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David White is President of Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc. in College Station, TX. In this interview, White discusses the challenges he has faced throughout his career in fire protection and offers his insights for those new to fire management and emergency services.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your role as President of Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc.

I have worked in fire management and emergency services for 43 years. I started as a volunteer firefighter, career firefighter and training officer, and I also taught at Texas A&M University.

In 1982, I left teaching to pursue private interests and then established Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc. and Industrial Fire World magazine. Our magazine has 26,000 readers and its own website, and the annual Industrial Fire World conference is the largest of its kind. This year marks our 23 rd conference.

For the last 25 years, I have participated in investigation, control and management of high-rise, chemical tanker fires, and in fact, I was part of the team that put out the largest tank fire in history. I have also expanded my knowledge of industrial fire protection.

Our company brings its unique experience and education to conferences and training, and we impart our knowledge to those who need it. With so many baby boomers retiring and taking their experience with them, we need fire specialists who know how to handle large-scale fires.

Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc. offers several services, including consulting, training and expert witness testimony. With respect to emergency planning and development, what issues or needs are currently of high importance to your clients?

Unfortunately, fires, explosions and deadly events still occur. As we manufacture explosive and reactive materials, current technology plus every code and standard must be referred to as a minimum level of protection. However, codes and standards are not always interpreted that way. We must go beyond minimum levels of protection in many cases. Remember that all codes and standards are a compromise between people.

In very dangerous situations, we look at what codes, business and history have shown us. Recently, I was at a plant in the Middle East that will be the largest of its typein the world. Many plants overseas have the same level of fire protection as they had 30 years ago. We must be ready when things go wrong. What will we do to ensure that the plant survives? Experience must enter the equation when determining a facility’s fire protection capabilities.

You have served on many National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) committees throughout your career. How has this experience helped you in your work with industrial fire and emergency response managers?

Serving on an NFPA committee is critical for those who have the desire to make things better. Fire standards are the blueprints to which fire protection decisions are made. All of these standards are designed by people. Every standard is a compromise, and consensus is reached among members. The blueprint is where it starts and where it goes.

Communication is also important—it helps people network. I know the smartest people in fire services, and I know I can put those who have questions in contact with the right person. It is not how smart you are; it is how smart the people you know are. If you can reach out to them, you have an available tool. No one knows it all.

In light of large-scale events such as the recent Southern California wildfires, what are the greatest safety, health and environmental (SH&E) concerns facing fire protection specialists today?

In addition to wildfires, challenges include sugar mill and refinery fires. We must balance the level of fire protection with the dollars out there and a facility’s capabilities with what they will accept as fire protection.

Fire foams can extinguish large tank fires, as was proved in New Orleans, LA in 2001. However, some believe that firefighting foam can harm the environment. Eighteen storage tanks caught fire in England in 2005and environmental advocates halted the use of fire foam for 18 hours until a systematic approach was established to capture water runoff. The foam was classified as a potential toxic agent. Without the use of foam, the fire in England burned for 3.5 days, and smoke was seen as far as Paris, France.

I will argue that, compared to the foam, letting a fire burn for that long had a far worse environmental impact. Some will say, “Prevent all fires.” However, we are still burning things up, whether it is plants or houses, and I have a hunch that things will still be burning for as long as I am around.

As part of your consulting work, you research emerging industrial issues such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) fire protection strategies, protective gear for industrial and hazardous materials conditions and fire cause analysis. What new developments have taken place in each of these areas?

Most fire departments and fire services do not realize that almost 100 of the peak-saving LNG terminals are in the U.S. Four LNG-receiving terminals built in the east in the late 1970s are still there as well as 50+ LNG terminals designed to bebuilt on coastal America. A terminal commissioned in Freeport, TX will have one of the largest LNG tanks (one-million barrel capacity). This will require plenty of training opportunities. Trucks carrying LNG will enter and exit the terminal—if an accident occurs, who will they call? What level of training and experience will the emergency responder have?

Volunteer fire departments in the Midwest and in states with ethanol plants, such as Iowa and Kansas, must know how to handle fires at ethanol plants, and with respect to transportation, must be aware of new tactics, foams and training. Fire protection knowledge and experience must be present no matter if a fire occurs in small-town or downtown America. No piece of fire protection equipment is valuable unless people know how to use it.

One of your major projects included developing the first fire protection emergency standards for industry in Saudi Arabia. How did you prepare for and research this project, and to what extent have these standards been implemented in Saudi Arabia industry?

In the late 1970s, I was in Saudi Arabia during the expansion of two refineries. They followed some standards but had no cohesive fire protection standard. Companies must have basic guidelines that say if we build this, this is the level of fire protection we expect the engineer or consultant to put into it.

However, we cannot only rely on standards. Things are changing faster than standards allow. Fireproofing, foam nozzles, fixed systems, hoses—these are just some of the complexities that must be envisioned when developing fire protection engineering standards.

Many schools in the U.S. have good fire protection academic programs, but since new graduates have little “street” experience, retirees must mentor them.

You are involved with the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition (EERC), which examines emergency response issues associated with bulk distribution and storage of ethanol-blended fuels.

What SH&E challenges or risks are present in ethanol production, transport and storage, and how is EERC working to address them?

This is a perfect example of 21 st-century challenges. As little as three years ago, most people did not know about ethanol. Congress has now mandated that ethanol be produced. Plants are springing up everywhere, but in many cases, they are built with little specific guidelines. Many more ethanol plants will be built in the next 3-5 years, long before we have any set standards in place. These plants will most likely be built in small-town America, so if something bad should happen, it will have a big impact on a small community.

Ethanol associations and companies should approach local communities that have plants and offer to work with them and to provide them with equipment. Since ethanol does not flow through pipelines, it is shipped by train from ethanol plants to gas terminals in communities. Trains are parked in rail yards where the ethanol is offloaded into tankers. These tankers deliver the ethanol to the terminals. It is then loaded into tankers as either E-10 (10% ethanol or E-85, which is 85% ethanol) and delivered to your local gas station.

Only AR/AFFF foam extinguishes large ethanol fires (this was determined after 43 tests at a fire and research center). Some fire chiefs say, “We do not have a large terminal, so what is the problem?” If your town has a gas station, you will receive ethanol. Soon every gas station will have ethanol, and we will need to know how to handle ethanol fires. Soon ethanol tankers will move ethanol on almost every major highway in the U.S.

Our organization gives fire departments a manual and CD on how to handle ethanol emergencies. We must create technologies and methods to help emergency responders address ethanol spills. Special absorbent pads, new techniques and research are needed now because spills have already occurred, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Coast Guard do not have any good recommendations in place right now.

A standards manual for ethanol plants should cover plant design, level of fire protection, foam and how to handle ethanol emergencies as quickly as possible. (EERC is developing this.)

The challenge for those in fire protection is to attend conferences and classes and to obtain certifications. Otherwise, you will never make it or be current on trends in fire protection. The day you quit pursuing education is the day you quit being effective. Network with others in fire protection and make the most of conferences by asking questions—how can I best obtain the needed knowledge, training and experience?

What are Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc.’s and EERC’s plans and goals for this year?

EERC plans to produce a manual and standards system, and it will address spill control issues. Fire & Safety Specialists, Inc. will be involved in the development of this manual.

Our organization finds activity in new plants and reaches out to them. Plants realize that they need someone who can talk the talk and walk the walk, someone who can show what can happen when fires occur and can demonstrate new technologies to prevent them. We do not have many new ways to fight fire beyond standards. Systems must be scaled to the scale of problems, and technology must stand up to the extent of the fire or explosion.


David White has a 40 + year history as an industrial and municipal fire protection educator, expert witness and consultant to industrial fire and emergency response managers worldwide. His focus is to learn all he can from emergency incidents and to share his knowledge so others may limit their risk and optimize their performance.

He works closely with industrial fire and emergency response managers to keep abreast of issues impacting their work. He has participated in NFPA committees, Homeland Security planning teams and in planning special events such as the Demystifying LNG Symposium. He has responded to over 16 major tank fires, two ship fires, numerous plant, facility and high-rise fires, training derailments and hazmat incidents.

White’s goal is to continue to work with emergency responders to help them understand what the challenges will be and how they can safely respond to these events and go home.