Since 1969 Nebraska Firm’s Fire Brigade Protects Plant

By KIM SCHMIDT, Kearney Hub | November 8, 2016

When fire breaks out in the forge shop of Kearney, Neb.-based Eaton Corp. manufacturing plant, its fire brigade is quick to respond.

“We have over 800 pieces of equipment in our facility, so technically there’s 800 opportunities for a fire, potentially,” said Elias Bules, training coordinator at the plant, Eaton Fire Brigade secretary and seven-year member.

For 47 years, volunteer employees at Eaton have been answering the call, responding to fires inside the plant at 4200 E. U.S. Highway 30. Of the 52 brigade members, 13 are state-certified firefighters, six are emergency medical technicians, and 35 are on the plant’s emergency response team. Several employees also volunteer on their community fire departments.

Established in Kearney in September 1969, the 320,000-square-foot Eaton Corp. plant manufactures precision intake and exhaust valves for automotive companies, and gears that go into differential axles, boats and all-terrain vehicles. It has 522 full-time employees and 35 temporary employees.

The Kearney Hub reports that each of the three shifts at Eaton has a fire chief, and Willis Rollenhagen of Kearney serves as the overall plant chief. The plant also has an assistant chief, training officer and maintenance officer.

Years ago, Eaton Corp. established brigades in an effort to help cut down on potential fire damage inside the plants, said Todd Erickson, environmental and safety manager in Kearney, a former full-time firefighter, fire marshal and investigator. He recently joined the brigade.

The forge shop and heat-treat areas are the most susceptible for fires, Bules said. He leads the plant’s emergency response team and previously served as the second-shift fire chief.

In the forge shop, steel is heated to 1,170 degrees Celsius and forged into parts. The heat-treat area is where the structure of values is changed to meet customer demand.

“All of our processes are forging, heat treating, grinding or cutting steel, and anytime you have steel involved in a process, you generate heat. Every piece of equipment in our plant is a possible fire,” Bules said.”

The brigade is a self-governed unit within the plant with its own bylaws. Members are voted on the department by other shift employees.

Not only does the brigade extinguish fires on the plant floor, but it responds to other emergencies such as tornadoes, evacuations and crowd control.

Rollenhagen joined the brigade during the 2007-2008 recession when Eaton lost several brigade members. He felt a need to help the plant regroup.

“I wanted to try to be in a position to help the people at Eatons,” he said.

When retired Amherst volunteer firefighter Mike Beaver, now of Gibbon, first got on the brigade 26 years ago, he said there were five to six fires in the plant a week. But with improvements in equipment and fire suppression systems, there are only one to two fires a week.

“Most of the time fires can be put out with water or a CO2 extinguisher,” Beaver said.

Improvements in cleaning, and fire suppression systems have greatly minimized fires in the plant over the year, Rollenhagen, and longtime brigade member Kirk Robinson said.

“They’re far and few between now,” Robinson added.

The brigade has its own miniature pumper fire truck complete with bunker gear, hoses, extinguishers and SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus) for firefighters. It runs on propane and carries medical supplies, including an automated external defibrillator.

Although it has only a horn and no siren, the 7-foot tall by 5-foot wide truck is equipped for one driver, is painted red and has the fire brigade logo.

“Truck might be stretch. It’s an armored golf cart,” Erickson joked.

The truck is kept in a small fire station inside the plant that also has the facility’s alarm system, other fire equipment and portable radios. There also are two satellite equipment stations on the roof at Eaton that have fire hoses and extinguishers in the event of a fire on the roof.

Like other volunteer firefighters, brigade members train regularly. They have four annual hands-on training sessions and meet monthly for classroom instruction. Once a year, the plant has tornado drills from shelter-in-place to evacuation drills, and it annually conducts confined space training and takes part in live fire training.

Brigade members also take classes each year at the annual state Firefighter School in Grand Island.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.