Working with Industrial Fire Brigades

I began my career in the fire service as a paid-per-call firefighter with a small department located in an industrialized area. Our service district had a major steel mill with its own fire department, which was referred to as a “fire brigade.” Later on in my career, I hired on to a municipal fire department as a career firefighter. This district had several industrial facilities that also maintained well-established fire brigades.

As I progressed through my career, I had the opportunity to work on my days off for the fire brigade at AK Steel’s Ashland Kentucky Works as a deputy fire brigade leader in charge of training. During my time with the brigade I developed a strong respect for the brigade firefighters. Since this time I have also worked with industrial fire brigades across the United States and in Mexico.

If your department is lucky enough to have a brigade located within its district, your crews should take time to get to know the brigade members and their asset inventory. Most fire brigades have access to large volumes of foam supply and other specialty agents, such as class “D” extinguishing agents, not normally carried on municipal department apparatus.

Equipment Assets
Due to the facilities’ exposure to large volumes of volatile raw product, their apparatus are normally designed to flow high volumes of water and foam or other extinguishing agents. Remember: If there’s a facility in your district that uses high-hazard products in manufacturing, the product must get to the facility by going through your response area. By establishing a relationship with the industrial fire brigade, you can better prepare for incidents involving these hazardous products by tapping into the knowledge of the brigade members.
No one in the area is going to be more useful or more experienced with their products than the people who work with these products day in and day out. Having the ability to get their large-capacity pumping apparatus and the brigade’s product-specific experience on site in the first few moments of the incident is a major advantage.

These relationships are a two-way street: Many fire departments form mutual-aid agreements with industrial facilities for response into the facility when the on-duty fire brigade is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the incident.

But the benefits of maintaining a good relationship with your local industrial fire brigade go beyond incidents involving the products manufactured at the plant or facility. Many fire brigades have advanced knowledge and response capabilities for hazmat response and confined space rescue as well. With these specialties comes the opportunity for joint training sessions that will allow area firefighters to train together.

While I was the deputy fire brigade leader for Ashland Works, our brigade often invited surrounding departments into the facility for training opportunities, facility tours and emergency drills. If your department is not currently involved with fire brigades in your district, contact the plant’s safety director and/or fire brigade leader. I’ve found that plant management is more than happy to have outside departments sit in on training. It gives everyone an opportunity to get to know each other and to develop a seamless approach to emergency response. Most facilities have money budgeted for such activities and welcome the contact within the community.

Training Opportunities
Fire brigades may have more training opportunities than you would expect. Most brigades are established to OSHA regulations. These regulations come from the General Industry section and can be found in 29 Code of Federal Regulations, Part Number 1910, Subpart L Fire Protection, 1910.156 Fire Brigades. The specific section of the standard that indicates the training requirements for fire brigades is the Training and Education section. It outlines the following training requirements:

  • Training and education for all fire brigade members commensurate with those duties and functions that fire brigade members are expected to perform. Fire brigade leaders and training instructors shall be provided with training and education more comprehensive than that provided to the general membership of the fire brigade.
  • Training at least annually. In addition, fire brigade members who are expected to perform interior structural firefighting shall be provided with an education session or training at least quarterly.
  • The quality of the training and education program for fire brigade members shall be similar to those conducted by such fire training schools as the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, Iowa Fire Service Extension, West Virginia Fire Service Extension, Georgia Fire Academy, New York State Department of Fire Prevention and Control, Louisiana State University Firemen Training Program or Washington State’s Fire Service Training Commission for Vocational Education. Fire brigades serving the oil refinery industry will receive training similar to training conducted by Texas A&M University, Lamar University, Reno Fire School or the Delaware State Fire School.

Many fire brigades participate in large industrial fire schools on an annual basis. By making contacts and establishing relationships with your local fire brigade you may find that the facility’s management would be willing to send some of your municipal department’s members to advanced training programs alongside their brigade members. These types of opportunities are not only good public relations for the facility, but also provide your members with industrial firefighting experience, allowing them to assist command officers with facility response preplanning and tactical operations on emergency response.

Situational awareness is another positive aspect of advanced training. Many times as municipal firefighters we feel that the same strategy and tactics that we use on bread-and-butter fires can be used inside industrial facilities. First-due companies arriving on site of an industrial event may be tempted to venture into the facility and begin independent operations.

Members who possess advanced industrial firefighting knowledge sharpen their situational awareness of the true hazards and will be less likely to put themselves in such danger. They understand that the facility has an incident command system that works similar to their system but is usually based from an emergency operation center (EOC) within the facility. The EOC should be the first stop for company officers who must ascertain the complexity of the situation and reduce unnecessary exposure to risk for arriving municipal fire fighting resources.

Other Collaborations
In addition to equipment and training, municipal and industrial fire protection groups can collaborate to meet or exceed OSHA medical evaluations and respiratory requirements. Many large departments don’t have to worry about getting their people through the medical requirements for firefighting. However, smaller departments–volunteer, combination and career–often struggle to accomplish basic medical evaluations, pulmonary function testing and fit testing as required by OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard.

Industrial facilities often have on-site capability to perform these services and may be willing to assist their first-due municipal agencies with the cost, or allow the municipal department to come into their facility when they’re performing testing on their fire brigade members at no cost to the municipal fire department.

By assisting with these basic health and safety requirements for municipal departments, industrial facilities reduce their exposure to a medical event occurring while municipal firefighters are actively engaged in industrial firefighting at their facility. The level of support the facility will extend your department depends on the importance you’ve placed on assisting the facility during emergencies.

A Final Word
Industrial fire brigades have much to offer the municipal system in terms of training and resources. Municipal departments offer value to industrial facilities as well, and should work to inform area facilities of such. Get to know your local industrial fire brigade crewmembers and understand the knowledge, skills and abilities they have. In addition, work with the brigade to become a seamless system in the event of an industrial incident. Most of all: Enjoy the differences fire brigades offer from the municipal system, and work together to complement each other’s response needs. 

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