Shipyard workers are first in the fire fight

Mike Downy, a Nichols Brothers firefighter, descends into a water tank with help from his firefighting team during a recent drill. - Spencer Webster
Mike Downy, a Nichols Brothers firefighter, descends into a water tank with help from his firefighting team during a recent drill.
— image credit: Spencer Webster

FREELAND — Bryan Nichols had caught fire and he was burning. And if not for Nichols Brothers’ own firefighting team, Nichols’ injuries might have been far worse and he is thankful that the team was there to save him.

“I’ve got 25 percent third-degree burn scars on my body,” Nichols said, recalling the August 1990 fire. “That team was real important to me. They pulled me out of the engine room after I caught on fire and provided me the medical care that I needed.”

While Nichol’s case required a fire response as well as a medical response, the company’s safety program manager, Shannon Eshnaur, said the team responds mostly to minor injuries and other medical calls.

“It is well known to the people who work that if they get hurt, that they feel they need to be looked at, or even assisted, they call out to someone to get some of the responders,” Eshnaur said. “We’ll go out there and take care of them.”

To be able to respond to any emergency that may occur in the yard, the shipyard’s firefighters team — which consists of 10 active volunteers — practices with drills and exercises at least twice a month.

“We train and drill all the time, at least two times a month, and more than that if possible depending on schedule,” Eshnaur said.

“We have both surprise and planned drills. Surprise drills are the best. In a real situation, you’re not going to have a prewritten ‘what to do in the event of,’ so that is exactly why we do that.’”

As safety manager, Eshnaur probably could write all the training scenarios but instead, he involves the team in the planning so that all aspects of firefighting and medical response are covered.

“It is always open to each member if they come up with an idea for a drill. We’ll do it,” he said.

For the shipyard workers, working in confined spaces poses another danger and the team trains for confined space rescues.

“Unlike the fire department, one of our fortes is confined space rescue. The fire department has always said they would come in and back us up and support us with equipment, manpower, whatever our needs might be,” he said. “As far as the confined space rescue procedures, we’re it.”

For Eshnaur, a large part of what makes the team work well is its ability to tap the knowledge of each member.

“We have people from just about every department and we do utilize that as a resource on whatever level that might be,” he said.

As Nichols might attest, a timely response is key to saving lives and rapid response of the team from anywhere in the yard is vital to maintaining a safety margin.

“Usually when the call goes out, the closest person goes there and they may be 10 feet away or at the next boat,” said Bill Morton, the firefighting team captain.

“That person calls and tells what equipment they need so they can already be putting pressure points on the person or whatever, while the rest of the team is on the way. Fire could be a big financial loss here and stop work. So we are ready to step in and take care of that,” he explained.

A lot of times, the fires will have been extinguished by yard workers, Morton said, because all employees are offered firefighting training when they are new.

“One of the things we do with new hires is they go through a safety orientation with me right here and I teach them about fire extinguishers, the types we have in the yard and the fires they might encounter,” said Eshnaur.

For Eshnaur and his team, preparation is the best way to prevent larger mishaps.

“We are always trying to prepare to be ready. We don’t take this for granted. We take this pretty seriously,” he said.

Nichols agreed.

“They are very professional and very good about what to do,” he said. “For us, it is a great deal to know we have these guys on staff right here, not only for the major catastrophes but if you hurt your back. These guys are spread out through the shipyard. It is pretty important to have that.”

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