BY JONATHAN M. HINSON
A large-scale flammable liquid fire or emergency can occur anywhere, since these commodities are used everywhere in the country. With this in mind, every department needs to be prepared should something go wrong while these flammable liquids are being transported through or stored in its jurisdiction.
The two biggest consumable resources fire departments would need for a flammable liquid event are water and foam concentrate. Being able to get large quantities of water into the unique places these events occur, like on interstates and railways, is something most jurisdictions have—or should have—a plan for, but foam concentrate is a much different aspect that is not readily available like water.
When you ask many fire officers and chiefs who they are going to call when they have a need for foam, you will get a wide variety of answers such as the airport, a fuel terminal or refinery, a higher level of government, or maybe the generic answer of “somebody.” Who is that somebody? Is it the local airport? Is it another fire department or a state agency? You might be surprised at the answer you could get if you call for these resources without having a predetermined agreement or actual understanding of how the process works.
No matter where the foam comes from, the foam’s owner is more than likely going to want some type of reimbursement promise, as foam concentrate is rather expensive. A 325-gallon tote of alcohol-resistive aqueous film forming foam (AR-AFFF) can cost more than $10,000. Most localities (and their taxpayers) or businesses (and their shareholders) aren’t always willing to share a consumable resource with such a high price tag that was probably purchased to protect some specific target hazard within their jurisdiction or facility. While in the heat of battle, firefighters generally aren’t concerned with what it costs. However, an agency that is going to send tens of thousands of dollars of foam to an incident wants to know who is going to pay for it. In most cases, the responsible party or party that caused the incident is liable for the cost of the response. The reimbursement process can vary from state to state, so it is important to understand how the reimbursement process works within your locality or state. It is also just as important for you to understand what your authority is within your jurisdiction to authorize the use of and high cost for foam and whether you are the organization using the foam or the organization sending the foam, especially in cases where the responsible party is not known or is not going to be able to pay.
Most commercial airports have larger quantities of foam both on their aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) trucks and stocked as reserve. However, planning to use this foam is not always as feasible as many firefighters think because of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that govern the airports, including the on-site firefighting capabilities. FAA regulations require that a certain number (depending on airport size) of firefighters and ARFF trucks be on site and ready at all times to keep the airport open and in operation. Having any of these required resources leave the airport property would cause the airport to shut down and more than likely create chaos for travelers and airlines. Most airports aren’t going to shut down and create the chaos for travelers to help with an incident off the airport property. Some airports may, however, have staffing and equipment above and beyond what the FAA requires so they could be able to assist. To determine what your local airport has to offer, contact it and have that discussion to figure how when and how it can help.
Even if you discover your local airport can send foam resources should they be needed, there are still concerns with using this resource. The biggest concern is the type of foam carried on ARFF trucks. The FAA requires a military spec aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) that is not alcohol-resistive. Should the flammable liquid involved in the incident be alcohol-based fuel rather than a hydrocarbon, the airport’s foam will not be effective. Most gasoline being transported over the highways is a blended fuel containing some amount of ethanol, meaning the airport’s AFFF won’t be as effective as using an AR-AFFF. Another point to consider when your plan includes using ARFF trucks is how to get the foam offloaded from the ARFF truck. Allowing the ARFF truck to become the primary pumper on the incident is an option. But if you are just looking for the concentrate carried, make plans now to have the right adapters and hoses needed if it is even possible to quickly pump the foam concentrate off the ARFF truck.
Other potential sources of foam are larger municipal departments in the area. However, don’t expect that the larger departments automatically have large stockpiles of foam—it is something you need to ask. If there is not a target hazard in the jurisdiction that would require a large quantity of foam, the local fire department might not have a large investment in foam concentrate. The department may still have some foam concentrate in stock it can use to supply and restock what its front-line apparatus carry for smaller incidents. Can it bring to you what it has or will you need to go get it? Just like with airports, you need to contact these municipalities to see what their capabilities are and exactly what they have to offer.
Similar to nearby municipal departments, nearby large industrial facilities (even outside the jurisdiction) could be a source of foam. Petrochemical facilities are almost certain to have foam on site, but other types of industrial complexes or facilities may as well—especially those that have their own in-house fire department or response team. However, just like the airports, this foam might not be able to leave the facility easily, not necessarily because of government regulations but rather insurance requirements for the facility. Other industries, like railroads, pipelines, and other transportation companies that transport these hazardous and flammable products through your jurisdiction, may have plans or foam resources in place. Figuring out what these resources are and how your organization fits into those plans may yield a source of foam that can be used during incidents that don’t even involve that industry.
STATE AND REGIONAL RESOURCES
Does your state or region have foam available for your organization? Again, this is something that needs to be determined in advance of an incident. In addition to knowing if these assets exist, also make sure you understand how to activate or request these assets. Some states have foam resources in place to assist local jurisdictions when larger quantities of foam are needed. These resources could be strategically spread out across the state or be in one central location. The resources could be housed and maintained by local fire departments that have an agreement with the state to take the foam wherever it is needed. In 2016, the state of New York strategically deployed foam trailers across the state along the main rail lines that routinely transport Bakkan crude oil. While the intent and funding were based on Bakkan crude oil concerns, the foam can be used to mitigate other situations or incidents that occur in the state.
Similar to state assets, some regions may have formed foam task forces such as the greater Richmond, Virginia, area. Many of the jurisdictions in the area have foam trailers, assets, and specially trained crews that contribute to the task force. Should any of the participating jurisdictions or other surrounding areas have an incident that requires larger amounts of foam, each jurisdiction sends its resources to combat the incident. The response can be scaled to the size and complexity of the incident. This task force concept reduces the burden on each individual jurisdiction while still working to ensure the region has the resources needed for a large-scale event.
Many foam concentrate manufacturers have stockpiles of inventory across the country. These stockpiles are, in some cases, just standard inventory to meet the everyday needs of their customers but also can serve as a source of foam concentrate for immediate emergency response. The location of these stockpiles may be considered a trade secret by the companies for competitive business reasons, so you might not be able to find out the exact location from the manufacturers. However, in most cases, the manufacturers can provide you an approximate time frame (probably in days rather than hours) of when they can have an emergency shipment to your incident. There will generally be an added cost for using this service, and returns may not be an option. This type of service from foam manufacturers is not something that is used for smaller incidents that most departments can just let burn out if sufficient foam is not available. Larger, experienced foam and flammable liquids response teams, mainly found at refineries or other fuel production operations, could use this service on large campaign-type incidents that are considered catastrophic and national news.
While foam concentrate has been the focus of this article, because in many situations it is the hardest resource to come by, there is also a need to have the equipment to proportion the foam and discharge the finished foam. In many cases, where you find foam concentrate, you will also find some sort of equipment cache to help correctly proportion and deliver the foam to the target of the incident. Having the needed equipment with foam may not always be the case, so be sure to ask that question once you find a source for your foam concentrate.
Hopefully, this article has provided some ideas and sparked conversation on where to find larger quantities of foam concentrate. If you come up short on finding a foam concentrate resource after reaching out to the sources described, maybe it is time to consider developing your own foam resources—that, however, is a different article for a different time. The key and recurring theme in locating these foam sources is to ask and figure out what resources are out there and how to acquire them when that once-in-a-career incident occurs. The key is to meet those people or groups who have the resources you need before the big event so you are not meeting for the first time at a command post not understanding what each other’s capabilities and needs are. Seeking out resources and developing those resources ahead of the big one isn’t just for foam either!
JONATHAN M. HINSON is a captain with the Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department, serving on the department’s Foam Team. He has been in the fire service for 22 years, having worked with Chesapeake Fire for 15 years. Hinson teaches regularly on foam-related and other topics including EVOC, Driver/Pump Operator, Instructor I, and different Firefighter I and II topics at basic recruit schools. He also serves as chief for Newsoms Volunteer Fire Department in Southampton County, Virginia.