NFPA Impact: Threats from new fuels boost need for advisor

Threats from new fuels boost need for advisor
November 30, 2008
Written by Sean Tracey
The high cost of gasoline and concern over dependence on foreign oil has spurred a number of new developments in the petroleum industry. Two items of concern to fire services are the increased use of ethanol and the production of biodiesel. Both of these will result in increased risks to the fire service as production of both increases.

In the case of biodiesel, there is the potential for smaller backyard stills to be more prevalent. These increased risks have not been presented to the Canadian fire service – a result of not having a national fire advisor bureau.

In 2002, there were five plants in Canada producing ethanol at approximately 175 million litres a year. Presently, the industry is reporting that there are 10 plants in operation with a further six under construction. Once these plants come online, the production capacity will be 1,620 million litres a year – almost a tenfold increase in six years.

This is still well below the production capacity of the U.S. but as fuel prices soar there will be more pressure on these alternatives. Such increases in production will result in greater risk as ethanol in its pure form is shipped across the country by rail or road. In the U.S., studies have shown that ethanol has now gone from No. 5 to No. 1 in its hazmat ranking based on volume of product being transported.

The risk posed by ethanol is unlike gasoline; a traditional fire department response to a hydro-carbon fire will not be effective. Gasoline will sit upon water while ethanol is water soluble. Conventional foams will likely not work. Instead, alcohol-resistant foams are necessary and the fire service needs to be made aware of the potential hazards and appropriate response.

To this end, the USFA and IAFC have produced a downloadable training package entitled Responding to Ethanol Incidents, available at www.iafc.org. This includes downloadable instructor and student workbooks and a full set of presentation materials.

The ethanol plants pale in comparison to larger refineries for their throughput and so are less costly to start up. The smaller-scale nature of the facilities will likely mean that there would be no industrial fire brigade response present and instead response would be from outside municipal departments. This would expose the responders to unique threats that would require special pre-incident planning, unique tactics and additional resources. These include the response to ethanol, but also many other production chemicals and the explosive hazards due to processing combustible agriculture dusts.

Biodiesel is a means of cutting the cost of diesel fuel. A number of Canadian plants have started up operations. There are similar concerns with these plants because of the risks of using large quantities of methanol – a fuel that burns invisible. What is of greater concern is that biodiesel operations can be small-scale backyard-type operations. They scrounge or purchase waste oils from restaurants and then convert this through the addition of chemicals and refining into fuel that can be burned in a diesel engine without need for modification.

The worry is that these operations probably never apply for a permit but they store large quantities of methanol and other dangerous materials and there may be improper disposal. The fire service needs to be aware of the potential threat when responding to suspicious incidents. The U.S. Fire Administration published an infogram on Sept. 4 on the item.

Both of the above issues highlight an interesting point. Not one source in Canada has been alerting or engaging the fire service on these issues (except one AFSOA e-mail to its members on biodiesel). We have the same potential risks in Canada on these issues as the U.S.. The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association should be engaged to assist in seeing materials distributed to the fire service – but by whom? Having a national fire advisor would help to ensure that Canadian fire service personnel are given and made aware of such materials.

The nature of risks faced by the fire service is constantly evolving. No one department can keep abreast of every change.

We need a central body that can be the go-to source for information for the Canadian fire services. We need a national resource to gather best practices, lessons learned, resource materials and the latest research. We need a body that can fund needed research and disseminate it. We need a means to help fund the fire services to achieve the public’s expectations. We need a national fire advisor bureau.

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