When a small farm warehouse caught fire in West, Texas, in 2013, members of a volunteer fire department rushed to the scene. Unknown to them, the store held more than 40 metric tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer in wood storage bins, surrounded by seeds and other flammable farm supplies.
As the fire grew, the firefighters sized up their options. Soon, the building exploded—flattening an apartment building, nursing home, three schools, and much of the small town. It also took the lives of 12 firefighters and three people living nearby.
The emergency responders had just 20 min from when the fire was reported to when the blast occurred.
The high cost in lives and property led the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to conduct a lengthy investigation and issue several recommendations to avoid or limit the impact of such accidents in the future. The primary recommendations included several to toughen regulations laid out by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on how to store, handle, and use fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN). But one recommendation was directed to the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX).
TEEX is a global leader in classroom and hands-on emergency response and firefighting training. It runs programs throughout the world, but its primary training center is a large facility near the A&M campus at College Station, Texas, 160 km from West.
The training center includes a mock city and equipment nearly identical to that found in chemical plants, refineries, manufacturers, warehouses, and other similar real-world facilities. Its goal is to train and better prepare emergency responders and firefighters by simulating incidents like the FGAN explosion in West, explains Kara Humphreys, TEEX marketing manager.
FGAN has been involved globally in a slew of fires and explosions since the early 20th century, which have taken a toll particularly on emergency responders, the CSB notes. In the US, FGAN led to the nation’s most deadly industrial disaster: in 1947, at the port of Texas City, Texas, an FGAN explosion killed at least 567 people, including all but 1 of the city’s 28 volunteer firefighters. Yet, more than 70 years later, the CSB still investigates deadly FGAN explosions.
Johnnie Banks led the board’s examination of the West tragedy. “Such emotionally wrenching accidents should never occur,” Banks says. He learned about TEEX when he worked at refineries and turned to it for assistance when he became a CSB incident investigator.
Banks and the CSB wanted TEEX to develop a training module to educate firefighters on how fires should be approached and contained when FGAN is involved, Banks says. The CSB then took the program and, along with TEEX, promoted it to the emergency response community.
TEEX teaches firefighting and emergency response through real-world practice using “props.” In a mock industrial setting, for instance, these training props closely mimic a chemical or refinery complex. The complex can be set on fire, providing a site for firefighters to practice using different containment approaches to curb the spread of an industrial fire. Responders can also train to contain chemical leaks. “We’ve got leaking valves, pumps, hoses, flanges—you name it,” says Nick Hickson, a hazmat program training manager at TEEX.
Other training scenarios address railcar loading facilities, chemical bulk storage sites, aircraft crashes, and marine and ship incidents. The scenarios are chosen by the customer, which could be a refinery or chemical plant owner or a municipality, Hickson says.
The trainees practice responding to incidents that might involve hydrogen fluoride, sulfuric acid, chlorine, and other toxic chemicals, Hickson explains, with water standing in for the chemical and placards identifying the simulated agent. The classes include hands-on work and textbook study that can run from 8 to 80 h in length, depending on need. The TEEX trainers also offer courses in basic chemistry for firefighters and emergency responders.
And then there is Disaster City, a sort of “Disneyland for emergency responders,” says Jory Grassinger, TEEX’s director of incident management programs.
Disaster City and TEEX’s nearby Brayton Fire Training Field are a 1.4 km2, $600 million complex that holds flipped railcars, crashed airplanes, and burning storage tanks, as well as strategically arranged rubble with blocks of concrete and steel and wood beams. Search and rescue teams, along with canine supporters, practice search operations by moving gingerly through debris, looking and listening for survivors—often community volunteers hidden in the rubble and collapsed buildings.
Other training sites at the complex mirror the remains of factories, strip malls, residential structures, office complexes, theaters, and other structures. All these are part of TEEX’s Emergency Services Training Institute (ESTI), its largest training division. ESTI director Gordon Lohmeyer explains that the goal is to provide a place to develop and hone the skills of firefighters, search and rescue personnel, and other responders.
Lohmeyer estimates that ESTI trains more than 100,000 people each year, offering courses spanning firefighting and rescue operations as well as subjects like an introduction to chemistry. These classes can be taken at ESTI’s campus or at a customer’s site throughout the world; they range from a few hours for basic skills training to 6 months for a paramedic training program or firefighting certification.
Instructors number about 225 full-timers and staff supplemented by more than 400 part-time supporters. All have on-the-job experience in the courses they teach.
Daniel Buchanan is an incident training coordinator and is a former refinery emergency preparedness supervisor who spent 3 decades in the petroleum industry. His teaching methods are like “dropping students in hot grease but not getting them burned,” Buchanan says. “Our emphasis is what to do when the alarm goes off.”
These trainers stress that TEEX wants to ingrain a clear response plan in students through real-life practice and education, avoiding or at least mitigating incidents like the one at the West warehouse, which claimed so many lives. Such knowledge may prove very important, as OSHA and the EPA chose not to implement the CSB’s recommendations to toughen FGAN regulations.
Jeff Johnson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.