Firefighters focus on ethanol
MILTON Jefferson Fire Chief John Powell has his work cut out.
The state’s largest ethanol plant is set to open in Jefferson County this month, and Powell wants to make sure his department is prepared for anything that could happen there.
Powell and his firefighters plan to tour the plant sometime this month, but he also wants to get information from fire departments who have experience, he said.
“I was trying to get information from other departments in the area that have ethanol plants,” he said.
One person he could call is Milton Fire Chief Loren Lippincott. In 2006, the Milton Fire Department stood exactly where the Jefferson Fire Department is now.
But six months after the $60 million United Ethanol plant began operations, Lippincott hasn’t had a bit of trouble with the facility, he said.
“As to date, we have not had any incidents that we’ve been involved in over there,” he said.
Lippincott is confident the department has the best training possible in the case of an emergency at the plant, he said.
But the department wasn’t always so confident, Deputy Chief Chris Lukas said. Lukas was chief of the volunteer department when construction of the Milton plant began.
“We had people stop in and ask us if we were capable of handling an emergency out there, and at the time a lot of it was new to us, and we had a lot of research to do,” he said.
“Basically what we did was educate ourselves.”
The department learned that safety hazards for ethanol plants are similar to other industrial sites dealing with flammable liquid. Although ethanol is highly flammable, it’s not explosive.
A fire at an ethanol plant would not be a chemical fire—which has more potential for an explosion—but it would require different tools than a house fire, Lukas said.
Members of the Milton Fire Department already had trained for flammable-liquid fires because of the potential for a tanker crash on major highways such as Highway 26 and the Interstate, Lippincott said.
Because of the environmental hazards of a liquid fire, the members get few opportunities to train with a live fire. But they do practice using the foam extinguishing tools two or three times a year, Lukas said.
The department also worked extensively with United Ethanol to familiarize themselves with the plant, its hazards and its safety procedures, firefighters said.
“They (plant officials) bent over backwards to make sure we had everything we needed,” Lippincott said.
The department toured the facility multiple times as it was being built.
“As items were put in, the corn bins, as they put the dryers in, the evaporators, all those different components … they were explained to everyone how they were operated and any particular hazard with that particular piece of equipment,” he said.
Firefighters learned that the dryers in the plant present the highest potential for a fire, but the equipment has its own self-suppression system.
“Basically what they told us was to stay hands-off and let the extinguishing system do its thing,” Lippincott said.
Like the Jefferson chief, Milton fire officials researched other ethanol plants and contacted local departments with plants in their areas, including the Monroe Fire Department. In fact, someone from the Monroe department toured the Milton plant with them, Lukas said.
Monroe has had an ethanol plant online since 2002, and firefighters there don’t consider the plant a hazard, said Monroe Fire Chief Daryl Rausch.
“We have done some training out there, but then we do the same type of training at other commercial occupancies, too,” he said.
In five years, the department has been called to only one incident at the plant, Rausch said: a fire in a storage silo in July.
Although firefighters were on the scene for more than seven hours, the public was never in danger from the fire, Rausch told The Monroe Times at the time.
“It’s essentially the same as we would’ve handled (a silo fire) at any farm,” he said.
At the Milton ethanol plant, the only incident Lippincott has heard about is a fire in a ring dryer in early summer. The department wasn’t called because the suppression system put out the fire, he said.
“Fires happen in industrial systems every day that we never get called for,” Lippincott said. “It happens at GM, it happens everywhere.
“We certainly have much larger potential for bad things in this county than an ethanol plant or a biodiesel plant.”