The Weekly Reflektion Week 43 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion is based on the fire-fighting response to the Buncefield oil storage terminal fire in 2005.

The fire raging at the Buncefield fuel storage tanks 

What scenarios do you train for in your emergency response exercises?

How far will the scenario escalate, and do you have a strategy for the response?

On the 11th December 2005, a fire broke out at the Buncefield oil storage terminal in Hemel Hempstead in England. At 0601 hrs., there was a massive explosion followed by a series of minor explosions and a major fire. Reflekt used the cause of the fire as the basis for a Weekly Reflektion week 7/2019. This week we will look at the fire-fighting response. The fire at Buncefield was one of the largest in peacetime Europe and represented a significant challenge for the UK Fire Brigade.

The Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service arrived within minutes of the alarm call and the officer in charge declared a major incident at 0610 hrs. 31 Fire and Rescue Services were eventually involved in the response to the fire. The mobilisation was the first national mobilisation of Fire and Rescue Services by National Coordination Centre.

The emergency response to the incident was affected by a number of factors that arguably could have been anticipated through ‘scenario thinking’. ‘Scenario thinking’ could have led to strategic and tactical measures that would have limited the damage at Buncefield.

The firewater supply was not reliable and was constantly interrupted due to the intervention of the Environmental Protection Agency due to a concern for pollution of the nearby area and groundwater. This made firefighting difficult.

The most suitable foam for fighting fuel fires is a synthetic Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) as this type of foam provides a better spread to knock down the flames. AFFF was the foam type stored on site at Buncefield however, the foam was destroyed in the initial explosions. The only foam available (Fluoroprotein foam) was brought by municipal firefighters as this is the standard issue used by most U.K. municipal departments. This type of foam is based on a natural protein and is not so effective for the fires that occurred at Buncefield. The foam is however biodegradable. Some AFFF foam arrived with the first industrial fire crews and one or two more enlightened UK municipal fire brigade. If AFFF had been used there would have been considerably less foam used. AFFF foam was available from Europe but was never requested by Fire and Rescue Service Command.

A statement from the fire chief in the media that the fires will be extinguished influenced the strategic direction of the firefighting. This created an expectation to the tactical response and the decisions on what fires to extinguish and what fires to leave burning. Consequently, flames that spread to 20 fuel storage tanks on site had to be extinguished not once but repeatedly throughout the three-day emergency. The protection of the unaffected tanks was not based on practical firefighting issues.

Firefighters had to increase the water supply on site with an additional five lines of 6-inch hose. The nearest inexhaustible supply of water was a canal a 6 km away. The concern with the canal was that large pumps would pull down the water level and destroy the bank, so water from the canal was not used. The next available source, a further 3 km away across farmland, had its own drawbacks. With no hard road access, authorities had to use cranes and cherry pickers to lift and place the pumps used to relay the water.

Tank fires were not the only fires on site. Small to large pressure fires raging throughout the damaged tank farm had gone largely unchecked. Pressure fires do not respond well to water or foam, and it takes dry chemical and the specialized equipment to apply it. None of that was immediately available.

The only scenario Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service had ever planned for at this site was a single tank fire. 20 tanks immediately catching fire in one hit plus all the other damage was considered unrealistic and therefore unnecessary to plan and train for.

What scenarios do you consider for your emergency response exercises? Are they realistic and do they adequately consider escalation?

Do you train on communication of emergency responses to the media and the public? Do you consider what expectations you create in the communications made?

Reflekt AS