Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on June 21, 2021.

Group Effort 

Large industrial facilities like the one that burned in Illinois recently are becoming a staple of rural America. How can the local fire service prepare?


NFPA fire service specialist Curt Floyd discusses what more chemical and petrochemical facilities located in rural America means for the fire service there. (NFPA Journal video)


On June 14, a fire broke out at the Chemtool lubricant manufacturing plant in northern Illinois, rapidly becoming a massive inferno that burned for several days

Volunteer firefighters with the Rockton Fire Protection District were assisted by specialized firefighting crews from as far away as Louisiana before the blaze could be controlled.

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Experts say the incident shows how challenging fires at chemical and petrochemical facilities can be for small, often-all-volunteer fire departments, which typically lack the staffing and resources to fight these fires on their own. And with research showing that these kinds of facilities are increasingly being built in rural communities, fire service experts say developing robust mutual aid programs is key to addressing the problem.

“When you get a large incident like this, no one department can handle it by themselves with the exception of some major cities,” said Curt Floyd, a senior fire service specialist at NFPA.   

RELATED: Read about the challenges faced by America's rural fire service

Small towns, big industry 

A map from the national environmental advocacy group FracTracker Alliance shows where natural gas processing plants are located throughout the United States. While some appear in urban areas like Galveston, Texas, most are scattered throughout the country’s vast rural expanses. 

Take the Badlands Gas Plant at the southwestern tip of North Dakota, for instance. The facility is located in the town of Rhame, which has a population of less than 200 and where about 20 firefighters based out of one station protect 600 square miles—an area half the size of Rhode Island. 

Chemical and petrochemical facilities being located in rural areas isn’t a coincidence. 

“Many municipalities have zoning restrictions that prohibit petrochemical facilities from being located within municipal boundaries,” said Tom Miller, a West Virginia representative for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and chair of the NVFC’s Hazardous Materials Response Committee. This often leads to companies locating in the smallest American towns or unincorporated areas, where they may be welcomed as a potential boon to the local economy.  

A report published in 2018 by two environmental advocacy groups, the Clean Air Task Force and Earthworks, found that the number of industrial facilities located in rural America has grown in the past 10 to 20 years. “Thanks to the shale boom [starting in the mid-2000s], oil and gas development has expanded rapidly in many regions of the United States,” the report says. “The oil and gas industry has industrialized areas that were, and still largely are, rural and agricultural communities.”

More recently, an article published by National Public Radio (NPR) in 2020 detailed plans to introduce more industrial facilities to a stretch of rural Louisiana that’s already home to more than 140 chemical factories and oil refineries. 

While these studies and news reports discuss the potential environmental and human health impacts of such industrial growth, the implications for emergency response are often overlooked. “I think a lot of folks have that feeling that the fire department or EMS or law enforcement are always going to be there, and be able to control a situation,” Floyd said. “But the truth is with these very large incidents a local community’s emergency services can be quickly overwhelmed.”

In Rockton, residents expressed shock at the scale of the recent fire. “I can’t do anything right now because all of the windows in my house were left open,” Brent Loomis told the Rockford Register Star. “My house is filled with smoke or whatever it is that’s burning over there. I’m basically living out of my truck, at a hotel, or at a friend’s house trying to figure out what to do. I’ve never been in a situation like this.”

Relying on mutual aid

After the fire broke out at Chemtool, Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said the department’s number one priority quickly shifted from controlling the blaze to keeping firefighters safe. “Right now the building is completely consumed,” he told reporters at a press conference on the day the fire started. “The main concern I had was the safety of our fire personnel, so the fire personnel actually evacuated one side of the building to keep everybody safe.” 

Eventually, the blaze was controlled as Rockton firefighters received help from several additional agencies, including hazmat firefighting crews from the city of Rockford, about 13 miles south of Rockton, and from as far away as Louisiana. “The US Fire Pump industrial firefighting group [from Louisiana] is on scene, and they are putting copious amounts of water on the fire and on the hot spots,” Wilson told reporters. “This is their forte, they fight industrial fires.” 

Many firefighters who responded to the June 14 blaze at Chemtool, an oil-based lubricant manufacturing plant in rural northern Illinois, came from all-volunteer fire departments.  GETTY IMAGES 

According to Floyd, this kind of response—one that’s heavily reliant on mutual aid—is key to small departments overcoming the challenges posed by protecting large chemical and petrochemical facilities in their jurisdictions. 

“That mutual aid program needs to be a really structured and engineered system, so that you know as the local department when you do have an incident who you can depend on, what resources will be there to help you mitigate that scene,” Floyd said.   

Such a system can be difficult to develop, though, Floyd added, especially since rural fire departments often experience severe issues in recruiting and retaining members. “You may get a really qualified team built, but then folks move on from volunteer departments, they get reassigned, or if they’re in the military they get redeployed, and we lose those forces,” he said. “So it’s a constant turnover of staffing.” (NFPA Journal examined this issue and others facing America’s rural fire service in the magazine’s July/August 2017 cover story, “Shrinking Resources, Growing Concern.”

The more rural a place is, the more difficult it can be to establish an effective mutual aid program, too. When Floyd served as a firefighter in Connecticut, he said they were lucky to have many departments in close proximity in the event of a fire at one of the area’s several large industrial facilities. “They were only a few minutes away,” Floyd said, “but in some other rural communities those mutual aid agreements extend farther and farther out just to get the amount of trained people needed.” 

In addition to working with neighboring fire departments, both Floyd and Miller stressed the importance of departments working with fire safety personnel at the industrial facilities themselves to prepare for and respond to emergencies. 

“They are really the experts on their facility,” Floyd said. 

“Many facilities are good corporate citizens and support those volunteer firefighters with the equipment and training needed to act effectively at the facility in the event of an emergency,” said Miller. 

One way to look at preparing for fires and other emergencies at large chemical or petrochemical facilities, Floyd said, is to view them not as just another structure fire, but as something much larger—like a natural disaster, in which multiple agencies must be involved. This includes agencies at the local, state, and federal level, and not just ones typically associated with emergency management or response. 

“It’s important when you’re planning for incidents to make contacts with these groups that can help at many different levels,” Floyd said. “It could be really expansive, such as reaching out to civilian support and faith-based groups in the community, for example. There are a lot of different groups with different expertise that can help a community deal with mitigating these problems.”

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor  for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter