is to get that water on the fire, because if that tank catches fire we need to tackle that.'

For the water relay, the mid-point should have been established at the start by laying down 700m of hose. 'But this is easy for me to say because I’ve devised it.'

West also feels that more time should have been spent assessing the situation before beginning to deploy the equipment. 'Let’s spend a bit more time on command and control, on the pre-briefing. Take an extra ten minutes and do not be afraid to do nothing. Don’t just rush in after having a quick look at a map in a classroom. Maybe drive round the whole site to get a picture in your head. That extra half hour will probably save one and a half hours later.'

This applies especially to these HVP units, which could be deployed to any part of the country at a moment’s notice. 'They may have driven five hours up the motorway to arrive at the incident. Should they be rushing to the job? That is how mistakes are made. Better to drive the five hours and then take an hour to plan it and do it right.'

All these points are addressed during the working lunch, where the firefighters share their thoughts on how the exercise has gone so far. We learn that the single line ran consistently at 2,500 lpm and that the twin line achieved 5,100 lpm, not the 7,000 lpm target, even when running at maximum pressure.

'So either something went wrong with the pump or the calculator,' says West drily: 'All good. Please take on board the safety criticals. Deal with it today, and when ready get back to it.'

After the exercise finished, it was confirmed that the flow rate measurement displayed by the HVP control panel had not been accurate. Hampshire FRS is now seeking to purchase a flow meter.

  • Operation Florian

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