Fire can be fickle, possessing the potential for beauty and destruction at the same time. A campfire can mesmerize and soothe, and the hearth is a traditional gathering place in the home. But when a fire grows, it can ruin and kill. Those who have attended classes and on-site training under the Texas Engineering Extension Service, TEEX, at the Brayton Fire Field – located George Bush Drive past Harvey Mitchell Parkway – have learned skills to fight the flames that threaten human life and property.
After a session at one of the field’s training props, Tuesday, Larry Copelin, fire chief for Valero’s McKee refinery, addressed approximately 35 sweaty, dirty and tired firefighters who had finished fighting a simulated rail car loading fire.
“I told you it’s not easy,” he said. “If every fire was the same, we could just put how to fight it into a textbook, and we wouldn’t need all of this.”
Valero is one of many companies that sends firefighters to train at Brayton Field. Valero, Conoco Phillips and Logan Aluminum trained Tuesday, but approximately 15 companies train at the field in any given week.
Copelin said that Valero sends people to train at the field from all 18 of its refineries, and he is proud of the people under him.
“At McKee, we have a 100- percent volunteer system,” Copelin said. “Every one of the people we have on our team volunteer on top of their normal job duties to be a part of the team. We have all four disciplines. We have fire, hazmat, rescue and EMS – Emergency Medical Services. We have about 79 members, and we have a waiting list to get onto the team.”
The fire school started in 1929 on the A&M campus at Hensel park across from the married student housing.
“We used our ladders on the dorms,” said Associate Director for the Emergency Services Training Institute Pat Barrett. “Our salvage and overhaul was done underneath Kyle Field. We ate at Duncan Hall. So it was all done on campus at that time. Even with no motels or hotels in the area, they stayed in the dorms. That’s changed quite a bit. We have enough room space for everybody now.”
When the fire school moved to its current location in 1960, it covered 12 acres. The field has expanded since and now spreads across 120 acres. Emergency response has become a large part of the training, making the combined school of fire and emergency response the largest of its kind.
Barrett pointed out the different props for fire training: aircraft, marine, rail car loading, pipe rack, warehouse, apartment complex, above ground storage tank, full scale industrial plant structures and others. He said that even cooks who are going to sea must train to fight fires because “they can’t walk back from there.” The field is the largest live-fueled firefighter training facility in the world with 132 training stations and 22 fueled live-fire props.
Learning to work with monitors – a large ground or apparatus mounted nozzle that projects large amounts of water – is one of the essential skills students learn, Barrett said. Improper use of a monitor can knock another firefighter down or into the flames because of the tremendous pressure. The monitors use 250 to 500 gallons of water every minute, while the hand-held hoses use around 125 gallons.
For emergency response, Barrett explained how “disaster city” was created in 1998. Piles of concrete and multiple buildings representing different levels of collapse appeared to be just that – simple piles of rubble. In reality, they were carefully constructed as complex training tools. The tangled concrete piles have pipes underneath them that allow people to climb in so dogs can be trained to find humans after a disaster.
Amtrak donated $3.5 million worth of train cars for use as props for train wreck, derail and disaster training. The U.S. Department of Justice established the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center at the field for responders to learn how to deal with nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.
Barrett said Texas has more miles of pipeline underground than highway miles above. The school teaches proper techniques for working with those pipelines, he said.
He described the pipe system like a railroad. A company puts in an order for a product, then another company puts the product into the pipe and schedules when it will arrive at its destination.
The company puts “pigs” on either side of the product to signal when it starts and ends. At Brayton, students learn how to work with the “pigs” and product. The term pig comes from when the animals were used to go down into sewage pipes to clean them out, Barrett said.
James Pursell, health, safety and emergency preparedness manager for Valero, said his company has sent people to train in College Station for years because of the quality facilities and training.
“It’s awesome. It’s absolutely fantastic, and it keeps getting better,” he said.
The school’s budget has increased from approximately $25,000 to $30,000 in the 1930s to $29 million. Only 4 percent of the $29 million comes from Texas; the rest comes from revenue. Approximately 50,000 students – from 50 states and more than 45 countries – train at the field each year.
TEEX opened the Henry D. Smith building at Brayton Field in March. The 14,000 square foot, two-story complex includes a welcome center, three large classrooms – which can be partitioned into more – communications center, observing area and an assembly hall.
“We’ve just gone through a restructure or a renovation of many of our props and our waste water recycling systems,” Barrett said. “We have a new office and classroom facility. We have a new multi-faceted burn complex that was opened up this spring. We are continually doing maintenance.”
The field’s recycling center reuses the more than 400 million gallons of water that goes to fire fighting training every year.