Ethanol trucks a 'hidden danger'
Most Fulton County firefighters pride themselves in being prepared. They frequently attend training classes to learn how to fight fires, respond to tornadoes and floods and rescue people in all types of situations.
But, until recently, most area firefighters knew little about one of the most dangerous situations they will ever face: an ethanol fire.
"That was one of the most spooky things I ever sat through," is how Salem Fire Chief Heath Everett summed up a January class on ethanol dangers for his firefighters.
"They are shipping pure ethanol through our county, through Salem," Everett told the Salem City Council. "If one of those trucks wrecks and catches on fire, we, nobody in Fulton County, can put it out."
Ethanol is a gasoline additive usually made from corn sugar, which is distilled into alcohol.
Ethanol was first added to gasoline during the fuel shortages of the 1970s, as America looked for ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Over the past ten years, it has made a big comeback as America again looks for alternative, clean burning fuels.
E10, a mixture of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, makes up about 70 percent of all fuel sold in the U.S. and car manufacturers have adjusted their engines to run smoothly with E10.
On Feb. 7 at the Salem Fairgrounds, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Trainer Chris Foreman highlighted ethanol's dark side. "A tanker ship explodes and sinks in 15 minutes, several train derailment fires, semis overturning and burning."
It is a dangerous fuel that cannot be fought the way most fires are fought.
"It's a unique challenge," Foreman told more than 50 area firefighters. "Traditional (firefighting) methods are ineffective."
So, what's the difference between gasoline and ethanol?
As dangerous as gasoline can be, gasoline separates in water and floats to the top. Thus, pouring water on a gas fire eventually extinguishes it.
But ethanol mixes with water, so it continues to burn even when water is poured on it, especially full strength ethanol in a truck or rail tanker or a large storage tank.
"You can spray water on it but I will guarantee you that you won't have enough (water to put it out)," said Foreman.
A big danger to firefighters is the fact E95 or E98, the nearly pure ethanol mixtures which are transported to plants to be blended with gasoline, does not produce visible smoke or flame when it burns. Firefighters can run right up to an ethanol accident and not realize the fuel is burning.
"What you need in an ethanol fire is Ar-AFF, an alcohol resistant foam," Foreman told firefighters. "The foam most departments use won't work, because burning ethanol just consumes it. Alcohol resistant foam covers the fire and doesn't break down. It blankets burning ethanol and smothers it."
Foreman suggested that the nine departments on hand for the training session begin buying the alcohol resistant foam as their current foam supplies are depleted.
The problem is, the alcohol resistant foam is more expensive.
"You're going to run into this some way," warned Foreman. "There's not that much (ethanol) run by pipeline. Most is transported by rail and truck."
Fulton County had its first experience with an ethanol truck accident a few months ago.
"A truck carrying E95 or E98 overturned on Highway 63 near Mammoth Spring and there was an ethanol spill, but there was no fire" Darrell Zimmer, Fulton County's Emergency Management Director, told The News. "The accident response was good. Responders recognized the danger, Mammoth Spring Police blocked traffic and Salem Hazmat came in to help contain the spill and handle the clean up."
According to Zimmer, there has been a huge increase in the number of ethanol trucks on Arkansas highways, and many pass through Fulton County transporting ethanol south from Missouri.
"It is a hidden danger," said Zimmer, who helped set up the fairgrounds training class.
"We want to make sure our firefighters are educated and aware of the dangers, so they can protect themselves," said Zimmer.
Salem Fire Chief Everett says his department intends to buy some alcohol resistant foam and, as time goes on, Zimmer expects more departments to switch to alcohol resistant foam and obtain thermal imaging cameras to help them "see" ethanol fires, despite the lack of smoke or visible flame.
Arkansas DEM trainer Chris Foreman praised the 55 firefighters who turned out for the ethanol training session, saying he often travels across the state to find much smaller turnouts for the various classes he conducts.
"Arkansas thanks you for being committed to taking the training and being ready to aid your community," said Foreman.