Pennsylvania: Large Fire Load At Bern Township Chemical Plant

Dec. 1, 2007
Sixteen fire departments battled a fire that involved a large inventory of flammable, caustic and acidic chemicals and a large fire load of cardboard.

Sixteen fire departments were needed to extinguish a three-alarm fire at a chemical manufacturing company in Bern Township, PA, on Jan. 11, 2007. Firefighters initially faced several problems, including a large inventory of flammable, caustic and acidic chemicals, a large fire load of cardboard and how to contain the contaminated water runoff. Despite these challenges, no injuries were reported by civilians or firefighters and firefighting efforts saved a portion of the building containing the offices, the shipping area, wax manufacturing facilities and part of the cleaner manufacturing area. The facility reopened with limited operations just four days after the fire.

The one-story, 60,000-square-foot building was built in 1971 with a steel truss frame, concrete block and metal walls, and an aluminum sheet roof. The building contained smoke and heat detectors that were monitored at a central station within the facility.

The Greenfields Fire Company was dispatched at 9:37 P.M. to a reported structure fire at the Misco Products Corporation. Greenfields Engines 55 and 55-1 responded with 10 firefighters under the command of Second Assistant Chief Steven Keppley. Also dispatched on the initial alarm were Mount Pleasant Fire Company Quint 30 and Tanker 30; Leesport Fire Company Engines 37-1 and 37-3 and Tanker 37; and Spring Township Fire Department Heavy Rescue 85 and Light Rescue 85-1 as the rapid intervention team. Schuylkill Valley Emergency Medical Service Squad 670 and the Bern Township Police Department also responded.

First-arriving units found heavy fire emitting from side D of the building. The fire was in the A-D wall behind the tank farm of flammable liquids. Thirteen employees had already evacuated the building and no homes were immediately threatened.

Engine 55 laid a 200-foot supply line from a hydrant on Stinson Drive to the A-D corner of the building. Engine 55-1 hooked onto the hydrant with a supply line and pumped to Engine 55. Engine 37-3 laid a 500-foot supply line from Engine 37-1 located on Old Airport Road to the A-D corner of the building. Engine 37-1 hooked on to the hydrant with five inch supply line. Quint 30 was positioned at the A-D corner of the building and supplied with a 100-foot supply line from Engine 37-3. An additional 150-foot supply line was laid to Quint 30 from Engine 55. Rescues 85 and 85-1 were positioned on Stinson Drive. Tankers 30 and 37 were staged approximately a half-mile away at Heyco Metals.

An initial interior attack was initiated by two crews. One crew advanced an attack line from Engine 55, while the other crew advanced an attack line from Engine 37-3, both with Class B foam. Intense heat, flames and running spill fires pushed the firefighters back to the warehouse area of the building. Firefighters were able to operate inside for 30 minutes before the fusible links on an interior roll door activated, closing the door and blocking access to the fire. Firefighters evacuated the building and defensive operations were initiated at 10:05 P.M.

Greenfields Captain Brian Fisher requested mutual aid at 9:42. The West Reading Fire Department responded with Engine 64, Truck 64 and 16 firefighters and the Temple Fire Company sent Engines 11-1 and 11-2 and Heavy Rescue 11 with 14 firefighters. Truck 64 was positioned at the A-B corner of the building and set up for aerial master stream operations. Special calls were made by Keppley for additional resources at 10:20 P.M. The Goodwill Fire Company of Hyde Park responded with Ladder 10; the Bernville Fire Company dispatched Heavy Rescue 29; and the Sinking Spring Fire Company sent Truck 51. Sinking Spring Engine 51 relocated to the Greenfields fire station to cover Bern Township. Ladder 10 was positioned at the B-C corner of the building and set up for aerial master stream operations. Truck 51 was positioned at the C-D corner for aerial master stream operations.

Keppley requested the Zone Two Tanker Task Force at 12:15 A.M. The task force is made up of tankers and engines from 10 fire companies in north-central Berks County, some with up to an 18-mile response to the scene. In addition to some task force units already at the scene, the following units responded: Bernville Fire Company Tanker 29, Central Berks Fire Company Tanker 38, Hamburg Engine 61-3, Rehrersburg Fire Company Tanker 27, Shartlesville Fire Company Tanker 41, Shoemakersville Fire Company Tanker 40 and Strausstown Fire Company Tanker 50.

Two tanker fill sites were established with one dump site designated just north of the fire scene. Engine 43 was assigned to hydrant for Tanker Fill Site One at Saint Joseph Hospital, 1½ miles away. Hamburg Engine 61-3 established Tanker Fill Site Two at a hydrant at the Berks Career and Technology Center a mile away. Two dump tanks were used to establish a water supply for operations on side D. Engine 37-1 was assigned to draft and supplied Truck 51 with a 750 foot, five inch supply line. Truck 51 placed its aerial master stream into operation along with three handlines. At 1:20 A.M., a roof trench cut was begun by the crew of Truck 64. This took about 30 minutes, but was a successful operation that prevented the fire from advancing into the office and shipping dock areas of the facility.

Mutual aid units began being released at 4:30 A.M. Greenfields Chief Scott Haupt declared the fire under control at 5:30 A.M. Over one million gallons of water from the municipal water system and 65 gallons of Class B foam were used to extinguish the fire. Damage to the building was estimated at $500,000, with an additional $4 million to the contents and for environmental cleanup.

A two-day investigation by the Bern Township fire marshal and a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal determined that the cause of the fire was accidental. Vapors from a flammable lubricant that was being mixed and packaged on the D side of the building ignited. Employees reported an explosion and a large fireball at their work area. They also reported that the fire was too large to control with fire extinguishers and the employees evacuated the building. The source of the ignition is thought to be static electricity in the mixing area. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the chemicals being mixed stated they could create their own static electricity. The product involved in the ignition was known as "White Lightning." Misco has discontinued production of the lubricant due to safety concerns.

Several problems were identified after the fire:

  • Accountability of the initial attack crews need to be better
  • The incident command system should have identified more division commanders
  • Some of the chemical inventory had been moved since the last fire department tour of the facility
  • Hydrants on the municipal water system were inadequate to supply aerial master streams

Successes included:

  • No one was were injured
  • Firefighters saved over half of the facility, allowing the company to be partially in operation within a few days
  • The tank farm of flammable liquids was protected from ignition
  • Cooperation of plant management with the fire department aided in making proper tactical decisions

A pre-plan existed for a fire inside the facility, but not for an incident of this size. Periodic tours of the facility allow firefighters to update pre-plans annually. The rebuilt structure now includes a sprinkler system throughout the building and a foam sprinkler system in the combustible liquid storage area. The facility also has runoff containment tanks and bulkheads on the floor level as well as fusible line heat-triggered ventilation panels in the roof.

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