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Small city, big challenges: Mix of industry, old neighbourhoods in Saint John yields co-operation

Mix of heavy industry, old neighbourhoods in Saint John, N.B., yields co-operation

December 6, 2007 
By Andrew Sanojca

smallcityThe city of Saint John, N.B., is a small, eastern -Canadian city that poses big-city challenges for firefighters and first responders. Its population of 68,000 is spread across 326 square kilometres, the fourth-largest land area for a non-amalgamated Canadian city. Saint John is home to the country's largest oil refinery and is near Eeastern Canada's only nuclear reactor at Point Lepreau. And, while it boasts some of the most modern industrial facilities, sprawling neighbourhoods and a year-round port, Saint John also has some of the country's oldest housing stock.

As with many cities, Saint John has endured cuts to its fire fighting budget. Today, the department operates six engine companies, down from eight companies 15 years ago, a quint that replaces a ladder company and engine company, a ladder truck, one rescue/pumper and two tankers from seven fire stations under the direction of Fire Chief Rob Simonds and Deputy Chief Mark Gillan. All apparatus are staffed by an officer and three firefighters, with the exception of the tankers, which are staffed by one firefighter. The department also operates a city hazardous materials unit, a brush unit, an air-supply unit and a rescue boat with on-duty staff as required, as well as a provincial hazardous materials unit that is available to respond to incidents in much of the province. Daily operations are supervised by one operations district chief, assisted by an administration district chief as required. There are 38 full-time firefighters per shift working a two-day, two-night, four-days-off rotation. In 2006, the department responded to 6,974 calls.

Chief Simonds said in an interview that co-operation with industry is key. Pre-planning meetings and site tours have taken place at all large industrial sites including the Irving Oil refinery, Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd. and the Irving Lubricants manufacturing plant. The department also participates in joint training exercises with the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station response team and Musquash Volunteer Fire Department at Point Lepreau annually. When a fire or other emergency occurs at any of these sites, Simonds said, "We find that those who work in the industry know the hazards best and we work with them during an incident, relying on their expertise."

A prime example of this was during a major fire at the oil refinery in 1998. A cracking unit had failed, causing an explosion and fire. City fire commanders consulted with industry experts to contain the fire and minimize the damage. "Because of the ongoing discussions that had taken place between the refinery and our personnel, when we arrived on scene we had every confidence with the individuals we were working with," Simonds said. "We had a sound understanding of what we needed to do in terms of isolating that emergency to the area of origin and what our priorities had to be in terms of exposure protection and removing the fuel source from that fire."


Water was applied from master-stream devices and high-pressure monitor guns in a controlled manner, for fear of knocking over the huge steel structures used in the refining process. The high level of confidence in the tactical resource people at the refinery meant firefighters and industry experts were able to isolate the incident to one area of the refinery. Tragically, the refinery suffered its first line-of-duty death, as one worker was killed in the explosion.

Stan Mullin is the emergency response specialist at the Irving Oil refinery, the largest oil refinery in Canada, on the east side. It refines more than 300,000 barrels of oil daily. As refinery fire chief, he said, "We have a really healthy working relationship with the city.

"We fight refinery fires totally different than municipal firefighters (fight structure fires). A lot of times here, putting the fire out is not a good thing. We go in with our attack lines to get to a valve. When we shut that valve off, the fire is going to go out."

Mullin said the refinery ran four hypothetical scenarios this summer, one for each shift. He said the experience gave each of the refinery crews the opportunity to meet the municipal crews. "They each got to know the officers, so they know how we set up our (command) structure and our guys know how their chain of command works," he said.

Mullin explained that when a major piece of equipment is taken off line at the refinery for maintenance, the refinery takes advantage of the time to train city firefighters on any possible situations that may develop. The crews review what they may face for confined-space or high-angle rescues and practisce with state-of-the-art rescue equipment at the refinery. "We bring in each one of their shifts to our area so they get to meet our officers, because at three o'clock in the morning, I'm not the person they are going to see," he said.

"They are very keen to get in and work with our people. They realize this is a totally different world in here. They are used to putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. In here, we put out the fire by isolating a valve and shutting off the fuel supply. It's an advantage getting those guys in here, working with our guys, so they now how we actually operate."

To deal with the current challenges – heavy industry, state-of-the art technology mixed with high-density old-fashioned construction – and be able to plan for new ones, Chief Simonds appointed District Chief Lew MacDonald to the role of special operations chief in 2005.

MacDonald has met with industry to review site safety plans and provide input from the department. "We are working extensively with industry to advance training formats to involve industrial fire brigades," MacDonald said. "We also find it valuable to interact with their command staff during these meetings."

While MacDonald's prime responsibility is to do a risk analysis of the industries within the city, he has also met with industries interested in partnering with the development of confined-space and high-angle rescue capabilities. He is meeting regularly with staff of Irving's Canaport Liquefied Natural Gas plant, which is scheduled to open in 2008, to review site safety plans "to ensure that they are suitable for both the industry and the fire department".

The department plans to pilot a mobile data system with terminals in command vehicles so crews can retrieve information about target facilities when on scene.

And, just as important as any physical pre-plan, Chief Simonds says, "We continue to make a concerted effort to build a strong relationship with our industrial customers, and try to nurture a strong relationship with the emergency responders that are on site."

Two front-line engine companies feature 100-gallon Class-B foam tanks and, as trucks are replaced, an effort will be made to assign trucks so that on first alarms, firefighters will have at their disposal either Class-A or Class-B foam to deal with any situation, be it a fast moving fire in an old wooden structure or a petroleum-based fire at one of the industrial sites.

Saint John is on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern New Brunswick. It was created in 1786 by royal charter and formed its first organized fire-fighting force the same year. The department has seen numerous changes over its 221-year history and will face more in the future.

The city is still home to many old houses with balloon-frame construction up to four storeys high, in congested areas of the south-end peninsula, north end and lower west side. Many of these older structures have common walls. New subdivisions are being built in all parts of the city and in-fill housing is being built to replace older structures that have been torn down in the older core areas of the city.

Besides the mix of housing stock, the city is home to many light industries, including call centres, manufacturing plants and warehouses. Saint John has an active port, which in 2006 moved 24.9 million tonnes of cargo, including incoming crude oil and outgoing refined-fuel products to markets as far away as California. The port cargo also included containers, dry goods, scrap metal and paper products. In addition, the port received almost 88,000 cruise-ship passengers for day-long stays in 2006, a number that was expected to reach 150,000 this year. Heavy industry includes three pulp and paper mills producing everything from newsprint to paper towels, as well as the country's last Canadian-owned brewery, Moosehead Breweries Ltd.

In addition to the refinery, Irving is involved with Canada's first liquefied natural gas facility, which is being built near its Canaport bulk-oil storage facility at Red Head in the city's east end. At the LNG plant, natural gas that has been cooled to -161 degrees will be brought in by ship, re-liquified and sent through the city by pipeline to markets in the eastern United States. Irving Oil is also considering building a second refinery in the Red Head area, near Canaport, thatwhich will be equal in capacity to the current facility. According to the company's website, this would be the first new refinery built in North America in 25 years.

Located about 35 kilometres west of the city, at Point Lepreau, is Atlantic Canada's only nuclear reactor. Operated by NB Power Nuclear, this facility is set to undergo a major refit starting next year to extend its life by 25 years. There are also two other generating stations within the city, a large oil-fired power plant at Coleson Cove, on the city's west side, and a smaller combination oil-fired and natural-gas- fuelled plant at Courtney Bay, in the city's east end.

These heavy industrial sites are not concentrated into one area of the city. "Unlike many communities, Saint John has an inordinate number of industrial, refining, processing and manufacturing operations," Simonds says. "But, unlike many other municipalities, these heavy industrial sites are located in every quadrant of our city and, as a result of that, the fire load or the threat assessment is spread out throughout our entire community. Sometimes that makes for a very daunting task, to ensure you have appropriate resources to be able to quickly and effectively respond to emergencies on site."

On a first alarm, Saint John dispatches two engines, the ladder truck or quint, the rescue unit and the district chief. In rural areas, a tanker is also dispatched. The department recently upgraded to 4,500 psi SCBA units, giving firefighters an increased air supply for interior attacks at residential or industrial sites. Much of the core of the city is covered by a hydrant system but outlying areas on the east and west sides require water to be shuttled by tanker for major fires.

The department will soon add as a customer the country's first liquefied natural gas facility. Chief Simonds has consulted with chiefs in the United States who have similar plants in their areas and has met and consulted with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision in Washington, D.C., to "learn about the scope and nature of emergencies that have occurred at that facility to date." The Saint John department also continues to plan for any possible problems with the 30-inch (75- centimetre) high-pressure pipeline that will snake its way through the city carrying pressurized natural gas to markets in the eastern United States.

Saint John has a contract to provide firefighting services to the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. This is a unique situation in which the career department works in unison with on-site response team personnel and members of the Musquash Volunteer Fire Department. Due to the numerous possible scenarios at the site, most likely to be Class-B type fires involving lubricating oils, the three agencies train together annually, practising the joint-command model that has been developed for use in an emergency.

Simonds' description of emergency procedures for the nuclear facility sums up the progressive thinking of the department. "This serves as a wonderful example of a multi-agency response working in a co-ordinated fashion. You have a career department responding in concert with a volunteer department and those two departments work in a unified command model with the on-site responders from the nuclear facility. Given the training opportunities, the training exercises and the opportunity to interact with one another, I would offer that this is a real success story in terms of having a highly effective, co-ordinated response from multiple agencies who have varying service profiles."

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