CUSHING — Powerful water cannons set up on the northern Oklahoma prairie could be the best defense against a costly fire at one of the country's busiest and richest oil terminals.
The Cushing Fire Department on Tuesday tested specialized equipment needed to quickly and safely extinguish a fire at one of the thousands of storage tanks throughout Cushing that collectively hold billions of dollars worth of crude.
“This is a skill we don't get to train on continuously throughout the year like we do with a structure fire or vehicle accident,” Cushing Fire Chief Chris Pixler said. “Any skill you've been trained on, if you don't use it, you lose it. It's important anytime we get an opportunity to come out into the field and do a full-scale scenario such as this that we do it and keep those skills fresh.”
The fire department worked with several of the 14 oil companies in the area for the exercise.
Crews used four pumps that each sucked at least 6,000 gallons of water per minute out of nearby ponds before mixing the water with foam and launching it at a decommissioned Enbridge storage tank.
At the same time, other crews hauled hoses up the steep stairs along the outside of the storage tank and poured foam directly into the massive container.
The test took place at the Enbridge Inc. storage yard with equipment from both Enbridge and Gavilon Midstream Energy.
“These kinds of hands-on experiences using the specialized equipment they may not be as familiar with can provide valuable experience for everyone involved,” Enbridge spokeswoman Lara Burhenn said.
The oil companies are all required to have a plan for putting out tank fires.
But just having a plan is not enough, said Charles Wolfe, director of environmental safety at Deeprock Energy Resources in Cushing.
“The plan is easy to write, but actually doing it is complex,” Wolfe said. “If your calculations are not accurate, you won't put out fire. It takes everyone working together.”
In Tuesday's exercise, one of the nozzles failed to work properly, reducing the distance and power of the spray.
“In a real-life scenario, we would have gone next door and asked to borrow another,” Pixler said. “This exercise gave us an opportunity to discuss those options.”
Overall, Pixler rated the test as a success.
“We learned for a tank this size, we have the adequate firefighting equipment between this facility and other facilities,” he said. “We had a few communications issues we're working out now, but other than that, we've handled this scenario like we needed to. It's nice to have this kind of cooperation among the companies.”
The 14 oil companies in the area and emergency responders often work together. Led through the efforts of the Safety Alliance of Cushing, the groups have informally agreed for years to share resources in the event of an emergency.
They are in the process of finalizing a formal mutual-aid agreement.
“When there's a disaster, you have to put competition aside and take care of what needs to be done,” said Jody Cundiff, a senior financial analyst at Gavilon and a member of the of the safety alliance's executive committee.
“If you have a massive fire going on, being able to come together and work together is very important to minimizing the damage.”