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Westmoreland firefighters advised on response to gas well fires

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Local firefighters should wait for experienced gas industry firefighters to extinguish a natural gas well fire rather than try to do it themselves, gas industry experts and emergency management officials said at an emergency response training seminar.

“A lot of times, putting out a gas (well) fire causes more problems. The gas emitted will find an ignition point, and there could be flashback,” which could burn equipment or engulf a building in flames, said Stephen Andreschefski, Chevron North America emergency management adviser.

Firefighters from West Newton, Sewickley, Forbes Road and South Huntingdon attended the emergency response training on Wednesday at the Hutchinson fire hall.

The firefighters more likely would help secure the scene, protect equipment and assist in a possible evacuation in the case of a gas well fire, Andreschefski said.

Employees at a natural gas drilling rig will only fight the fire “at the incipient stage,” he noted.

Firefighters were advised to take precautions to keep themselves and nearby residents safe during a gas well fire or other incident, said representatives from Chevron and Wild Well Control, a Houston-based firefighting firm.

“We don't want anyone killed at these well sites. There is nothing on those pads that is worth getting killed for. You slow down, because there are no houses on those pads,” said Mikal Zimmerman, policy, government and public affairs representative for Chevron North America at its office in Smithfield.

The focus of the training seminar “is all about firefighting safety,” said Michael Wolford, an incident management specialist for Wild Well Control and president of Hempfield Fire Company No. 2.

More than 600 firefighters in Westmoreland County have been trained in proper gas well fire response through classes conducted by the industry and Westmoreland County Community College's Public Safety Training Center in South Huntingdon, Wolford said.

“There is no reason for (firefighters) to rush into a well site for any emergency. They are not going in there to put the fire out. ... They don't have the equipment and the training. Make a plan and wait for the experts,” said Dan Stevens, Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety public information officer.

The main purpose of the seminar is “the emergency responders' safety,” said Paul Rupnik Jr., Sewickley Township's emergency management director. The information provided at the seminar is important “so that (emergency responders) don't make anything more dire than it is,” he said.

To help fire departments and hazardous materials teams do their work, Zimmerman announced that Chevron will distribute $240,000 by the end of the year to nine hazardous materials teams and about 85 volunteer fire departments that serve territory where the company has wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, she said.

Chevron will announce in mid-November the allocation that each fire department will receive, he said. The allocations will be based on the number of Chevron wells within a department's service territory. The bulk of the money will go to hazmat teams and fire departments in Southwestern Pennsylvania, she said.

Chevron has not told the fire departments how they should spend the money, Zimmerman said.

“We want them to use it where they need it most,” she said.

The energy corporation last year donated money to more than 50 fire volunteer companies in Western Pennsylvania, including four in Westmoreland County — Hutchinson, Turkeytown, Rillton and Forbes Road. In 2012, Chevron donated $232,500 to fire companies in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It based those distributions on $1,500 for each well within a fire department's primary service area.

Chevron has 257 natural gas wells in the state, Zimmerman said.

Since January 2010, Chevron Appalachia LLC has drilled 308 Marcellus shale wells in eight counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny, Washington, Fayette, Greene and Westmoreland.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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