When there are no fires to fight, how do firefighters stay prepared? The personnel of Pine-Strawberry Fire Department train every week. This training is held in lieu of ‘on-the-scene’ training, so the firefighters stay ready for the dangers that lurk in the forested community.
Special training is offered as well.
One of the more spectacular training sessions this past November was centered on a propane tank fire.
The Houston Mesa (formerly known as the Mesa Del Caballo) and Diamond Star Fire Departments joined the P-S crew to learn the characteristics of a propane tank fire. Another part of the training was how to safely approach a tank to shut off the gas valves when it is burning, P-S Chief Paul Coe said.
Now, not being able to just light any old tank, Engineer Mark Boys, the department’s training officer hired Blue Flame Enterprises out of Tucson, Ariz. This company helped blow up the old Tucson Airport, providing an invaluable training for the area fire departments, company owner Tom Ford said.
Blue Flame brought up a dummy tank, set up with pipes, so that Ford could manipulate the flame that firefighters had to approach using propane donated by Energy West.
Payson Concrete donated the use of the gravel pit south of Bradshaw Road in Pine so the crews had a safe location free from flammable materials.
“This is live fire,” Ford told the crews. The idea is that practicing in this controlled situation will give firefighters a calm approach if the real thing happens.
“I’m trying to give you things you would face in reality, but I can shut the fire down. We want to put up a situation to learn from.”
Coe explained, “We have probably seen two or three incidents in the past year (involving propane tanks). None actually caught fire, but we had leaks that could have ignited.”
Mark Lorentz of Energy West brought five of his employees to listen, watch and learn as well.
It is important for them to be able to see what the fire department needs to do when there is an emergency of that type, Coe said.
Lorentz echoed the Chief’s words, adding that his technicians will begin to carry fire suits to be used during emergencies.
“We work with this stuff all day, and we can get casual about it,” he said.
Homeowners with tanks and meters in their yards also need to understand the dangers. Bumping a tank or meter with a car or backhoe can rupture an underground line creating a dangerous leak in the home.
“In fact, in those examples, you would not know it is leaking until it finds an ignition source,” Coe said.
“Propane is one of the safest materials for heating that there is. But it does have some physical characteristics that can make it dangerous when there is a leak. It is flammable, the vapor expands to 270 times the volume of the liquid, it is heavier than air so it will flow like water to low spots and it is invisible,” Coe explained.
For those reasons, firefighters are trained to walk upright when working with a propane fire, because it sinks just the opposite of the standard fire rules of crawling under the smoke.
Crews spent most of the day learning how to approach the tank, cooling it and closing the valve with a five-man team, the center man taking the point.
As a raging fire was ignited by Ford and his crew, five firefighters in heavy turnouts and breathing oxygen would approach the fire using hand cues to remain in step with each other. Flanking the point man were firefighters carrying hoses. Their job is to create a fan of water that both cools the liquid in the tank and protects the team from the angry orange flame being fed by the propane still in the tank. Beside them are two helpers and guides who assist with the charged hose line. Once they reach the tank, to stop the monster from being fed, the point man must reach through the water into the fire and turn the valve on the tank.
Working with personnel from the other departments, firefighters built confidence and speed while attacking the tank.
Working together like this builds consistency and shares costs, Coe said.
“On any kind of large emergency we will use mutual aid so it is critical that we are operating the same way,” he said.
To keep your propane tank safe, keep it clear from all combustibles, including brush, pine needles and other debris. When the relief valve opens, the tank is being exposed to heat. This valve keeps the tank from over-pressurizing internally and rupturing.
“When the valve goes off the safety mechanisms in the tank are working,” Coe said.
If anything happens to the tank, no matter how insignificant it may seem, call the fire department immediately, Coe said.