March 30, 2011
  At 12:48 A.M. on Sunday, July 13, 2010, lightning struck an 80-foot-diameter above-ground bulk storage tank at the Colonial Pipeline Co. facility in Greensboro, NC. Tank 819 was a "floating roof" geodesic dome-type tank containing 22,000 barrels of premium gasoline. Within minutes of the alarm, the tank was at the full surface fire stage and the Greensboro Fire Department was engaged in an event of such significance for the first time in its history.

At 12:48 A.M. on Sunday, July 13, 2010, lightning struck an 80-foot-diameter above-ground bulk storage tank at the Colonial Pipeline Co. facility in Greensboro, NC. Tank 819 was a "floating roof" geodesic dome-type tank containing 22,000 barrels of premium gasoline. Within minutes of the alarm, the tank was at the full surface fire stage and the Greensboro Fire Department was engaged in an event of such significance for the first time in its history.

The Greensboro tank farm is one of the largest refined storage facilities in the United States. Most of the East Coast is supplied with fuel through pipelines that run through the Greensboro tank farm, including major airports and military installations. The entire network capacity of the tank farm is around one billion gallons of refined products and a majority of North Carolina's fuel supply comes out of the Greensboro area.

Over the past 10 years, an aggressive preparedness effort has been undertaken by the Greensboro Fire Department and more importantly by the tank farm. In 2002, the fire department, with financial support from the tank farms, applied for an Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) to purchase equipment that would assist in the control and extinguishment of a tank fire. Once the grant was awarded, the necessary equipment was purchased and training took place.

One major step was the installation of Ring Main Manifolds to maximize water flows. The City of Greensboro Water Resources Department agreed to install the Ring Main Manifolds at no charge if the facility purchased the manifolds. The relationship between the tank farm, the water department and the fire department was invaluable when the fire occurred.

The City of Greensboro is in the central Piedmont of North Carolina, midway between Washington, DC, and Atlanta, GA. Greensboro was incorporated as a town in 1808 and is the county seat for Guilford County. The city is the third largest by population in North Carolina and the surrounding Piedmont Triad metropolitan region.

The Greensboro Fire Department provides protection to approximately 150 square miles with a population within all areas protected of 309,000. The Greensboro Fire Department's primary mission is to provide fire, medical, hazardous materials and technical rescue response and first responder medical support to county EMS providers. Fire protection is provided by 515 uniformed personnel operating out of 23 fire stations, 23 engine companies, nine ladder companies, four battalion chief vehicles, a heavy rescue company, two hazardous materials companies, and necessary support equipment and personnel. In addition to the special-call units, the department has a Foam Task Force comprised of units from three stations surrounding the tank farm. They are dual-role units in that they serve in a structural firefighting capacity and also maintain foam firefighting equipment. The foam firefighting equipment includes:

  • Williams Fire & Hazard Control Inc.® 6,000-gpm pump
  • Williams AmbassadorTM 1K to 6K trailer-mounted nozzle
  • Two larger-diameter hose trailers carrying 10,000 feet of 7¼-inch "Double-5" Brand HoseTM
  • High-flow drafting equipment
  • Industrial pumper with 800 gallons of 1% by 3% Williams ThunderStormTM foam concentrate
  • Foam tender with 850 gallons of 1% by 3% Williams ThunderStormTM foam concentrate
  • Two Williams Daspit ToolsTM (monitors designed for a large-volume attack to the rim of a storage tank)
  • Other foam-proportioning equipment

"Game Day"

The Greensboro Fire Department had never faced an event of this type. Although some 40 years ago the department responded to a seal fire at the tank farm, that fire was small and caused no significant issues. The department has conducted numerous drills at the Colonial Pipeline facility, with training for a similar situation taking place just three weeks before the fire. The relationship between Colonial Pipeline and the Greensboro Fire Department can be described as a model for a public/private partnership. This partnership proved invaluable on "Game Day."

Calls came into the city's 911 center at 12:48 A.M., reporting that a tank had been struck by lightning and fire was showing from the roof. A severe thunderstorm was passing through Greensboro and the fire department was busy with runs throughout the night on several other structure fires. Units arrived to find a tank with fire showing through the geodesic dome. Within minutes of the first-arriving officer conducting a 360-degree walk-around assessment, the fire was at the full surface stage. A second alarm was struck immediately and the foam equipment was dispatched.

The 22,000 barrels of gasoline held in the tank rendered the tank approximately 40% full. There were two exposure tanks at a distance of approximately 50 feet of Tank 819 and located in the same dike area. Priorities for the first-due units were to protect exposures, accomplished through ground monitors and the Williams Fire & Hazard Control Inc.® Daspit ToolsTM. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) was used for this event and a command post established in the Operations Office of Colonial Pipeline. The unified command approach was established early in the event with the fire department as the lead agency.

Once the exposure water was in place, the efforts changed to extinguishing the fire. The foam on hand was enough to control the fire, but a full second extinguishment was not on the scene. Colonial Pipeline and the fire department made a decision to call for the Charlotte Fire Department to bring a 1,300-gallon foam tender to assist with the response.

The Foam Task Force of the Greensboro Fire Department is comprised of three engines and one ladder company. The task force is responsible for foam logistics, nozzle placement, large-diameter hose placement and foam calculations. It took several hours for the task force to put all of the pieces in place to make a coordinated foam fire attack.

One major challenge at any fire of this magnitude is the water supply. Several years ago, Colonial Pipeline was approached by the fire department about the idea of placing several Ring Main Manifolds around the facility. Colonial Pipeline made a proactive decision to invest in the Ring Main Manifold idea (see the photo on page 72 of a Ring Main Manifold in use). The fire department asked the Greensboro Water Resources Department for assistance in the Ring Main Manifold design and installation. The water department saw a great value in having these manifolds around this high-hazard area and agreed to make the installations at no charge, saving thousands of dollars in installation charges. An agreement was set in motion for any tank farm wanting to install a Ring Main Manifold to contact the Greensboro Fire Department for the specifications and design. The Ring Main Manifold used on June 13 was 1,500 feet from Tank 819 and provided the necessary water supply for extinguishment. The success of extinguishment in this situation was in part due to the availability of the water supply and location of the Ring Main Manifold.

Once all of the pieces were in place, the coordinated extinguishment effort started. Tank 819 called for 804 gpm per the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) formula at 0.16 gpm per square foot. The Foam Task Force had trained for this size tank fire and the decision was made to flow 2,000 gpm from the Williams AmbassadorTM nozzle. This type of flow put the application rate around 0.45 gpm per square foot — approximately three times the NFPA formula. Once the flow of ThunderStormTM 1% by 3% foam started, we saw flame collapse at three minutes and total extinguishment at five minutes. The Foam Task Force maintained flow for around 15 minutes to ensure a complete foam blanket.

After the fire was extinguished, the exposure lines were moved to a cooling operation so the fuel could be pumped out. The foam had to be reapplied several times during the pump-off operation to maintain a proper foam blanket. At the end of the fire event, Colonial Pipeline had lost only about 20% of the product in the tank. The exposure and fire water flowed during the event was just under 2 million gallons.

While there are always lessons to be learned from any response involving an event of this magnitude, the results indicate that the Department was in most respects prepared when "Game Day" arrived. The successful outcome of this event, though, was directly attributable to the public/private partnership that the Greensboro Fire Department shares with Colonial Pipeline. The collaboration, training and preparations of the involved organizations were put to the test in this incident and proved to be vital in achieving a successful outcome.

JIM ROBINSON, EFO, is a battalion chief with the Greensboro, NC, Fire Department, assigned to the Special Operations Division. His duties include: citywide emergency management, hazmat, urban search and rescue (USAR) and tank farm-related issues. Robinson is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and he holds a bachelor's degree in fire and safety engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in emergency management from Jacksonville State University. He may be contacted at [email protected].



Chief: Gregory H. Grayson

Personnel: 530 career firefighters

Stations: 23

Apparatus: 23 engines, 9 ladders, 1 heavy rescue, 2 hazmat units, 1 State USAR vehicle

Area: 150 square miles

Population: 309,000


Following the fire, after-action reviews were set in motion on several fronts. Colonial Pipeline conducted an internal after-action review, as did the fire department. An online survey was sent out to all 122 responders involved and the data was analyzed and presented to a joint group of all responding agencies at a collaborative after-action review. The following are highlights from the after-action report:


  • Awareness training for all Greensboro Fire Companies on tank fire operations
  • Large-event Incident Command System (ICS) training
  • Advanced training for Foam Task Force members
  • Exercise series (table top and full scale)


  • Incident command post location
  • Collaboration between the Greensboro Fire Department and Colonial Pipeline before the incident
  • Public information releases and coordinated press conference
  • Mutual aid
  • Exposure protection


  • Logistic of additional foam storage
  • Communications
  • Additional safety officers
  • Improved on-scene check-in location
  • Defined work and rest/rehab times


  • Public/private partnership between the City of Greensboro and Colonial Pipeline
  • Preparedness, planning, training and equipment acquisition
  • Exposure protection
  • Interagency training
  • Teamwork

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