by Dave Andreas
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Dave has over 15 years as a firefighter-paramedic, HazMaz Specialist, and Fire Inspector.
This is his perspective on dealing with the local authorities.
Notes From the Firehouse
Fire departments are dynamic organizations that are currently under a
barrage of competing tasks. Increasing emergency call volume, regulatory
compliances, unfunded mandates from county, state and federal authorities
coupled with budget cuts all result in limited time to handle inspections
and more routine functions.
That said, most fire marshals are still acutely aware of the growing
interest in progressive technologies and the effects on fire safety and
protection. Believe me, no fire marshal wants to entertain a question from
the mayor as to how it was allowed to have a 1000 gallon tank of (insert
your favorite chemical here) in "plain view" of somebody's house. Worse is
when an engine company responds to a fire in a garage that contains 1000
times the combustible load expected and people get killed or injured. The
prevailing philosophy in those conditions would be to simply "forbid" the
whole deal and make you prove otherwise in someone's appeals court. Yipes
Most of the discussion to date, on the fire protection listservers discuss
the following common denominators:
- Biodiesel has no tangible MSDS - there is the soy product MSDS that
is talked about. Result - convince the fire marshal that your storage is
"benign" However nobody really agrees on a standard MSDS.
- Biodiesel (B100) is considered a class IIIb combustible liquid -
That's good in that it reduces a large amount of regulatory requirements on
the larger biodieselers and coops
- Methanol and/or Ethanol are considered more hazardous and like Terry
correctly stated is limited (by many juristictions) to (2) 5 gallon
containers similar to gasoline.
- NaOH and/or KOH are considered caustics and may be limited to
"reasonable" quantities - again that word is definable by the AHJ (authority
having jurisdiction - read fire marshal)
- Tallow/grease/wvo are all considered - well I'm not sure, each
jurisdiction can probably define it as they like. Most likely determined by
the county hazmat coordinator or waste manager.
- Building codes vary from location to location - You might see BOCA,
ISO, UBC, UFC or "special other" used by the agency that serves your
location. Don't expect that what one group is doing is ok in your area -
using the excuse that "its done everywhere else" is guaranteed to get MY
fire marshal cranky.
- There is never any excuse to cut corners, take short cuts or ignore
good safety rules and common sense. I say this because it applies in ALL
areas that I have been involved with - not just folks interested in
biodiesel. You would truly be amazed by what some people or businesses do in
the absence of fire safety concerns.
Some agencies love to inspect the %&^$ out of you and your process
and other agencies don't even seem to care. This, I guess, relates a little
bit to #6. You might be careful, though, evoking the name of another coop to
your local FM to justify your actions, though. You can EXPECT your FM to
contact the other jurisdiction for background info, problems, caveats,
special considerations etc. that may unintentionally make the other coop
life more difficult.
- Some agencies don't even WANT to know what you're doing. This is hard
for me to believe but I have unofficially heard it from a couple of HM
This pretty much sums up what I have heard in my limited arena. My list is
not guaranteed to be absolute in all jurisdictions, nor is expected to be
Finally my recommendations on what to do BEFORE beginning discussions with the local fire department:
This is what I would do BEFORE I discussed these things with my fire
department. I live in a different jurisdiction than I work, but still know
all the players. In fact, this is what I plan to do on my own BD
installation. I will probably even go a little farther in my recommendations
because it would look bad for my community to see a great big fire happen at
my house, with burning flammable liquids running into the creek leading to
the church kiddies playground (ok - I'm a real pessimist). Of course, I'm
supposed to know better Wink.
- Make a careful safety analysis
- Build/assemble each component to NEC or appropriate "universal"
codes. (i.e. use explosion proof equipment wher indicated etc)
- Label all chemicals and identify MSDS in a professional manner. An
emergency of any kind is not the time for an engine company or paramedic to
determine what is going on in your operation.
- Keep a fire extinguisher handy - 2A10BC minimum, preferably a couple
in opposite corners of your installation.
- Consider "secondary containment" for spills of WVO, BD and any other
liquids. Personally, I LOVE epoxy paint for this application and recommend
it to people in my district that store any quantity of diesel (no BD yet)
- Consider "overpack precautions" for dry chemicals. Yes, anybody from
fire or hazmat will consider KOH and NaOH to be hazardous. The amount they
will allow may be based upon your storage methods. I would probably like to
see in a poly type drum approved for such storage.
- ALWAYS use eye and respiratory protection - make it painfully
obvious in your installation where it is. Other safety equipment should be
Limit access. Dogs/cats/birds/kids/burglars etc.
- Limit smoking/food consumption of any kind.
- Make a site map and laminate it for quick reference to emergency
responders. I would love to see things like nearest fire hydrant, phone
numbers for neighbors, emergency contacts etc on this.
- Keep other combustibles away from your installation. Dry grass,
weeds, wood storage, diapers (biomass?) etc. should be kept to a minimum
around the work area.
- I recommend a covered, non-attached (to your dwelling) outdoor,
non-combustible (concrete/block wall etc) area for working. A working water
spigot, and emergency phone would also be awesome.
- When dealing with a fire department it is always best to handle a problem
or a question on the lowest possible level first. If you start getting the
"white helmets" at an early stage, you may have your project cancelled
before it gets started. But at the "engine company" level you build a
rapport with the agency and more importantly recruit advocates to your
cause. The advocates are those engine company captains that you have shown
respect and interest in their safety expertise. They also get a very clear
message that you are actually concerned with THEIR welfare by including them
in safety preplanning efforts and reduction of hazards that they are paid to
care about. With so many citizens either complaining or trying to "fly under
the radar" a straightforward approach is almost always to be greeted
favorably. If it is appropriate, those captains can "go to bat" for you and
convince the "white helmets" that your project is legitimate, worthwhile,
and not an unreasonable hazard to the community.
In closing, I would also contact my nearest fire station (not fire
department). I would bring in my site map, msds and any articles relating to
BD that I could. I'd make an appointment with the station captain and invite
the crew over to inspect my installation. I'm not so sure that they would
take that badly. They also have limited jurisdiction of what a private
individual can and cannot do in their own home. Unless they see something
that is flagrantly dangerous they will probably shrug their shoulders and
thank you for the interest. Remember, they are the pros and might spot
something that isn't safe that can be cleaned up or mitigated quickly. They
also have the resources to help you research a safer way. You might even
find a couple of friendly diesel enthusiasts right there!
I am a big proponent of personal privacy and rights. However, I am just as
big a proponent of safety and responsibility to one's neighbors and
environment. It also keeps you honest about what you are doing - if you
don't want to show it to your fire department, then maybe you better think
about why not.