From his years of fighting fires Elgin Browning knows that where there is smoke there is fire, but acknowledges that where there is fire there is not always a lot of smoke. He has served in the front line of first responders and as an instructor of new firefighters for over four decades.
Beginning in 1979, Browning has worked for numerous fire departments and now is with Industrial Rescue Fire Training. He works at the former Beaumont fire training grounds just north of Interstate 10 near the Neches River bridge.
His duties with the Industrial Rescue Fire Training (IRFT) has Browning organizing the curriculum, the certification, and some teaching of first responders. He spends most of his time now in an office on a computer.
Firefighting and especially the equipment used to fight fires has changed since 1979 when Browning started. “We went from an old fire truck that you cranked the engine and turned on the throttle to get it to work, to now they’ve got three and four computers,” Browning related.
With the new technology Browning indicated the staffing of fire departments is back to what it was 20 years ago. “Computers have taken over some of the jobs that we used to have people doing, so we have to teach them the strategy of isolation, of cooling, and go back to the old days when we didn’t have a whole lot of firefighters,” Browning explained.
Finances have caused a reduction in the number of paid firefighters hired by many facilities. That has caused a change in the instruction by Browning and others at the IRFT to teach the techniques that were used a long time ago.
Elements in daily lives have changed since 1979 and that has forced some changes in how first responders battle fires today. In fighting house fires first responders have phone systems to communicate with each other and breathing apparatus that last a lot longer.
When Browning started over forty years ago fifty percent of items in a house were petroleum based with limited plastics, but now that percentage is closer to 85 or 90 percent plastic items which are petroleum based. “So, the fire load gets hotter so we’ve got to put more gallons per minute to overcome those BTUs, it’s a math problem,” Browning emphasized. “We have to hit 150 gallons per minute or 125 gallons per minute where in the old days we did 30 and 60 and 90 because the fires are so much hotter now.”
Hotter fires have an unusual characteristic. The more intense fires burn everything up resulting in little or no smoke being given off. Fires are hotter these days according to Browning because of the products involved in them.
Each county in Texas has a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) as mandated by federal law. It helps create a liaison between local agencies, the media, and the public health officials. Browning serves with the local LEPC which meets the first Wednesday of each month with the Sabine/Neches Chiefs Association.
The focus of the local LEPC is Orange County. It is based on planning for local emergencies by talking about things, by coming up with scenarios of potential disasters, and they try to do the best job they can to protect the citizens that may be affected by an incident.
There are four kinds of emergencies that the LEPC will handle. Browning said they will deal with either a fire, a rescue need, a major medical event, or a hazardous material release.
Whatever the type of incident LEPC will focus on the possibilities and variations on how to handle each. They will account for the citizens in the facility where the incident occurred primarily the workers and then they work outside the fence line to address the needs for the surrounding community.
They work each incident like a “bull’s eye”, starting with the facility and working outwards from there with preparations in advance. “We work that “bull’s eye” almost immediately, but we’ve done a lot of pre-planning so that we know what ingredients we need to put into the cake to make the cake come out right,” Browning reminded.
LEPC supports the warning signs on Chemical Row in Orange County. “If there is an incident, we warn the public, we liaison with stations like KOGT to get information out as quick as possible,” Browning stated.
His experience and knowledge of fighting fires is sought by entities both locally and even internationally. Browning was called for his assistance during the explosions at the TPC plant in Port Neches last November. More recently was when a 300-gallon storage tank of crude oil on Bessie Heights Road near Bridge City caught fire.
Browning has travelled overseas to train first responders in dealing with petroleum and chemical fires that included working with Liquified Natural Gas. He also had to overcome a language barrier when training first responders at a facility in Africa where thirteen languages were spoken and not everybody spoke Texan.
Browning spoke Thursday morning with Gary Stelly on KOGT’s People in the Know.