Pipeline Emergency Response Tactics: Preparing for and Responding to Breakout Tank Fires

Breakout tanks are found on pipeline systems transporting hazardous liquids. Consisting of various shapes, sizes, and construction types, all breakout tanks serve a common function - to relieve surges and temporarily store product transported by pipelines.

While incidents involving breakout tanks are comparatively infrequent, they can occur and do require unique pre-planning and awareness. When conducting pre-planning activities, it is important to understand the type of tank, and whether they store product at atmospheric pressure or at high-pressure. It is important to be aware of the product or products that can be contained in the tanks. Pipeline operators can supply safety data sheets (SDS) for products stored on site to aid in pre-planning and response efforts.

Breakout tank construction and inspections are regulated by the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). These regulations dictate minimum standards for assembly, materials, and inspection frequency. Pipeline operators also maintain extensive fire safety and emergency management plans that address a myriad of contingences, including breakout tank fires.

In addition to tank construction and product identification, assessment of firefighting capabilities and resources are a priority. Does the pipeline operator have an internal fire response function? If so, how are public sector emergency responders integrated into the response? Is there enough availability of firefighting water supply, foam, and other resources that may be necessary? This includes having an operational understanding of the use of facility emergency response/firefighting systems and equipment.

When responding to a breakout tank fire, the Incident Command System should be employed, and an effective scene size-up conducted. Response considerations should include:

  • Are there personnel rescue issues in the immediate incident area? Are all facility personnel accounted for?
  • Is it possible to isolate facility operations to eliminate or reduce the flow of the fuel source feeding the fire?
  • Does the pipeline operator have internal or contract resources trained and equipped to fight the fire?
  • What are the physical characteristics of the product involved in the fire and does it require the use of any specialized personal protective equipment?
  • Is product being released from the tank, and if so what containment measures should be employed?
  • Is there adequate water supply to fight the fire and/or protect adjacent exposures?
  • From a risk management perspective, is the response going to be offensive, defensive, or non-intervention based on the nature of the incident?

Pipeline operators employ on-going efforts to educate and train with local public sector responders for incidents such as breakout tank fires. In addition to providing data such as safety data sheets, pipeline operators encourage pre-planning coordination activities and joint training opportunities including tabletop exercises and mock emergency drills.

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