By Burton Speakman
Most Ohio firefighters have a lack of experience dealing with blazes pertaining to oil and gas, but as the industry grows, fire departments are looking for education.
Firefighters from all over the state have come to the Wayne County Fire and Rescue Association’s Regional Training Facility to learn how to fight oil and gas fires. The site is paid for, maintained and training is provided by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.
Oil and gas fires do not happen very often. Otherwise, they would be part of the firefighters’ mandatory training, said Rhonda Reda, executive director of OOGEEP.
One of the key things they need to know about natural-gas fires is to push the fire and heat away from them so they can get close enough to shut off the valve turning off the gas, said Ron Grosjean, chairman of the OOGEEP committee that provides firefighter training.
“You can’t put out a natural-gas fire with water,” he said. “One thing about natural-gas fires is because they burn clean and don’t produce a lot of smoke, people may not think they’re dangerous.”
There are a lot of things that can be done at the Wayne County facility that can’t be done at the Ohio Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg, because the academy is within city limits, Grosjean said.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong and cause problems in the various stages of natural-gas development. For example, a lightning strike could hit a site causing a fire, he said.
Charlie Dixon, safety and workforce training administrator for OOGEEP, said more than 800 firefighters have gone through the program in 12 years, including firefighters from seven states.
“We’re currently setting up an arrangement with Pennsylvania for us to train their trainers, and the North Dakota program was patterned after what we do here,” Dixon said. “Nearly every firefighter who operates in a county with significant oil and gas drilling will probably be called out to a well site at some point.”
George Brown, chief of the Boardman Fire Department, said he has done some training at the Apple Creek facility, but he does not believe anyone from this area has gone there for any oil or gas fire training.
“Dominion East Ohio has done a good job with training to assist us,” he said.
Oil and gas fires are different and something and firefighters have to get used to, Brown said.
“You don’t want to put out a gas fire until you’re ready to turn off the gas,” he said.
“In this area, most departments have had some informational sessions, but not training,” he said. “They’re doing the training in areas where there’s a lot of active drilling going on.”
Firefighters are taking necessary steps to be prepared. Typically, when people call 911 with any emergency, firefighters are sent out to handle it, Brown said.
The reason oil and gas producers wanted to start offering training for firefighters was to educate firefighters about the drilling operations, said Eric Smith, chairman of OOGEEP and an oil and gas producer with Maric Drilling Company in Winesburg.
“They would be called out to a site and didn’t know anything about the drilling operations,” he said.
The issue started occurring more in the last 1980s and early 1990s when drillers started going from the Clinton Formation to the Rose Run formation about 2,000 feet further down, Smith said. Rose Run has more porous rocks and resulted in oil and gas escaping more rapidly.
“The state decided that we needed to add flares to the wells,” he said. “The flares could get pretty big and at night people would see them and call the fire department. The fire department would arrive at the scene and see a big flame, but it was under control.”
So the oil and gas producers felt it was an obligation to teach firefighters about what was supposed to happen — and what shouldn’t happen — at a well site, Smith said.
At one incident within Ohio, firefighters not understanding oil and gas fire actually created an environmental issue by causing an oil tank to overflow, Reda said.
“It wasn’t something they did intentionally,” she said.
The funding to provide education programming to firefighters comes from a checkoff program. A small percentage of the cost for all oil or gas produced in Ohio goes toward education programming about the industry.