The First Line of Defense

Emergency responders carry the burden of knowing how to accurately battle many different emergency situations, but ethanol bears a unique challenge that many departments have only recently become familiar with. Maintaining training for first responders will be a vital part of the overall safety and success of the ethanol industry.
By Kris Bevill | August 10, 2009
A tragic railroad derailment near Rockford, Ill., June 19 that resulted in the explosion of 12 ethanol-filled tank cars and the death of one eyewitness served as a reminder to ethanol industry members that the safe transport of ethanol and ethanol-specific training for first responders should be a top priority. Ethanol producers have long been aware of their fuel's hazardous potential and take every safety measure possible when handling and loading ethanol at the plant. However, the increasing amounts of ethanol being used in the U.S. fuel supply means that ethanol is being transported by truck or rail through communities that may not be familiar with it.

Last year, ethanol surpassed liquid petroleum gases to become the No. 1 hazardous material by volume hauled by rail in the United States. Kristy Moore, technical services director for the Renewable Fuels Association, estimates that 7 billion gallons of ethanol will be hauled by rail in 2009 and says the frequent transport of ethanol throughout the U.S. makes training first responders an essential part of ethanol safety. "Despite all efforts to prevent accidents, there is the possibility of one happening, and it is essential that the first responders act immediately to the ethanol emergency incident and are as fully prepared as possible to deal with the situation," she says.

More than 20 fire departments responded to the Rockford fire call. Fire chiefs on the scene opted to let the fire burn itself out while monitoring the situation from hundreds of feet away so as not to risk firefighters' lives. While the loss of one life was a tragic occurrence, the incident could have been much worse if first responders had not been familiar with ethanol fires. Moore credits the state's long history with ethanol as a major factor in the fire departments' ability to make quick decisions when fighting the fire. "Illinois has had prolific ethanol blending for more than 20 years," she says. "The resources that were available for the Rockford incident can be attributed to the fact that Illinois emergency responders have been preparing for ethanol incidents for years."

Ethanol-specific first responder training is not difficult to come by. Several nationwide programs have offered ethanol training courses for years. The TransCAER (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response) program was founded by Union-Pacific Corp. and the Dow Chemical Co. in 1986 to provide training for first responders to prepare for a potential hazardous materials incident. The RFA took notice of the program's potential to provide ethanol-specific training and joined the non-profit group in 1997. Moore says TransCAER helped to fulfill the association's desire to define an avenue for getting first response information into the hands of those who need it. "We think that we can link to the emergency response community perfectly through the TransCAER program," she says, adding that the group expects to reach over 15,000 emergency response providers this year.

A major benefit of the TransCAER program, as related to ethanol training, is the ability for first responders to receive hands-on training. At a recent regional training course held in Fargo, N.D., members of local fire departments had the opportunity to attend a classroom-like training session which covered everything from the chemical make-up of ethanol to the specific types of foam that are best used to suppress ethanol fires before practicing firefighting techniques on an ethanol tank car and a specialized TransCAER rail car. Fargo Fire Department Captain and hazmat team coordinator Chris Rasmussen says it was the first time ethanol-specific training has been offered in Fargo and attendees found the information quite valuable. "It was brought to our attention in the past couple of years that [ethanol] was going to start coming through, and research and a little bit of training was done, but never a hands-on incident like this," he says. "Anytime we can get a live prop out there to use, it's more realistic training. We can simulate things all we want, but when you actually have the ethanol car or the TransCAER car therethey were very nice for letting us crawl around on it and do some training. To actually get to see an ethanol car up close before we have to deal with it is fantastic."

The TransCAER rail car is equipped with all of the various release valves, tops and pressure systems that fire fighters might encounter when responding to a rail car incident. Rasmussen says his hazmat team has responded to four ethanol incidents in the past year or so and all of them were valve issues resulting from human error, so having the opportunity to train new department members on the specifics of valve control is extremely valuable.

According to Moore, there is no shortage of communities seeking out ethanol-specific training. TransCAER organizers plan approximately four major events each year which include multiple weeks, locations and sponsors. Moore says it takes months to plan each event and locations are chosen based on the number of requests for training received by TransCAER. "Requests are a combination of private, government and community," Moore says. "Either communities are noticing an increase in ethanol or industries know they will be introducing the product to the area and request training."

Another training option for first responders is a program created by the RFA in collaboration with the International Association of Fire Chiefs and several other groups that specifically addresses the hazards associated with the transport and handling of ethanol. The Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition has been distributing ethanol emergency response training guides annually since 2007 and adds new items of information each year. The latest version of its "Complete Training Guide for Ethanol Emergency Response" includes videos, an instructor's guide and interactive workshops focusing on specific areas of ethanol emergency response and can be acquired at no cost at

Moore says the EERC was created to build a library of information that could be used by first responders nationwide. "We built a program that talks the firefighters' language," she says. "What do they need to know? What are the core issues for them and what do they need to know to respond effectively and safely to an ethanol incident?" For example, Moore says there was some confusion as to what type of firefighting foam is appropriate for ethanol fires. So, the EERC created a video - "Responding to Ethanol Incidents" - to address that specific issue.

Chief Tim Butters, chairman of the IAFC's hazmat committee, says the fire association recognized that increased shipments of E99 for blending purposes meant that there would also be an increased need for fire department training so it became an active member of the EERC. "One of the most important aspects is that, because of the significant increase in production and use of ethanol, there's a lot more of it being transported, both by tank rail and truck," he says. "So, if you've got a rail line in your community you need to plan for the risk. You need to be prepared to deal with a derailment should it occur."

Community Involvement
Fortunately for cash-strapped local fire departments, TransCAER training sessions and EERC training materials are provided at no charge to the department. "I have to hand it up to the railroads," Moore says. "They have done an excellent job of coordinating, funding and hosting TransCAER training tours. They have really risen to the cause and put tons of resources into the training stops." Moore adds that the RFA and various other ethanol industry members also provide resources, such as railcars and transport trucks, for training sessions. "Typically, the first responders don't have any funds," she says. "If they do have funds, they will spend it to pay their folks to come to the training. We want it to be absolutely free of charge so that all they're providing is their time."

Butters says there are some grants available to provide funds for departments to attend training sessions, but they vary from state to state. He recommends local fire departments work with ethanol producers to partner for training. "My view is that if you have an ethanol facility in your community, striking a dialogue with that plant, owner and manager to make them understand that we need to have this capability, is an important conversation to have. The plant brings the risk to the community so, to me, there is an obligation to help prepare that department to deal with it. The important thing is, the better we understand the hazards out there and can train to deal with those incidents, the better the outcome is going to be. To me, that's where the industry is a critical player, because they're the ones that manufacture and ship this stuff. They understand these products and how they behave [so] they are in the best position to provide assistance."

Moore agrees that the ethanol community should take part in practicing preventative training measures to reduce the risk should an ethanol incident occur. "The ethanol producers bring a lot to the community as far as resources, jobs and economic advantages, but ethanol is a hazardous material and we've got to take that responsibility seriously."

Kris Bevill is the editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at (701) 373-8044 or