Despite the introduction of new fire protection technologies and increasingly stringent regulatory standards, incidents such as the fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s (ITC) tank farm in Deer Park, Texas this year highlight the ongoing need for companies to take hazard prevention incredibly seriously.
A single leaking terminal at the Deer Park facility ultimately resulted in 11 tanks being damaged or destroyed in a fire that raged for days, releasing dangerous chemicals into the air and dramatically increasing visits to local health centers. Disasters like the Deer Park incident should act as cautionary tales for companies who operate similar facilities, making clear the importance of installing effective fire protection equipment, and ensuring measures are in place to prevent a small fault becoming a major disaster. With this in mind, Kevin Yates, Product Manager Europe and Africa for Foam Products at Johnson Controls, sets out the various hazards associated with running a tank farm facility and how through the use of the right detection and suppression apparatus, events like Deer Park can be mitigated, if not prevented all together.
Tank storage facilities inherently pose risks in terms of fire, leaks and explosions due to their function: storing large amounts of hazardous, flammable liquids. Companies are therefore aware of the potential hazards associated with tank farms, but this does not make them any less varied, unpredictable or dangerous.
The management of hazards is dependent upon the type of product being stored and the dangers it can pose. In petrochemical applications for example, the main factors that must be guarded against range from vapor build up to spillages, lightning strikes or errors during engineering or maintenance activities. Even within the petrochemical industry, different products can present unique challenges. The combustibility of crude oil for example can cause water in the product to super-heat and cause an extremely dangerous boil over, while refined oil products are more incendiary, making the major concerns vapor build up and spark hazards. With so many varied hazards to guard against, tank farm operators must take a bespoke approach to mitigating risk, with a unique program of maintenance activities, detection and suppression systems designed for each application.
Management, maintenance and prevention
To comply with insurance requirements and governmental regulations, tank farms must be regularly tested and inspected to ensure standards are in place to protect people, property and the environment. The installation and proper maintenance of an appropriate fire detection system is absolutely crucial for meeting these requirements. Since preventing incidents is obviously preferable to tackling fires, detection systems’ ability to identify pre-event symptoms, either by working as standalone indicators or as part of a detection algorithm, is incredibly valuable. It is therefore essential that this equipment is regularly tested and maintained, and where needed, includes redundant systems to act as backups. Similarly, all mechanical system responses must be frequently tested to ensure that, in an emergency, every element is working to prevent the disastrous consequences of equipment “failing on demand”. Maintenance activities should not only be concentrated on critical event apparatus however, as serious problems can also be caused by the failure of non-emergency equipment.
Tackling training and human error
The effectiveness of any maintenance activity is highly dependent on the expertise and experience of the people responsible for carrying them out. Both routine inspections and event response checking, require knowledge of specific processes, necessitating specialized skills and training. It is essential that no maintenance activities are undertaken by personnel that do not hold the right qualifications and training records must be kept up to date to allow managers to assess which staff members hold the required levels of expertise. With figures from the Swiss Fire Protection Research and Development AG suggesting that up to 12% of tank fires are caused by operational error, while a further 13% are due to mistakes made during maintenance, the benefits of ensuring a well-maintained facility with well-trained staff are self-evident.
Counting the cost
Legal requirements for tank farm maintenance and safety equipment are so stringent because of the very real dangers posed by fires, leaks and explosions at these facilities. Since 2000 it is estimated that tank fires have killed at least 243 people, injured 1,669 and inflicted monetary losses in excess of USD 10 billion worldwide. The consequences for any business found to have neglected safety considerations, cut corners or failed to ensure their staff are trained to deal with faults after an incident has occurred are incredibly serious, both fiscally and reputationally. As such, it is vital that companies take proactive steps to protect their facilities with the right fire detection and suppression equipment.
Fire detection equipment primarily acts as an early warning system to help prevent incidents from ever occurring. Successful early detection can be achieved in a number of ways by using flame, smoke and heat detectors. In many instances, a multifunctional device is deployed in a redundancy design to provide a voting system that allows for sensor failures and false alarms. Where suitable, vapor detection can also be used to sense a build-up of flammable gases and trigger procedures such as de-gassing to prevent ignition or explosion. Where gases are stored and transported along pipelines, special devices that can “hear” gas leaks can also be used to isolate problem areas. Recent advancements in detection technology have also led to the development of redundant programmable safety systems with algorithms that can forecast potential problems and take preventative action, all before the alarms are even triggered.
In some cases, however, even identifying an issue early is not enough to avert an incident. In the event of a fire, suppression equipment is called upon to contain the blaze until external firefighting teams can be mobilized, if not extinguish it altogether. As previously mentioned, it is essential that the correct fire suppression system is installed for each tank construction and type of product being stored. For example, when extinguishing polar solvents, systems must be in place to dispense special Alcohol Resistant Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AR-AFFF), which is capable of forming a blanket over the solvent fire and starving it of oxygen. Consideration of different application needs also extends to the positioning of fixed suppression systems, which must be fit for purpose whether the tank features a fixed, cone or a floating roof tank.
Fixed suppression solutions
Should a fire break out at a tank farm site, the installation of fixed firefighting equipment allows for an immediate, effective response that can buy invaluable time to evacuate personnel, secure valuable product and bring in more firefighting resources. The foam used in fixed suppression systems is often stored locally in a bladder tank that, on activation, uses the site’s water pressure to mix foam concentrate and water at a ratio as low as 1% for discharge through the foam-making device, be it a monitor, sprinkler or tank foam generator.
On a typical tank rim seal fire for example, locally mounted foam generators can be immediately activated to start attacking the fire. This rapid response could be the difference between a controlled extinguishment and an uncontrollable tank roof collapse that results in the tank having to burn out – potentially leading to the loss of millions of dollars of product. As such, relatively inexpensive hardware such as fixed foam generators can save millions of dollars and minimise the environmental damage of fighting fires at tank sites. Just as with the type of foam used, there are specific design solutions for each type of tank design, with some facilities warranting the application of foam from below the fuel level into the product itself (subsurface), whilst others call for suppression materials to be applied at the product surface level (semi subsurface). With all these design elements to consider, it is essential to consult safety engineers in order to accurately identify the specific risks posed at the site and how to mitigate them. It is also absolutely vital to use industry approved equipment and solutions. As shown by the Deer Park example, it is completely unacceptable to cut corners in this area of engineering, not only because of the risk to the environment, but also the very real danger of causing injuries or deaths through negligence.
Trusted tank fire protection for every application
As we have seen, successfully operating a tank farm involves assessing the specific risks for your site, adopting appropriate training and maintenance programs to mitigate those hazards and investing in effective, legally approved detection and suppression equipment. At Johnson Controls, our portfolio of globally recognized and industry approved products has made us one of the global leaders in fire protection technology worldwide. Whether it be a refinery, fuel transportation site or oil production facility, our WILLIAMS FIRE & HAZARD CONTROL, ANSUL AND SKUM brands have been providing quality hardware and fire protection strategies for decades. Today, we are continuing to develop innovative solutions to detect and suppress fires on tank farm sites and beyond.
For more information, go to www.johnsoncontrols.com