Assessing Biomass Processing Fire Hazards
This video introduces Ag producers to fire control practices they may not be familiar with, and encourages interaction with emergency service providers from the initial planning stages or a biomass project.
- [Douglas] In the northeast, the growth of biomass crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus or shrubwillow is increasing as our country reduces our dependence on fossil fuels.
These biomass crops may be used as fuel for combustion processes or used as feedstock for absorbents or ethanol fuels.
Additional uses will be found for these crops as this industry grows.
When considering producing or processing shrubwillow or perennial grass biomass, keep in mind the additional fire hazards that these materials may present.
Growing and storing these materials will introduce new fire hazards, as will the additional steps needed to process biomass into a finished product.
Emergency responders serving the region of a new biomass production facility should be well-informed about the potential fire hazards of these materials as they grow, or the storage of these materials if concentrated into a holding area after harvest.
Additional equipment and training may be needed for the rural fire company protecting the new facility.
Because processing biomass into a product is often not viewed by regulatory agencies as a farming operation, there may be additional codes and standards that apply to the new operation that did not apply to the traditional agricultural operation.
A new biomass processing operation may fall under codes and standards such as building codes, fire codes, electrical codes, National Fire Protection Association standards, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA regulations.
These regulations may be at the state or local governmental level.
There is an Agricultural Building Exemption that is determined state-by-state, so check and be certain what applies to the biomass operation under consideration.
The process may not be considered agricultural, so the agricultural exemption for the building or the process may not apply.
Some of the considerations that may apply to your operation are applicable to workplace fire protection.
If a written fire prevention plan is necessary, OSHA has certain requirements for what is needed in the plan, such as information on housekeeping procedures; controlling ignition sources such as welding, cutting, smoking; and employee training.
Additionally, a written emergency evacuation plan is required that includes what routes to use in case of emergency, accounting for evacuated employees or a meeting point for those situations, or how critical equipment will be shut down before evacuation.
There are also requirements for two exits that are now locked or blocked, and that are marked with the proper signage.
Other considerations for the fire plan cover fire extinguisher size and location, fire suppression systems, and lightning protection systems.
When working with any of the codes presented, remember that your insurance carrier may have requirements above and beyond what is required by applicable regulations or standards.
Biomass is still a new industry to many insurance carriers, so the insurance provider may have questions about your operation and how the requirements apply.
To avoid surprises, include your insurance carrier in your planning process early on.
As a plan for a biomass processing operation comes together, remember to include emergency responders in the initial planning process and throughout the construction process.
Input for the fire companies that respond to any emergency at your site will provide valuable ideas that will save time when there is a need for their services.
Some of the pre-planning information includes the necessary maneuvering room and equipment access layouts, access to water sources, direction of prevalent winds, which areas within the facility are the most important to protect, and other insights that will help with a timely and effective response.
For the firefighters, a biomass operation may present challenges beyond what the rural fire company normally sees.
The needs of the community fire responders fall into three categories, pre-planning, training, and resources.
As discussed previously, pre-planning develops a good working relationship between emergency responder and the biomass business throughout the construction process and into start-up and production.
Training of firefighters may now need to include training on techniques unique to handling incidents involving large quantities of dry biomass bales or other unique materials.
Presenting a training session at the facility when it's finished will allow firefighters the opportunity to ask questions and become familiar with the site.
Pre-incident plans should be developed and maintained by the fire company in cooperation with the biomass facility.
Community fire responders will need to assess their capabilities and needs based on resources available to them when responding to an incident at a biomass facility.
These resources include the people available through mutual aid, the apparatus available, water and extinguishing agent availability, and the time required to reach the facility and begin operations.
As a biomass processing operation is planned, be certain to find out what regulations or standards will apply to the facility, so that this information can be included throughout the planning and construction process.
Include emergency responders and provide them with the information they may need as they add the protection of a new industry to their service area.
An extension publication is available that provides more information about this topic.
Assessing Biomass Processing Fire Hazards and Community Fire Response Capabilities is available through Penn State Extension.