September 23, 2013

Under pressure

Whitfield firefighters train on how to handle LP gas tank fires

By Mitch Talley, Whitfield County director of communications

— Imagine driving down the South Bypass one night and seeing a burst of flames suddenly soar high into the sky.

Scary, huh?

Now imagine being just a few feet away from that fireball, and it’s your job to help extinguish those flames.

Even more stressful, no doubt.

But that’s exactly what members of the Whitfield County Fire Department had to face recently during a series of special classes held at Station 8 on the South Bypass.

By the time every firefighter — full-timers and volunteers alike — had completed the Pressurized Container Fire Control Class, they all had learned the proper way to extinguish an LP gas tank that is in flames and in danger of exploding at any moment.

“We had approximately 110 firefighters that went through the class,” said Assistant Chief Danny Roach, “and we had 15 more that went through the instructor course. Now those 15 new instructors will be able to help teach the class in the future, too.”

In the past, the county might have sent its firefighters, usually two at a time, to the Georgia Fire Academy in Forsyth for the class.

But since Roach is now a lead instructor and the county has six other men who are qualified as instructors (Jesse Bond, John Chester, Jeff Heatherly, Allan Kendrick, Nathan Saylors and Russell Wilson), Whitfield County didn’t have to go to the expense of sending firefighters to Forsyth for the training.

“In the past, they only allowed two per department to go for this training,” Roach said, “so it would have taken forever to get all of our guys instructed because this class is only taught at state a few times a year. I’d estimate that sometime in their career — it could be as long as 20 or 25 years ago — probably 50 percent of our department had been through a similar class to this one.”

Instead, the state fire academy gave approval for the county to teach the class to all the firefighters right here, though it did take four Tuesday nights in a row during August to get them all hands-on experience dousing a special LP gas tank prop borrowed from the fire academy.

On July 20, each firefighter had already gone through the classroom portion of training that was held at each of the county’s 10 fire stations.

“That was a four-hour block where the students learned all about LP, different types of dangers that they’re going to face, the properties of LP gas and anything else they will be facing in a real fire with a tank,” Roach said.

The threat of an LP gas tank fire is very real in Whitfield County, according to Roach, since “there’s no telling” how many of the tanks are being used by local residents. He estimates the number of tanks would be in the thousands.

“In the last five or six years,” he said, “we’ve had two fires that were actually doing something similar to what we were teaching in class and we were able to go in and take care of them.”

Since LP tanks are usually close to the house to which they supply gas, when a structure catches on fire, the flames can quickly heat up the tanks and cause pressure to build up inside. A pop-off safety valve is designed to relieve that pressure, but this sudden release of gas causes flames to shoot high into the air.

During the class, teams of firefighters form two lines that march toward the burning tank, constantly spraying it with criss-crossing streams of water designed to cool the tank enough that a firefighter can reach out and turn off a valve that shuts off the gas.

It’s not an easy task.

“For a lot of these folks who are very young in the fire service,” Roach says, “it is a really big deal for them because that’s a lot of fire. It’s just something that people are not sure about. That’s the great thing about being able to teach this class is to help those people overcome those uncertainties. You should always respect a fire regardless of what it is, but there are ways that you can learn not to be as afraid of it.”

After turning the gas off, the firefighters retreat to a safe distance as they continue to pour water onto the tank to keep it cool.

Typically the pop-off valve will release to keep the tank from exploding, but if it doesn’t, the tank can explode.

“And there have been a lot of explosions over the years,” Roach says, “a lot of scary explosions. The ends of the tank are what you always want to stay away from because that seam is what’s welded. The ends are the first things to go, and they have found those quite a distance away, probably even further than a mile.”

Roach said on a typical structure fire, the department will have 20 to 30 people respond, including volunteers.

“That’s why we continuously try to train the volunteers the same way as the full-timers,” he said, “because they play an important role in fire control. Their training is as good as the full-timers, so a lot of them eventually end up going to work for either us or another fire department.”

In the LP tank class, students had to show their ability to complete each task to extinguish the fire, and the 15 new instructors had to intern with Roach and the other veteran instructors.

“They had to go through every rotation,” Roach said. “Each student had to be able to be on the nozzle, to do an attack and turn the valve off. We had to teach the intern instructors how to set up and use the props, too.”

Even though the class is controlled, Roach said it’s still “very dangerous,” pointing out that if the firefighters don’t have a correct stream of water going at a specific time, the fire could lap underneath or over the top of the tank and actually burn people. “Fortunately, everything went well, and no one was injured,” he said.

By the way, the gas that was used in the prop was generously donated by three local businesses.

“We’d like to thank Gas Inc., Acree Gas and Judd & Sims for donating gas for these classes,” Roach said, “because without them it would probably cost over $2,000 just for gas. This time we were able to get by with just $400. We actually had to buy one night’s worth, but Gas Inc. was good enough to let us have it at a discounted price. And the guys from each company stayed every night and pumped the gas from their truck to me at the main valve, and then I would send the gas on to the prop.”

Not only did the county not have to buy LP gas for the class, but it also saved the expense of traveling to the fire academy.

“Typically a trip to Forsyth — you’re probably going to be looking at, if you’re gone a day, $60, $70, and if somebody has to stay overnight, then it’s going to be even more than that. And you multiply that by 125 folks, that’s a substantial amount of money that we saved. Plus  our guys were able to be in the station prepared to run calls or incidents if they were needed.”

Roach thanked Assistant Chief Randy Kittle for his help with logistics and Chief Carl Collins for supporting this type of training.

Roach said the LP tank class is just one of many more courses that he hopes will be taught here instead of having to go to the expense of traveling to Forsyth.

“We hope to get on some type of rotation to offer these types of classes because it’s always good to refresh your knowledge since technology constantly changes,” he said. “We’ve also been working toward being able to teach other classes at our facility. Basically we turn the curriculum in and have it approved by the Georgia Firefighters Standards and Training Council, and then we’re able to teach that class here.”

One such class is underway now at the old Eastbrook Middle School. Scheduled for demolition, the structure is being used by the county firefighters to teach forcible entry through block walls and roofs.

“It’s a good use of the old school,” Roach said. “The police have already used it for quite a bit of training, and now we’ll be able to utilize it before they tear it down. You just don’t get that type of training with props. It’s hard to get that real-life training where you’re actually cutting something or busting something in order to gain access. It’s very realistic.”