Arlington firefighters train for drilling disaster




Posted on September 10, 2012 at 10:02 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 10 at 11:07 PM

RICHMOND, Texas — They huddled together and strategized as they faced oppressive heat from rising flames.

What wheels should they turn? What valves should they touch? How should they attack? Should they make entry? Should they retreat?

The flames kept rising. Another drill head ignited.

This is training... but what if it was real? What if gas was pouring out?

Arlington firefighters would be rushing in.

"It doesn't happen that often, but the potential does exist," said Arlington Battalion Chief Randy Schmelz. "That's why we're here."

Arlington has more than 250 well heads at 60 different sites.

"They are literally everywhere," said Arlington Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self. " I don't have any fire district that doesn't have a well head."

"We have an urban interface issue," he added. "They're no longer out in open spaces."

The natural gas sites are, in some instances, feet from bars, homes or stores. Some are right along Division Street. There is even drilling under way in the shadow of Cowboys Stadium.

"And they just keep drilling, which is a good thing," Self said. "It's an economic boon for the city and for the citizens and we want that. It's just dealing with that infrastructure moving in when we're not used to it."

That is why he chose to take his team to Richmond, Texas, 280 miles south of Arlington, for intense training that’s tailored just for Arlington firefighters. He wanted to take the mystery out of his city's newest industry.  

They are learning from Wild Well Control, a company that responds to oil and gas well fires around the world. Arlington is the only North Texas department undergoing this kind of specialized training  — and it's also the only city planning to charge gas well operators a fee to fund it. 

A proposed $2,400 per well head per year is what it would cost to teach firefighters what to do in the unlikely event a well malfunctions in a major way.

"I guess you could say it's as real life as we can make a simulation," said Wild Well Control vice president Casey Davis.

Most well operators have a contract with a company like Wild Well Control. If a major disaster were to happen, the experts would begin an immediate response.

But sometimes they are three or more hours away. 

Operators also have safety manuals and emergency response plans, but those can be as thick as a three-ring binder, Self said. "Our nature is we have to see it, touch it, and feel it, to really remember what to do."

"People are going to call 911,  and our firefighters are going to respond, and we have to give them the best ammunition we can to do their job," Schmelz added.

Self said the training is as much about protecting operators and their investments as it is the neighborhoods and businesses near the wells.

The firefighters spent much of a week in Richmond working in classroom settings and getting extensive hands-on experience, too. The drills are made to feel real, with instructors pretending to be worried neighbors and gas well owners.

Self said the training will help firefighters bridge the gap in time between a major failure and the arrival of experts on the scene.

"The last thing I want to do is touch a button or turn a valve that's gonna cost an operator money," said Self. "As long as there's not a public safety threat, I'm comfortable with them handling their issue. They are the responsible party, but I have to put my fire chief hat on when there's a risk to the public.”