Written by Tamar Atik
Oct. 11, 2017 – One single ounce of oxygen. That’s all it would have taken for an explosion to have occurred at Pacific BioEnergy’s Prince George, B.C. facility in August 2017.

It was Thursday, Aug. 24 when chairman and chief executive officer Don Steele found out that one of the wood pellet fuel company’s silos began smoldering overnight.

Steele was hosting a group of seven guests who had flown from Nagoya, Japan for a tour of the facility. 

“I advised them," he explained. "I said we could go up and have a look. We might even go on the property and they wouldn’t see much. But, at that point in time we were evacuating,” Steele said.

Although reported as a fire in mainstream media, the incident was a smoldering situation. 

Wood pellet consultancy company FutureMetrics’ John Swaan founded Pacific BioEnergy Corporation in 1994. His direction on-site is one of the main reasons why an explosion didn’t take place.

What was the winning solution? Nitrogen injection. 

In an industry where the potential for explosions is all too common, this was the first time that a North American pellet operation successfully put out a smouldering issue. 

“We have a number of incidents that have happened in our industry, mostly in Europe, that have not gone successfully,” Swaan said.

“There were some references that I shared with Don and his key people on-site,” Swaan recalled from the day. “And then his VP of operations gathered his key people around and took a look at what the options might be and looked at the references,” he explained. “I shared the report about how best to handle these [situations], that was done in a research centre in Sweden.” 

“So we did some calculations, and based on those calculations, a decision was made with Don and his people to say ‘OK, let’s bring in the nitrogen.’”

“A simple reaction would be to try and open [the silo] up to put out the fire, which would have been catastrophic,” Steele said. “Any oxygen entering would have been disastrous. It was a tremendously risky proposition.”

The silo holds 3,500 tonnes of pellets. Steele said that’s the energy equivalent of about 10,000 barrels of oil. The incident had the potential to have the entire surrounding city evacuated.

The nitrogen injection equipment was brought to the facility from neighbouring Alberta within eight to 10 hours. Alberta’s oil fields have prompted the province’s first responders to be prepared for fire suppression missions to prevent explosions. 

The smouldering material in the silo was injected with nitrogen for a few days until it was safe enough to remove in small amounts. The nitrogen arrives as a liquid and needs to be turned into a vapour.

“I think the first principle of it is, liquid nitrogen is an inert gas,” Steele said. “In other words, it can’t explode or burn. So you use it to push the oxygen out of the container and then try and seal it off. We tried with foam and various things, but once you’ve got the oxygen content below a certain level, [about] 10 per cent, you’ve minimized the risk of an explosion. So then you can start pulling the material out.”

“We basically wetted it down, and over a course of seven days eliminated the risk, moved the material out, quenched the fire risk and then stockpiled it over in another part of our property,” Steele said.

“I think the key thing is nobody overreacted… I don’t even think there was a Band-Aid.”

Swaan and Steele said the cooperation between industry and first responders was what ensured a safe outcome.

“This kind of incident has the potential of major, major injury. Our people knew how to safely handle the material and the first responders and fire department knew how to look after our people to keep them out of harm’s way,” Steele said. “They had the respiration equipment, they had the fire hoses, they had the ability and the technique for putting out a fire. Our people knew how to move the material through and safely evacuate the silo.”

Half a million dollars-worth of material and product was destroyed and a lot of equipment was damaged, but Steele says everybody’s safety makes the situation a success. 

“It’s a happy beginning actually, because we’re beginning now to refit and add to our knowledge of our product and how to handle it,” he said. “And I think the whole industry is going to learn something from it too.” 

“I say anything that can be fixed with money is not a problem. You can’t fix people with money, particularly if they’re severely injured or killed.” 

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ [a silo fire could happen] it’s ‘when,’” Swaan said. “But the good news is that we now as an industry have a lot of new learnings. We have experience that we can now share with the industry so that we can make it a safer industry for these types of situations.”

Steele said, “The key thing is, think before you act, use other information, use your judgement, move deliberately, keep everybody safe.”

This story was originally published in Canadian Biomass
Written by Tim Llewellyn
In the April issue, I reviewed the general flow and pressure characteristics of standpipe systems based upon the year of their installation or upgrade. For review, standpipe systems installed before 1993 are designed to produce a flow of 500 gpm at 65 psi – which produces a good combination of volume and pressure for a 65 millimetre (2.5 inch) hose with a smooth-bore tip.
Written by Tim Llewellyn
The dispatcher’s voice crackles loudly over the pager through the late-night silence: “Possible structure fire, 2 Gilkey Dr. – Penn Mar Plaza in Mars Borough. Caller on the 7th floor can hear smoke alarms going off and reports black smoke filling the hallway – unable to evacuate. Responding units will be Engines 42, 19, 20, 21 and 22, Truck 42, Truck 228 and Rescue 16 for the RIT.
Written by Mark Van der Feyst
In the January issue, we examined the first three points of the basics or foundations of fire fighting that every firefighter should know: your equipment; your crew; and your response area. The last two basics are size-up and training.
Written by Tim Llewellyn
In the October edition of Tim-bits, I focused on a method of leader-line deployment that has served our department well; its versatility and ease of use has found favour with our firefighters when it’s necessary to extend attack lines.
Written by Mark Van der Feyst
Firefighters need survival skills, but they also need to understand how correcting certain behaviours can help prevent dangerous situations. In the last two issues of Canadian Firefighter, this column explained how peer pressure and complacency can contribute to dangerous environments for firefighters. Two more reasons for concern are inexperience and good ol’ Murphy’s Law.

Inadequate fire ground experience
Through the efforts of fire-prevention officers and campaigns, the number of structural fires to which firefighters respond has decreased. Better building codes, better education, better and more frequent inspections, and better construction methods have resulted in fewer fires than there were 20 years ago. 

With the decrease in structural-fire response comes a decrease in firefighters’ exposure to high-risk events. 

In the world of risk management, there are categories of risk that can be used to rank certain actions or operations based upon severity and frequency. Structural fire fighting fits into the category of high risk, low frequency: this means that fire services are responding to events that are high risk, but that are infrequent, therefore firefighters are more susceptible to the outcomes of that risk. At these events, there are injuries, critical mistakes, line-of-duty deaths and the wrong sequence of actions taking place on the fire ground, all the result of the low frequency of response. 

When firefighters are caught off guard at one of these high-risk, low-frequency events, they need to be able to get out by any means necessary. 

Murphy’s Law
A final reason for having a firefighter survival program is Murphy’s Law – what can go wrong will go wrong. No matter how well prepared firefighters are, there is still the chance that something dangerous will happen on the fire ground. 

Whenever firefighters face a dilemma or a problem on the fire ground, their survival skills allow them to process the problem, determine the viable solution to the problem, and then enact the solution to overcome the situation. Firefighters need to be able to adapt and overcome – that is firefighter survival. 

Murphy’s Law requires a firefighter to be prepared for the unexpected by being able to adapt and to overcome that which is thrown at them. 

So why learn firefighter survival? How do survival skills benefit the firefighter and others? These skills give firefighters the ability to rescue themselves. When crew members face a life-or-death situation, they need to be able to save themselves. A firefighter may have called for a mayday and the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) might be on the way, but the member in danger cannot just sit there and wait – he or she needs to do something to get out and away from the problem and into safety. The firefighter should be prepared to do something unorthodox – not found in a textbook – but effective to escape safely and quickly.

The rapid intervention team will not arrive as quickly as you may think; depending on the situation, it may take team members a little while to get to a firefighter. The average time for a RIT to rescue a downed firefighter is about 21 minutes, with about 12 firefighters needed to complete the job. In 21 minutes, a single firefighter can do something to self rescue.

Firefighter survival skills also form the basis of rescuing other firefighters. The Phoenix Fire Department tested its rapid intervention crews after firefighter Bret Tarver died in the line of duty in 2001. The testing found that one in five RIT members found himself in trouble, requiring assistance by another rapid intervention team. You can see how quickly this situation escalates, with more firefighters needed to rescue one, two or perhaps three downed firefighters. Firefighters who have the survival skills to save or rescue themselves can help de-escalate the situation. 

Houston Station 8 fire Capt. Eric Joel Abbt’s story is a good example of the importance of firefighter survival skills. On March 28, 2007, Abbt responded to a highrise fire that was started by arson. Abbt was working on the fifth floor trying to rescue an occupant when he declared a mayday due to low air. Abbt waited for the RIT  for 18 minutes before he was plucked from a window on an aerial ladder and brought down to an awaiting EMS crew. 

Abbt told the story of his ordeal and said: “A lot of guys think that this won’t happen to them – it can happen to you.” 

Fighting fires is a high risk, low-frequency job, and that is why firefighters need survival skills. All structural firefighters should have the skills needed to rescue themselves when they are faced with dangerous situations similar to Capt. Abbt’s.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario. He teaches in Canada, the United States and India and is the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue.   This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Written by Dave Baird
July 2015 – Is your department using an aerial master stream to full advantage at major fire incidents? Effective and timely use of a master stream can make all the difference to the outcome.
Written by Tim Llewellyn
I recently had the opportunity to teach a class on ventilation for a fire department that has a lot of large, low-rise apartment buildings in its district. Most of the buildings house low-income and/or elderly tenants, and the department frequently responds to smoke-removal calls from burned food. The fire chief wanted several young members in the department to hone their skills on positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) – a tactic they frequently use to remove smoke from these buildings.
Written by Ian Bolton
We all know that the fire service is steeped in tradition. Many of these traditions are beneficial and provide us with culture and operational support and guidance. However, at other times, some of these traditions – if left unchallenged and without continued evaluation – put firefighters and the communities we protect at great risk. How we as a fire service manage doors and other access points during structure fires is one of those time-honoured traditions we must re-evaluate in order to operate safely and effectively in today’s fire environment. Door control is an incredibly important tactical capability for any progressive fire department.
Written by Ryan Pennington
"Attack 1 to command: this is a hoarder house.”
Written by Tim Llewellyn
This edition of TimBits takes some of the lessons from the truck-company operations classroom series and boils them down into a short primer.
Written by Mark Van der Feyst
We are continuing to look at sub-level rescues with a focus on rescue tactics. In the July issue, we reviewed the use of a charged hoseline for rescuing a downed firefighter.
Written by Mark Van der Feyst
When rescuing a firefighter who has fallen through a fire-weakened floor to a basement or sub-level of a building, remember to stabilize the area around the hole in the floor.
Written by Ryan Pennington
The No. 1 priority of the fire service is the protection of life. This priority does not change when responders are dealing with the conditions caused by compulsive hoarding disorder.
Written by Mark Van der Feyst
Whenever firefighters enter a structure to fight fire, there is a chance that a firefighter – or two – will fall through the floor.
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