COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Two gas lines carrying dangerous hydrocarbons have ruptured at a chemical plant on a windy morning.
When the first firefighters arrive, an employee says he doesn’t know the fate of the maintenance crew that was near the flaming pump.
Suddenly, a hose opens up on the blaze, which has sent a black plume of smoke into the sky. Foam squirts toward the flames, knocking them down. Moments later, four men wearing bunker gear waddle toward the valve to prevent a massive explosion.
Fortunately, this is not another industrial accident in downtown Dallas. It’s an elaborately staged training exercise for firefighters from oil and gas plants around the world, hosted by Texas A&M University at a 120-acre training center that operates year-round on campus.
About 40,000 emergency responders come here annually for fire, rescue and hazardous-materials training.
The Brayton Fire Training Field has 22 props that produce real flames, including pumps, a rail car rack, a loading terminal and a liquefied natural gas plant that can simulate a variety of fires. It even has a hay-filled airplane fuselage and ship for rescuers to practice putting out flames in smoky conditions.
Experts say that of the hundreds of facilities nationwide that offer live-fire training, the A&M center is one of the best at preparing firefighters for chemical plant explosions like last week’s on Industrial Boulevard.
“It’s as close as you can get to real life,” said Pete Greco, a volunteer instructor who works for Lyondell in Houston. “You’ve got to make calls and decisions. You’ve got to make them quick. You’ve got to cut down on your personal hesitations.”
After the trainees have put out the blaze, sweat pours down their faces as temperatures rise into the 90s. Still out-of-breath, the students sit under a canopy and reflect on how they performed in a critique session.
“It happens in the heat of the battle,” said William Bennett, of Channelview, Texas, who commanded the response to the staged fire. “You try to minimize it.”
The scenario they practiced for is almost exactly what happened at Southwest Industrial Gases on Wednesday, when canisters of highly flammable acetylene exploded across the interstate.
Dallas Fire-Rescue sends some officers to programs at A&M, but the department relies on its own live-fire training facility at 5000 Dolphin Road to prepare first responders for industrial fires, said Deputy Chief Daniel Salazar, who cited a limited budget as one reason more don’t go.
“We have a large propane tank with several burners that expel the gas set on fire,” Chief Salazar said of Dallas’ training center. “It puts out tremendous heat. Recruits advance the line so they can experience a fire similar to the one we had the other day.”
Prepared for anything
About 475 students recently came to A&M for a full week of hands-on practice fighting petrochemical fires. Most work in chemical plants or refineries and sign up to be on their employer’s emergency response team. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires professional development for companies that maintain fire brigades.
“Very seldom do you see the fire burn in your plants. Here they see it every 15 minutes,” said John Quincy Adams, 71, who has trained here annually for 43 years. “When you train people with hands on, and they can see how dangerous fire is, you raise the safety awareness. It’s just like if you see a car wreck, you drive safer.”
Participants said most big oil and chemical companies take safety very seriously to avoid losing their employees, product and reputation.
“We live by Murphy’s law. If it can, it will,” said Mr. Adams, who works for Enterprise Products of Houston, which manages 37,000 miles of pipeline. “We have to be prepared to handle any situation.”
After catastrophes like last week’s explosion, the school sees an increased demand for training. It happened after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Sept. 11 attacks and the explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 people and injured more than 170.
“We tend to forget about training during periods when we don’t have any large incidents,” said Robert Moore, the operations chief at the training field. “The larger the event, the more it affects industry and the more it brings us back to our core values of people and training.”
Changing with times
Better equipment has allowed industrial facilities to cut back on the number of people on fire brigades.
“We have to figure out how to fight the same size fire with a shrinking team,” said Ted Ivy, a health and safety specialist at Lyondell. “Ten or 15 years ago, we would have had 20 or 30 people working hand lines. Now we’ve got 10 people doing the same thing.”
The students — all but a handful of students are male — learn about evolving tactics and technology. The old-timers tell the younger ones that the fire service is very different than it was in 1968, when John Wayne played a fictional Chance Buckman in Hellfighters.
“John Wayne is dead. That freelancing mentality is not permissible anymore,” said George “Bud” Melder, a former chairman of the Channel Industries Mutual Aid association in Houston. “You just can’t rush in anymore.”
Matthew Lotz, an environmental engineer for Honeywell in Baton Rouge, La., said the fire service has changed with the times.
“As we continue to invent more and more chemicals, the emergency response sector needs to keep up,” he said. “You have to be smarter and on top of your game all the time.”
Technology is changing the training, too. When the risk of lightning forces his class on emergency rescue indoors, James Hyles puts Google Earth maps of the facilities where the students work on a big screen and has them identify vulnerabilities.
“Looking at the big picture helps first responders devise good action plans,” Mr. Hyles said. “They’ll draw to a close proximity how they’d get someone out at their individual plant.”
Firefighters come from as far away as Equatorial Guinea, but most who visit work in Texas or along the Gulf Coast. The men get to know each other at night, when they head to local restaurants with family.
At J.Cody’s, a barbecue joint in neighboring Bryan, two black fire helmets hung on the coat rack one night. Williams Fire and Hazard Control reserved two beer kegs in one corner. Outside, six older men standing around the bed of a black Ford pickup shared war stories about the fires they’ve put out.
And though much has changed, they say, the basic task is the same.
“You still put the white stuff on the bright stuff and the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Mr. Lotz said. “Water is your friend.”