Foam training for industry

Published:  10 June, 2009

Industrial fire brigades need to be trained in the use of Class B foam for hydrocarbon-type fires as well as alcohol-resistant variants, writes Dr Roger Klein.

Industrial fire departments have quite different requirements and priorities for firefighting foam training compared to municipal fire brigades. This is even truer for airport firefighting and rescue operations. Firefighting problems in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical and chemical process industries may be particularly complex where, potentially at least, every fire is a Hazmat incident. On the other hand, the main imperative for airport fire and rescue is the saving of human life.

The objectives of training with firefighting foam and foam generating equipment have to be clearly identified. In certain safety critical applications where time is of the essence such as airport firefighting and rescue operations the regulatory authorities insist on training personnel and testing equipment with foam that meets ICAO performance level B, that is the same foam under the same conditions as would be used operationally. The reasons behind this philosophy include ensuring that the equipment used is kept fully functional and that operational procedures are fine-tuned to the foam and equipment being used. There are, however, potentially at least, environmental consequences of using standard foam on a regular basis for training and maintenance. Over time uncontrolled run-off will lead to contamination of groundwater or water courses as was the case with Jersey Airport which featured in an ITV Channel Television report (UK). Foam-contaminated run-off needs to be contained and then disposed of correctly. This adds considerable costs to the training budget which a fire authority or department may not be prepared or able to carry. Other approaches that save cost and protect the environment but also deliver the purpose of training then have to be considered.

The situation for major industrial sites is somewhat different. Sites with petrochemical, pharmaceutical and chemical process plant are generally well protected environmentally in terms of having their own drainage systems that, in cases of emergency, can be isolated from the public surface and foul water systems. Often large industrial sites have their own water treament and waste disposal facilities. Storage areas such as tank farms are usually bunded in such a way as to hold all the total inventory plus any firefighting foam needed at an incident. In addition they may be equipped with a dedicated high-pressure water ring main for running high-volume foam cannon. There may be considerable regulatory and other financial pressures driving the installation and maintenance of such expensive facilities, including the holding of large foam stocks. The legal cost in terms of fines for contaminating controlled waters may be very high, especially near to watercourses or other areas that are hydrologically sensitive. There is also an imperative not normally considered by municipal fire brigades, that of preventing the loss and dispersal of expensive feedstock which may also be extremely hazardous. Taking a standard rail tanker with a capacity of 50,000 litres filled with ordinary domestic gasoline (petrol), the contents would be worth around £50,000. But filled with a more expensive industrial feedstock it could be worth ten times this.

Industrial firefighting uses extinguishants and equipment, both fixed and mobile, that municipal brigades usually do not. Some equipment is often highly specialised – such as BASF’s “Turbo-Löscher” – built for a specific purpose. The use of powder is more common than amongst municipal brigades and combination nozzles capable of delivering powder and foam simultaneously are also available.

Thus foam training in the context of industrial scenarios has different priorities compared with  those of municipal fire brigades. Fires are likely to be more technically demanding and may occur close to storage facilities or other plant that must be protected from radiant heat and blast. The objectives of training with firefighting foam and foam generating equipment have to be clearly identified. 

What are the goals of foam training?

Clearly the aim is to train firefighters to use foam generating equipment correctly under operational conditions and to be able to apply foam to a fire in the most effective manner. This requires them to have some knowledge of the properties of both the foam used, the equipment used to generate it, as well as the various types of fire they will have to deal with, especially those involving hazardous materials.

Industrial fire brigades need to be thoroughly trained in the use of Class B foam suitable for hydrocarbon-type fires as well as its alcohol-resistant (AR) variant for polar solvent fires. Traditionally Class B foam concentrates for petrochemical and chemical process plant use have been solely of the AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) type, which includes AFFF itself, AFFF-AR, film-forming fluoroprotein (FFFP), and fluoroprotein (FP) foams. All AFFF-type concentrates contain fluorosurfactants. Legacy products such as 3M’s LightWater and ATC foams contained PFOS as fluorosurfactant, now withdrawn based on environmental concerns. Modern AFFF concentrates all contain fluorotelomers and no PFOS. All fluorosurfactants, whether PFOS-based or fluorotelomer-based, give extremely long-lived degradation products that have been found in groundwater decades later. 

More recently, however, more environmentally friendly formulations have appeared on the market that are fluorine-free, ie, containing no fluorosurfactants or organic fluorine compounds, which satisfy approvals to EN 1568, UL 162 and the petrochemical industry standard Lastfire.

Although municipal brigades have moved to foam training using gas-fired training rigs and so-called “training foams” in order to avoid environmental issues to do with run-off and its disposal, there is a strong argument for industrial fire brigades to train with standard Class B foam under exactly the conditions it would be used at an incident. Why is this? Training foams are generally fluorosurfactant-free and do not behave in the same way as standard AFFF-type fluorosurfactant-containing foams, or their modern fluorine-free Class B equivalents which have the additional advantages that the same foam can be used for training as well as at an operational incident and moreover can be used at low, medium or high-expansion which AFFF cannot. 

Standard training foams as well as the newer fluorine-free products do not contain fluorinated derivatives, being formulated from hydrocarbon surfactants. Traditional training foams cannot be used safely, to extinguish fire and in particular, they do not mimic the film-forming properties of fluorosurfactant foams. Moreover, training foams do not have good burn-back resistance, do not form a stable foam blanket and are poor at vapour suppression. Flow characteristics are also important on the fuel surface.

Additionally there is a need to understand how red-hot steel surfaces, such as storage tank sides, influence foam blanket behaviour, something a gas-fired rig fails to provide. There is, however, an argument for starting industrial firefighter foam training using a gas-rig and training foam in the initial stages so long as it is followed by training on a properly constructed petrochemical rig using real hydrocarbon or polar solvents as fuels, but only when the firefighter has gained proficiency through initial experience on the gas-rig.

The costs involved in building a suitable training area will depend critically on the local environmental regulatory climate and whether “real” fuel burns together with operational foams are allowed at all for training purposes. The biggest problem is what to do about firewater run-off and its disposal. Clearly the training area needs to have an isolated drainage system complete with holding tanks.

Disposal of the waste can, however, be extremely expensive as per- or polyfluorinated foam degradation products require high temperature incineration to mineralise the fluorine and convert it back to calcium fluoride, the mineral from which hydrogen fluoride HF was originally obtained. 

For the industrial firefighter the end-game is essentially a health and safety argument. Has the firefighter been trained under as realistic conditions as possible, balancing any risk to personnel with the benefits of training? Does the training regime deliver a suitable and sufficient level of expertise to deal with any forseeable operational incident to which the firefighter may become exposed as a result of their employment?

  • Operation Florian

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