Blast, Fires Hit World’s Largest Chemical Complex; At Least 2 Dead, 6 Injured 2 Missing

basf_fire

The headquarters of the world’s largest chemical company, BASF, was hit earlier today by an explosion and numerous fires — none caused by terrorists. The incidents, at Ludwigshafen, Germany, killed at least two people and injured a number of others, and at 2:55 p.m. EDT, nearly 12 and a half hours after 11:30 a.m. (local time) incident, the situation remained in flux, with fires still burning and some degree of confusion on the ground, according to various wire reports. At the time of the blast, workmen were modifying a pipeline used to carry flammable liquids and liquefied gas to a tank at a harbor near one of the complex’s numerous plants. Chemicals used in the plant to produce the likes of eytylene, propylene and hydrogen are supplied through that harbor.

Residents of several nearby towns were encouraged to close their windows and stay indoors as thick black blanketed the area and fires were still burning.

 

 

FIRE! But Can the Fire Truck Get There?

 

FireApparatus

FIRE! But Can the Fire Truck Get There?

 

 

In the late ‘80’s, a workmate who also was a volunteer fireman in his small, Long Island (NY) town, asked if I had any idea why fire departments keep asking for bigger, more versatile trucks. I had no clue.

“It’s for the parades,” he said, referring to the widespread practice in suburban New York (and many other areas) for towns to have parades in which various fire departments from nearby (and sometimes some distance away) towns participate. Naturally enough – common sense and cost issues aside – crews from many of those towns wanted to have ‘bragging rights’ for the biggest and/or noisiest trucks around. Many probably still do.

But for a couple of interesting reasons, it soon may not just practical but necessary for fire trucks to shrink in size. A fascinating comparison of two fire trucks, an American-made KME Kovatch and a Swedish-built Volvo, showed that in one potentially-critical way, the Volvo would be the better choice in the growing number of cities opting for narrower traffic lanes.

The comparison was conducted at RAF Lakenheath, a Royal Air Force station that is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing in Europe. The two trucks’ acceleration, pumping power, noise level, rescue capabilities, and maneuverability in both forward and in reverse were matched against each other.

Obviously, the makeup and training of crews come into play in some of those comparisons, but in both forward and reverse, the Volvo proved to be more maneuverable – meaning, in effect, it can do more in tighter spaces, such as narrow traffic lanes and, presumably, driveways and alleyways. On an airport runway at Lakenheath, traffic cones were used to mark off lanes and areas to be maneuvered through, and the truck knocking over the fewest cones was the winner.

The trucks’ comparative sizes was significant, in a situation where turning radiuses were relatively narrow, in a typical European way, so the bigger American truck was at a disadvantage. It also was at a disadvantage because, in order to increase the driver’s ability to see more, over a broader area, he sits more than 1.6 feet (half a meter) higher than the Volvo’s driver – meaning the KME driver is less able to see what’s close beside, in front of or to the rear of his truck.

(An area where it appeared the crew’s training played an important role was in comparing the trucks’ pumping power – how much water could quickly be directed at a given spot. The test involved attacking with water two brick walls, custom build, identically, of course, for this competition.

(The American team went first, and left a few bricks standing – because, as a British team member noted, the Yanks attacked the center of the wall, causing some knocked-over bricks to fall straight backward, blocking others that might have subsequently been felled. The Brits went at first one then the other end of the wall, and worked inward toward the center. This approach enabled them to knock all the bricks over.)

How large are fire trucks? Amherst, Massachusetts, has very conveniently provided a chart showing the dimensions of the several types their fire department employs. The largest, an aerial platform, is 48 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 12 feet high. The smallest, an ambulance, is 14’ 6” long, 9 feet wide, and 9’ 4” high.

There is a road passage under a rail line near my home with a height clearance of 11 feet and a few inches. To get from one side to the other of that underpass, a fire truck the size of Amherst’s large aerial platform would have to take a detour – a roundabout route adding a few extra miles and a potentially-critical few extra minutes to its trip. And that would be complicated by the fact that, at one point, the truck would have to virtually reverse back on its course as it rounded a switch from one road to another – a heartrendingly slow turn for a driver really really anxious to get to a fire scene. Then, the truck would have to pass over two railroad tracks, via a passage with clear warning signs that uncommonly long vehicles could, because of the steep up and down angles of the crossing, get stuck – probably on one of the tracks that, well over 20 times a day, are traversed by freight trains close to or more than a mile long, each weighing, perhaps, 143 tons  (roughly 22 tons of car and roughly more than 100 tons of freight), for a total of, say, something like 20,000 tons, or 40 million pounds, including three engines, on a 135-car train. (See the two-year-old entry, at the cited web site, by Aurilika.)

Road Widths Vs. Fire Trucks

The website of NACTO, The National Association of City Transportation Officials (who knew?) is a font of seldom-considered (except by that group’s members) issues having to do with road widths and a lot more. Their considerations of lane widths factor in a number of issues, including – hardly surprisingly – the ability of fire trucks to get where they are needed as quickly as possible.

This is not, as we’re all aware, a perfect world, and there is no perfect solution to the lane width issue. But NACTO discussions on the issue have, perhaps, more levels of logic behind them than anyone else’s. They say this:

The relationships between lane widths and vehicle speed is complicated by many factors, including time of day, the amount of traffic present, and even the age of the driver. Narrower streets help promote slower driving speeds which, in turn, reduce the severity of crashes. Narrower streets have other benefits as well, including reduced crossing distances, shorter signal cycles, less storm water, and less construction material to build.

The width allocated to lanes for motorists, buses, trucks, bikes, and parked cars is a sensitive and crucial aspect of street design. Lane widths should be considered within the assemblage of a given street delineating space to serve all needs, including travel lanes, safety islands, bike lanes, and sidewalks.

Each lane width discussion should be informed by an understanding of the goals for traffic calming as well as making adequate space for larger vehicles, such as trucks and buses.

But, the website citylab.com suggests, “The problem with wider urban streets, as Jeff Speck has argued [in a brilliant and highly information article, with equally interesting embedded links], is that they encourage faster driving and can lead to deadlier collisions. And science backs up his argument: a 2015 study of intersections in Toronto and Tokyo found that lower crash rates were linked to lanes measuring 10- to 10.5-feet wide rather than to 12-feet-wide lanes. As Scott Wiener, a member of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote in 2014: “[Prioritizing] fire truck access in a way that makes streets less safe for pedestrians and other users—and which undermines neighborhood fabric with high-volume, fast-moving traffic—isn’t the right solution.”

An article on the website fireapparatusmagazine.com points out the complexities of this issue. An interesting reference in that article references Todd Nix, apparatus consultant for Unruh Fire, a truck manufacturer, who says his company sees requests from a lot of fire departments for “smaller-size pumpers they can take into areas full-size vehicles wouldn’t fit, to run over small bridges where heavier vehicles couldn’t cross, or under overpasses and overhangs where there are a lot of trees.”

Appropriately, Unruh Fire is on the forefront of offering trucks that significantly smaller than those needed to fight fires but can assist on fire-fighting runs. These are considered to be ‘rescue trucks,’ not to rescue people, a task EMS crews are more suited to handle, but to do a whole lot of other things. (Watch the video. It’s an eye-opener!)

Grady North, product manager for pumpers, tankers and ARFF (airport rescue firefighting) at E-One, another rescue equipment maker, says geography has something to do, so far, with where smaller pumpers are being sold. Sales are stronger in the West and Midwest than in the South or East, he said.

“More people [overall] want to get the customer pumper wheelbase down [to] around 170 inches, which seems to be the magic point for a shorter vehicle with better maneuverability,” he told the magazine.  Than shorter-than-the-traditional wheelbase means, he said, an operation “is able to maneuver well in cul-de-sacs and on narrower streets with tighter turning tighter areas.”

North stressed that, “It takes both numbers {the wheelbase and an overall length of less than 30 feet] to accomplish that maneuverability — shorter and overall length — where you hold the overall length so the swing and drag dimensions are kept in check.”

Tech speak, extending to TMI – too much information.

But you get the point: Subtle changes are occurring in street design and in the design of vehicles able to maneuver through sometimes tighter spaces.

While that might have been said in a couple of hundred words, this 1500+ word version gives you an opportunity to acknowledge that forces are at work, in private industry and government, to make you safer in seldom-considered situations.