'Go big early' at historically unpredictable refinery fires

Initial observations from the Philadelphia chemical facility fire underscore importance of preplanning and SMEs

What happened: On June 21, at approximately 4 a.m., a massive explosion and fireball rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in south Philadelphia. Located at the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the PES plant has been in operation in some part since the 1800s, making it one of the oldest refineries in the United States. It is the largest refinery on the East Coast.

Why it’s significant: I spoke with Philadelphia Fire Commissioner and Emergency Management Director Adam Thiel the day after the incident, as the details continued to emerge.

Commissioner Thiel laments that the PES facility is no stranger to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD), the same location where eight PFD firefighters lost their lives and over a dozen others were injured at an 11-alarm fire and explosion on Aug. 17, 1975.

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia on June 21, 2019.
Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia on June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This particular incident is no longer expanding; however, as we have seen in other locations, and as Thiel cautions, chemical facility and refinery fires are historically unpredictable.

Response efforts: Working in a unified command approach with the PES Fire Brigade, the PFD operated the incident as a three-alarm response. PES utilizes a regional refinery collaborative for subject-matter expert and equipment response. Further, PFD’s Marine Unit 2 is stationed at the facility edge. As of this writing, Marine Unit 2 was still augmenting supply to the facility water supply.

In the initial stages of the incident, PFD crews layed in large-diameter supply lines to provide exposure protection to the rest of the facility. Thiel shared that even 40 hours later, five engines, hazardous materials resources, two chiefs and the Fire Marshal’s Office remained committed to the incident.

A shelter-in-place order was issued for an area east of the plant. That order was lifted after just 90 minutes. Amazingly, there were only minor injuries to several plant workers, and none required transport by the PFD EMS assets on scene.

There were no injuries to PFD personnel.

Like many of our bigger cities, the PFD routinely works with many federal agencies, and Thiel expected the Chemical Safety Board to be on site Sunday or Monday. The PFD will work through the investigation phase with the regulatory agencies and entities.

Top takeaways from the Philadelphia refinery fire and explosion

There will be many lessons to learn from this incident. And while it is too early to analyze what happened with any sense of reliability, we can still make some initial observations and consider what they mean for our departments that operate near refineries.

Here are my top four takeaways from this incident:

  1. Preplan major incidents. The PFD has robust preplanned operations for the site. Preplanning and routine exercising of the plan can make the difference between success and catastrophe.
  2. Depend on the subject-matter experts on site. Those SMEs provide not only situational awareness but also historical and industry perspective that the average firefighter won’t have.
  3. Go big early. Large-diameter hose should be a routine part of your water supply pattern. The notion that 2½- or 3-inch supply lines will be enough to protect a refinery is a failed notion.
  4. Slow-go the process to consider chemical plant fires “under control.” The potential cascading effects of chemical/refinery failures must be closely watched and expected.

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