Shell Martinez began using the Texas A&M fire school earlier this year, after the University of Nevada’s Fire Science Academy in Elko County closed at the end of 2011 due to budget cuts.
Joe Digue, the refinery’s emergency response coordinator, said the Texas facility is far larger and presents far more real-life types of situations for fighting petroleum-fueled fires. Digue went to his first fire training in Texas in March.
“We’d been going to the same place for so long, fighting the same props, that we were almost acclimated to it,” Digue said of the Nevada school. “This Texas facility is an eye-opener for all of us. This was a complete unknown, with new props and new tactics.
“It’s absolutely more reality-based,” Digue continued. “The instructors in Texas will increase the flow of fuel if they see that the crews aren’t fighting it effectively, for instance, or open a flame in a nearby column, which could happen in a real emergency. If you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then they won’t escalate it, so it teaches you in a realistic manner.”
The opportunity to learn at a top facility had great appeal to the four members of the Contra Costa Consolidated Fire Department that accompanied Shell Martinez to the fire school, said Battalian Chief Keith Cormier.
“We have a long history of going to fire school with them,” Cormier said. “On any given day, anything can happen, and we can have what we learned in that training available to us.”
Cormier said more than 20 people in the district, which covers most of central and eastern Contra Costa County, applied for the four training slots, which are considered a plum assignment. Preference was given to personnel at stations closest to the refinery. Two captains, one engineer and a firefighter went, representing stations 12 and 13 in Martinez, station 5 in Pleasant Hill and station 86 in Bay Point.
Shell pays for the tuition, the transportation and the lodging.
“It definitely benefits us,” Cormier remarked, especially with the fire department feeling the effects of budget cutbacks.
Digue said the joint training also benefits Shell employees, who get to learn from their public firefighting counterparts, who are primarily structural and interior firefighters.
“We like to invite the municipalities, especially Confire, because they’re our primary mutual aid responder. They’re closest, and we are in their jurisdiction,” he said. “It’s always good for them to get familiar with not only our tactics, but also with the type of firefighting they’d be expected to do, should we ask them for a tactical team. If they’ve never fought a petrochemical fire that size, it could be pretty intimidating. They’re like any other firefighter – the more training, the better, especially with live fire.”
Shell and the other three other refineries in Contra Costa County have had a Petrochemical Mutual Aid Organization PMAO with local fire departments for 30 years, which includes regular meetings, training and relationship building that can be drawn upon during an emergency. They also keep an organized accounting of all the equipment and resources that can be called upon in times where mutual aid is needed; for instance, Confire has called upon Shell to provide foam to put on an overturned tanker on the freeway.
“It’s definitely a positive relationship, one that we’ve nurtured over the years,” Cormier said. “We depend on (Shell firefighters) because they are the experts in that facility, and they’re the experts in flammable liquid incidents that may occur outside the facility.”
Fire school allows the Shell and Consolidated firefighters a chance to get to know each other personally, which also helps them build a strong personal relationship, “And we can go home better for it,” Digue said.
Shell Martinez now has 96 employees on its fire crew, most of them volunteers. The crew is divided over 4 teams of 24 each, who are in two engine companies. The fire crew is available to respond to an emergency 24 hours a day year-round. (The crew includes 16 emergency medical technicians to respond to medical emergencies).
The fire crew has all the equipment it needs to fight a petrochemical fire, including engines, hose foam, breathing apparatus and more.