The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department got training on how to confront a fire in a propane tank in June thanks to Foster Fuels and a grant from the Virginia Propane Gas Association.
Propane is a byproduct of natural gas and oil refining and is considered a clean fuel. It is a carbon gas that can be compressed into a liquid form, making it portable in steel containers. It is used for heating, cooking and as a vehicle fuel. The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of propane.
“I saw that professional firefighters were getting the training and that the volunteer firefighters were needing it, too, but they were being left out in the cold on how to handle emergencies,” said Tim Spicer, vice president for propane operations for Foster Fuels.
Spicer is a 25-year resident of Crozet who left a job with a Charlottesville gas supplier when Foster Fuels, a Lynchburg-based company founded in 1921 that is well established in Southside, expanded into the Piedmont in 2013 and started offering propane delivery in a new service area that stretches to Madison County. Spicer said the family-owned company is also expanding toward Richmond.
Spicer had been serving on the VPGA’s safety and education committee since 1998 and had developed an outreach program to train first responders about propane. “We’ve had great success with it around the state,” said Spicer. Demand grew so much the VPGA eventually had to hire someone to administer it.
Chances of a propane emergency are remote, but they are potentially violent. If the fuel catches fire, there is a possibility the tank will explode. Most emergencies are human error and not due to a risk inherent to the fuel.
Crozet volunteers had a morning of classroom instruction before facing a burning tank that they had to subdue in the yard of the firehouse.
“We go over propane tanks and how they are installed in homes. A key component is to not put out the fire until the gas supply is cut off.” Propane is denser than air and will settle on the ground. While the fire is burning, you know where the escaping gas is. The next thing is to keep the tank cool to lower the risk of explosion.
After lunch came the live burn with its terrifying torch of flame.
“It’s a modified 500-gallon tank that we can set on fire,” explained Spicer, who was once a volunteer with the Seminole Trail department. “It’s always under remote control, but it’s a real tank fire. It gives firefighters first-hand experience approaching a tank and controlling the fire. It’s the most realistic situation, but it’s controlled.
“There’s a lot of propane being used around Crozet,” said Spicer. “This training was very appreciated by the volunteers. We see it as one local company helping another local ‘company.’ It’s win/win. It helps us when the first-responders have this training. We can help them, but they know what to do.
“We recognize the dedication and sacrifice our volunteers give to the community. Our customers’ safety is our first priority, and by informing these brave volunteers about our product we are trying to do our part to keep the community safe.”
Foster Fuels paid for the training instructor and the fuel used (and lunch). The company is trying to build personal connections with firefighters. Should an emergency arise, the volunteers will know what to do as well as someone with greater expertise who they can call on.