The pipeline incident may have happened more than six years ago, but it’s a vivid memory that hasn’t faded for Fred Windisch, fire chief of the Ponderosa (Texas) Fire Department and a VCOS board member.
On that day, two drivers crashed and ran off the road in a road-rage incident. One of the cars ran across a pipeline and sheared off a valve. “We had a 1,000-PSI natural gas stream shooting up in the air that caught ignition,” Windisch reported. “The flames were 200 feet in the air.”
However, because his station is based in the Houston area, home to a large oil and gas industry, his team knew exactly what to do. “Our job is to protect exposures. It’s to keep the place safe, keep people out and stabilize as much as we can while we wait for the experts to get in and the company to shut the valve in,” Windisch explained.
This knowledge and familiarity with responding to an incident as rare as a pipeline emergency comes from years of education and training from an industry that reaches out, says Windisch. “Pipeline emergency disruptions are very rare, and as with anything in our business, we’re going to focus primarily on the stuff that happens all the time. But the pipeline industry pulls us into their discussions and their education and the information means so much.”
Accessing Readily Available Education
Late last year, Windisch attended a presentation by TransCanada and the IAFC in Tyler, Texas. It was just one in a series of regional townhalls around the U.S. that assemble industry representatives and first responders to exchange ideas on pipeline emergency preparedness. The townhalls continue this year in regions where TransCanada’s pipelines pass through, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
In addition to the townhalls, TransCanada regularly conducts emergency drills and exercises to ensure staff and local emergency responders are prepared in the case of an incident. In 2014, TransCanada held over 110 safety exercises and drills across their entire network of North American assets.
Windisch says it’s this kind of education and training that is invaluable to emergency responders, no matter where they’re based. “Pipelines generally lay there and do their thing and nothing goes wrong. There’s the human factor to think, ‘Oh, well, I haven’t had any problems and nothing is going to happen,’ and complacency rolls in. And we don’t step out all the time to get this information and education that’s readily available.”
“But once every decade, we’ll have a pipeline emergency and that’s not our expertise,” he says.
“This particular session really prepares the first responder to understand the fine points of a pipeline, a pipeline emergency and the capability of the companies to respond to that emergency.”
Information Can Be a Game Changer
Several states north, in an area also familiar with the oil and gas industry, Darrell Hartmann has been the fire chief at Brookings (South Dakota) Fire Department for more than 17 years. He hosted the inaugural TransCanada-IAFC presentation in June 2015 and said after attending the session that his team gained more confidence when it comes to pipeline incidents. “We train a lot and we’ve got some very seasoned people on the department. We thought we had a good handle on pipeline emergency response, but they still gave us some tips to use and we made some important industry contacts.”
In his many years at the department, he has seen few pipeline incidents and agrees they’re not common. Despite their rarity, he says this kind of training can be a game changer during a call and is critical to emergency responders. “It may give you the additional information that could make all the difference on the next call.”
During the session, his team gained important information on the location of pipelines in their area, which companies operate them and how to contact them—information that was then passed on to their dispatch center.
According to Hartmann, the session ultimately “got those handshakes going with the local pipeline people.”
Building Relationships with Industry
Allen Dodson, a former Arkansas county judge who ended up on the front lines responding to a significant oil pipeline leak in 2013, is one of the presenters at the townhalls who says that building contacts is actually one of the main purposes of the meetings. “The townhall meetings provide local firefighters and first responders with a golden opportunity to build knowledge, familiarity and relationships.”
He says the sessions are designed to increase the preparedness of emergency responders for incidents on any pipelines in the area—regardless of whether they belong to TransCanada. “The more familiarity you can build before an incident, the stronger and more decisive your response will be.”