"The firefighters were very impressed"

Fires in chemical plants often require very special knowledge for proper emergency strategies, but this expertise may not be present in a typical fire department. We spoke to Herbert Quilitzsch, the Fire Safety Officer at BYK in Wesel, about the challenges of firefighting and special firefighter training.

Mr. Quilitzsch, what can you tell us about the fire safety concept at BYK?

Of course, we primarily focus on measures to prevent fire, such as electrical equipment with explosion protections, ventilation equipment with controlled air exchange, or gas alarm systems. We have sub terranean tank farms, which are covered with nitrogen, just as the production vessel. We also have installed a broad network of alarm systems, which are directly connected with the fire station and trigger automatic extinguishing systems, and we conduct regular training sessions to sensitize the employees to the topic.

Which types of extinguishing systems are these?

The old production facilities, which were built in 1990, and the warehouses use CO2, which means the fire is extinguished by starving it of oxygen. In the new production units, we have a water/foam system, while the energy center uses a water atomizer system.

Can these systems replace firefighters?

No, most definitely not. Firefighters will always be needed. On one hand, there is the risk that the systems do not have the desired effect or need backup, and on the other hand, firefighters are needed to inspect the sites and make sure the fire is truly extinguished. However, our systems reduce the risk for firefighters and also respond much faster than they can. This allows the fire department to control fires much quicker.

Does BYK have a works fire department, as is the custom in the chemical industry?

No, we don't have our own fire department, since the town of Wesel has an excellent professional fire department, which is located just a few hundred meters from our facilities. Our alarm systems are connected to that station, making sure they can respond to emergencies promptly. By the same token, we don't have any chance to call off a false alarm. They are simply too fast for us.

Chemical production probably represents special challenges for firefighters. How does the cooperation work?

The cooperation works very well. When we built the new facilities, the firefighters inspected the new premises very carefully. They spent a number of Saturdays in the facilities to get to know them.

Why the Netherlands?

That's where the leading event organizer is located. Germany doesn't even have any suitable training facilities.

Does that mean the training is something quite special?

Yes, I took part in it together with my colleagues. It was very impressive and extremely informative.

What was so impressive? Did you see real fires?

Yes, we did, the center offers training in various fire scenarios. The training manager is able to use a mix of flammable gases and liquids from the control center to realistically simulate a number of fire types.

Can you tell us a bit more about this training?

We initially discuss in the classroom how to proceed in specific firefighting situations. We then apply the content of these lessons in the training center. Firefighters not only have to make the right choices, they also have to make them quickly. When they make a mistake or are too slow, the trainer will notice. He then alters the parameters in such a way that the fire scenario escalates.

What was the effect of these drills on the firefighters?

When we were getting together for a beer at night, I could see how impressed the guys were with the presentation, and how much they had learned. I would highly recommend this training.

Is it sufficient to be familiar with the premises?

No, of course our fire alarm center has all necessary information about the substances we use and their hazard profiles on hand. The center is located at a safe distance from potential fire sources.

Can you tell us about some of the hazards the firefighters need to look out for?

Our company works a lot with fl ammable solvents. This represents a different challenge for firefighters, than, let's say, an apartment fire. Solvents can spill quickly and spread over a large area, forming ignitable vapor-air mixes. Accordingly, the fire develops much faster than in a house fire.

Surely, this type of fire is quite difficult to extinguish with water?

Water is actually not very suitable, because it is heavier than the solvents in most cases. We therefore suffocate the fire with CO2 or extinguish it with foam. The foam carpet extinguishes the spilled solvents. For this reason, we keep two so-called extinguishing monitors in our firefighting equipment room in addition to the automatic extinguishing system. These mix water and foaming agent and the resulting foam can be used to fight a fire from a distance of about 50 meters. The local fire department is allowed to use these monitors for other fires in Wesel as well.

What happens with the run-off water and foam? Aren't they a hazard for the environment?

Essentially, yes, but our premises have a sufficient catching volume to retain them. Additionally, we are able to lock the sewerage system to make sure the mix cannot be released into the environment. The water is trapped in special run-off water retention pools and then disposed as waste.

Does a fire department that typically deals with house fires have the necessary expertise for this kind of challenge?

Certainly not. To protect our own interests, BYK fund a special training for the firefighters of Wesel in the Netherlands to prepare them for extraordinary circumstances.