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Responding to Ethanol Incidents

February 15, 2009

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IAFC On Scene: February 15, 2009

Ethanol and ethanol-blended fuels are in use in growing quantities in the United States, and these quantities will increase substantially in the coming years. Used as an additive to gasoline since the 1970s, ethanol not only is an octane enhancer, but is also used as a fuel oxygenates, reducing tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide.

Ethanol factory behind a corn fieldFor first responders, the addition of ethanol to gasoline presents some unique firefighting challenges. Traditional methods of firefighting against hydrocarbon (gasoline) fires have been found to be ineffective against these polar solvent-type (ethanol-blended) fuels.

Since gasoline tends to float on top of water, ethanol fuels are water-soluble and tend to blend with the water. For this reason, the use of AR foam as a means of extinguishing an ethanol fire is recommended.

Depending on their response location in the country, first responders may encounter ethanol in different strengths and blends, such as pure beverage-grade ethanol (E-100); fuel-grade ethanol, also known as denatured ethanol (E-95/E-98); E-85-blended ethanol for flex-fuel vehicles; and E-10-blended ethanol for regular fuel distribution. Fuel-grade ethanol is the number-one freight rail commodity in the country.

First responders may encounter any of the above in over-the-road tanker trucks. Compared to gasoline and its flash point of -45°F, knowledge of commodity being transported through a community is essential because flash points vary with product. Pure E-100 ethanol has a flash point of 55°F, while the addition of a denaturant gives fuel grade ethanol a flash point of -5°F and the flash points decrease to -45°F for E-10 ethanol-blended fuels just like gasoline.

Because of this, in October 2006 the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition (EERC) was formed. Its vision is to enhance the knowledge, capability and readiness of first responders to effectively respond to fires, spills and other emergencies involving pure beverage alcohol ethanol and ethanol-blended fuels.

The IAFC, which led the development of the EERC, is one of the member representatives making up the executive committee of the EERC. This committee includes representatives from

E85 pumpOne of the five EERC goals is to develop educational materials, training programs and other products for first responders that will improve their knowledge of and ability to respond to emergencies involving pure beverage alcohol ethanol and ethanol-blended fuels and will allow them to make data-driven decisions about capability based on community risk and other factors.

In June 2007, the EERC produced a video titled Responding to Ethanol Incidents. This video is still available through the EERC website. This video wasn’t developed to meet the needs of the fire service, yet it does have some good information.

Recognizing that it was becoming imperative to prepare first responders for incidents involving ethanol, the IAFC took the lead and through a grant from the U.S. Fire Administration developed a CD that contains two training packages: "Responding to Ethanol Incidents" and "Ethanol Fixed Facilities Assessment and Guide."

This CD was completed in early 2008 and more than 2,000 copies have been distributed either at IAFC information tables at conferences or via mail through direct request. To request a copy, contact James Rist via email at jrist@iafc.org

James Rist is a program coordinator in the IAFC’s National Programs department, supporting the National Hazardous Materials Fusion Center. He can be reached via email at jrist@iafc.org.