Ethanol Emergencies: New York Meets the Challenge

Firefighters learn proper techniques for handling ethanol
By Dan Baker | May 10, 2012

The amount of ethanol transported in New York state has increased dramatically in the past five years with the introduction of two production facilities and extensive rail and highway transportation networks. Unit trains of denatured alcohol are a common sight on major rail corridors, and truck transportation has brought an increased exposure to risk to virtually every community statewide. Incidents, although infrequent, have severely tested local fire and first response skills and resources.

New York state is meeting the need for education in best practices for ethanol-related emergencies with the implementation of a first-of-its-kind training program. The “Emergency Response to Ethanol Incidents” course provides practical training for mitigating spills and fires involving fuel-grade ethanol. Course topics include an overview of ethanol as a fuel, the use of class B foam (with an emphasis on alcohol-resistant foam concentrates), foam nozzles and proportioning equipment, and determination of foam needs for various incidents. Hands-on activities involve vapor suppression with finished foam, confining spills and live-fire extinguishment using foam hand lines on a leaking and burning tank truck.

“Our office has always strived to meet the needs of firefighters in New York” said Ronald Dunn, chief of the Special Operations Branch of the Office of Fire Prevention and Control. “This training provides a unique opportunity for first responders to enhance their preparedness for ethanol emergencies under the direction of our highly trained staff of fire protection specialists.

In the past, providing hands-on “live fire” training for liquid emergencies was too costly and environmentally unfriendly to be successful. Recent advances in fire training technology, however, have overcome pollution concerns, and a recent partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has helped out with the cost. With grant funding available from the U.S. DOE (recovery and reinvestment funds), NYSERDA worked with the Office of Fire Prevention and Control to determine what resources would be necessary to develop a training course for firefighters that would prepare them for ethanol fires. Fire protection specialists proposed live-fire training using a prop that would simulate liquid emergencies and allow firefighters to apply class B foam under controlled conditions. Coupled with classroom sessions regarding polar solvent fuels, such as ethanol and other alcohols and ethers, and their unique challenges, it was determined that this would better prepare responders for these types of emergencies.

In August, OFPC purchased a KiddeFire O-100 Live Fire Training Trailer with funding support from NYSERDA. A modified MC-307 tank trailer, the device simulates liquid spill fires using a combination of water and propane gas. Firefighters can practice leak mitigation, spill firefighting and extinguishment of three-dimensional liquid fires, all under controlled live-fire conditions. In addition to being extremely realistic, the prop is portable, which means that the curriculum can be provided to the fire service anywhere in the state. Instructors can move the trainer with a Class 8 tractor (also purchased with NYSERDA funds). Additional funding provides foam and propane for the training exercises, requiring no financial burden on the participating agencies.

Because the course is offered at no cost to municipalities, training can be conducted in communities that are exposed to risk, but might not have the ability to participate under current budget constraints. Response to the program has been overwhelming. There are few other places in the state where firefighters can hone their skills with Class B foam under live-fire conditions.

“Training for hazmat emergencies and, in particular, ethanol emergencies, is like training soldiers in peacetime,” said Ed Fletcher, fire protection specialist and a lead instructor for the Ethanol Emergencies Program in New York. “It’s information that we hope firefighters never have to use. However, a small measure of preparedness can pay big dividends down the road in the unlikely event of an ethanol fire.”

Course Specifics
Training begins with a four-hour classroom session that serves as a refresher on Class B firefighting topics. Students are briefed on the destructive effects of ethanol on firefighting foam and the importance of foam selection. Calculations for determining amounts of foam required for a given incident are discussed, along with the use of proportioning and delivery equipment. Consideration is given to tactics-appropriate methods for application of B foam to ethanol fires and safety and security post-fire.

Next, students are provided with a safety briefing on industrial firefighting methodology, and then are moved outside to face the first of five training exercises. Throughout the training, local firefighters perform all key functions and are faced with progressively more complicated scenarios. During the final phases of the training, firefighters mitigate a simulated emergency where they must control a valve, extinguish a three-dimensional fire, and extinguish ground fires with a combination of water fog (protective lines) and Class B foam.

New classes began in April and the program has been scheduled for delivery in many counties. OFPC’s goal is to reach as many first responders as possible over the next few years. Six certified instructors are required for each course offering, and fire protection specialists from the Hazardous Materials (hazmat) branch of OFPC staff these positions, in addition to fulfilling an already robust schedule of other hazmat courses. OFPC’s instructors are ready and willing to meet this challenge, knowing that the information imparted during this training might someday be utilized in a community to stabilize an emergency and protect the public.

About OFPC
The New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control delivers a wide breadth of services to firefighters, emergency responders, state and local government agencies, public and private colleges, and the citizens of the state for more than three decades. A leader in fire services, OFPC provides state-of-the-art training, response and technical assistance in all of New York state’s 62 counties. Approximately 50,000 career and volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders are trained annually at the NYS Academy of Fire Science and in satellite locations statewide.

OFPC’s hazardous materials training program has always included curriculum for flammable and combustible liquid emergencies. The demand for programs specifically designed for polar solvent emergencies resulted in the development of the “Emergency Response to Ethanol Incidents.”

Author: Daniel J. Baker
Fire Protection Specialist
NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control
Hazardous Materials Bureau
(518) 474-6746


For more information about this program, please contact the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control at (518) 474-6746 or visit


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