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3 growing fuel hazards for firefighters

Training programs are now available for fire fighting incidents involving alternative fuels hydrogen, ethanol and biodiesel.

Editor’s note: The 2012 ERG is available as a smart phone application at

The high cost of petroleum-based fuels and tax incentives to bring other fuel sources to market have driven demand and production of alternative vehicle fuels. And while this may be good for the country, it poses a new set of threats to firefighters.

One effort to better train firefighters comes out of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. That group has put together training programs for dealing with alternative fuels; those programs were funded through the Department of Transportation, the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition, and the biofuel industry.

They were also outlined at last month’s FRI conference.

Hydrogen awareness
One of the efforts is an online training site, which was geared to help volunteers but is open to all firefighters. The site’s only course so far is Hydrogen Response Considerations, but others are planned.

This awareness-level class has four modules and takes about 90 minutes to complete. So far, more than 1,500 firefighters have completed the course.

Richard Miller is retired Fairfax (Va.) Fire Department captain who is working with IAFC on this project. Now that the pilot course is available, the group is seeking more funding to develop other courses, Miller said.

“One of the goals of the program is to make all of the learning NFPA 472 compliant,” Miller said. “We use that as a model to make the experience meaningful to each person.”

While hydrogen may not be prevalent yet in automotives, it is a leading fuel source for forklifts. Miller says another growth area for hydrogen will be backup generators for cell towers.

“The Department of Energy predicts that in the next 15 years, hydrogen is really going to take off,” Miller said. “This is going to be an alternative fuel around the country that we are going to have to deal with.”

Hydrogen, in addition to being 14 times lighter than air, has an invisible flame in daylight. Its flame is visible at night or through a thermal imaging camera.

Containing ethanol
The group also has a free ethanol training package available at the Hazmat Fusion Center’s web site.

“As of today we are at 13.9 million gallons of ethanol production,” Miller said. There are 209 ethanol plants across 29 states.

Miller talked about an incident in Baltimore in May 2007, which showed the industry how unprepared it was to deal with ethanol. Later in the incident, they brought in Baltimore Washington International airport’s crash truck to assist.

“The big takeaway from all of the ethanol incidents that we’ve examined is that using alcohol-resistant foam is probably the most effective way (to extinguish these fires),” Miller said.

Because it is often difficult to identify the placard and the percentage of ethanol blend, the choice should always be alcohol-resistant foam with a higher application rate than normally recommended for gasoline. The recommendation for gasoline is 0.16 gallons per square; ethanol needs to start at a 0.2 application per square foot, he said.

“We need to put more finished foam on the fire rapidly and more gently than we would for a typical gasoline fire,” Miller said.

Testing shows, Miller said, that ethanol requires a gentle application, such as with a bouncing technique, to avoid plunging the foam into the liquid.

Ethanol has a very hard-to-see blue flame and no visible smoke. Some blends can conduct electricity. Its ignition temperatures vary by the percentage of gasoline in the ethanol. Ethanol can be diluted by 500 percent and still retain enough vapors to catch fire.

Biodiesel’s prevalence
Biodiesels are growing so fast the most restaurants on the east coast are under contract with recovery companies to reclaim their spent deep-fryer oil, Miller said. There were more than 1 billion gallons produced in 2011.

Biodiesel will vary in color depending upon the source oil. It is a combustible liquid that has a very low vapor pressure and a flashpoint of about 200 degree, Miller said. It has a specific gravity of less than 1, so it will float.

Biodiesel retains petroleum characteristics, Miller said. “It is going to look like a diesel fuel and act like a diesel fuel. In cold weather, it is going to act more like its original product.”

Biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel from 10 percent or 20 percent biodiesel up to 90 percent biodiesel. These blends become more stable as the percentage of biodiesel increases, Miller said.

Like ethanol, alcohol-resistant foam is recommended for extinguishing biodiesel. It may seem odd to use this material for a combustible liquid where regular foam should work, Miller said.

“How do we know when we get called to the tanker incident that it is a biodiesel fuel?” Miller asked. “How do we prepare as responders?”

The logic is to apply a foam that can neutralize biodiesel, ethanol and petroleum fuels. It is better to be over prepared for an incident with biodiesel than to be under prepared for an ethanol incident, he said.

“One of the key takeaways is that there is a huge market of home-brewed biodiesel,” Miller said. “On my own fire department, out of 100 people, two are actually making their own biodiesel. Those are the hazards we have to be aware of when we respond to the garage fire; the hazard threshold is way up there.”

The Hazmat Fusion Center also has a biodiesel training program. It and the ethanol program are open-source Powerpoint presentations that can be edited to accommodate local information.

“The framework is built in so you can make it your own Powerpoint with the basic information about each of those two different hazards,” Miller said.