The Novelis Oswego plant has the largest, most advanced fire department in the company, and in all of Oswego County, New York. With heavy machinery, molten aluminum and furnaces that reach more than 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700o C), the Department must be prepared for anything, and they are. We sat down with Jason Dexter, Fire Chief, Novelis Fire Department, Oswego, to get the inside scoop on what it means to be a Novelis firefighter.
Q: How long have you been fighting fires?
Jason: Since I was 16 years old. My father was a firefighter, both my grandfathers were firefighters, even my father-in-law was a firefighter – in fact, he was Fire Chief at Novelis Oswego years ago. It’s part of who I am.
Jason: If you’re wearing one of these uniforms, the reality is the person sitting next to you could have your life in his hands at any time. We’ve got to trust each other, every person in one of these uniforms, and we do. With roughly 1,000 employees at this plant, there will always be people who have their differences. That doesn’t matter here. There are 43 of us and we spend a lot of time together, particularly in training. There are a lot of good guys in this department, a lot of camaraderie and we depend on it.
Jason: We train in everything from basic SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) to Confined Space Rescue to Haz-Mat, because we often do a lot more than just fight fires. Our guys start with a mandatory 120 hour New York state firefighter training class. Once they’re part of the department, they have 40 hours of annual team training, plus 2 additional training hours each month. We just sent three guys to Texas A&M for Confined Space Rescue Training. Many members of the department also volunteer and train with our local community fire departments. Last year our firefighters logged more than 3,000 training hours.
You see, we take certifications very seriously. Every firefighter at Novelis Oswego has his certifications listed on two ID badges, one that he wears on his uniform at all times and one that he hooks onto the firetruck before he enters the scene of an emergency, so we know who is inside and what capabilities he has. When it comes to emergency situations, you need to know the person inside is equipped to do the job.
Jason: Also, the color of everyone’s hats helps us know who they are in a fire. The Fire Chief has a white hat, Captains have red hats, Lieutenants have yellow hats and everyone else has black hats. A black hat that says “BOOT” means watch out, that’s a newbie.
Jason: Cold Mill fires are usually the most common, but they’re not always big. One time the Hot Line caught fire, and because of the grease used with the equipment, the fire spread everywhere. At one point it caught the conveyor on fire, and by the time we arrived on the scene, it had a good start on us. It was probably one of the bigger fires I’ve seen here, but our guys were finally able to get it under control. We use Cardox for the Cold Mill “mill wrecks” as we call them, but not on the Hot Line. Cardox is a CO2 system which floods the mill in a sort of haze and removes all the oxygen so the fire has nothing to feed off of. It doesn’t damage the mill and it puts the fire out much quicker.
Q: Molten aluminum explodes if touched by water, right? So, what do you do if there’s a fire near the furnaces?
Jason: Believe it or not, if done correctly (don’t try this on your own) you can mist molten aluminum with water and it won’t explode. It steams off and takes some of the heat out of the fire. We have a few tricks of the trade like this, but then we also have special equipment to help us when water is not an option.
Jason: Lots. In fact, the Novelis Oswego Fire Department is the most highly equipped department in the county. Let’s start with the trucks. This is one of five trucks in our fleet, including the EMS vehicles, but it’s probably the most unique. This truck was designed specifically for Novelis and is even equipped with a special fire hose that sprays foam instead of water. It’s also equipped with a dry chemical extinguisher, like what you find in the small, red fire extinguishers you see, but with the size and power of a fire hose.
Then there’s our Tower Ladder Truck. The ladder reaches up to 100 feet – the tallest ladder in the county – in order to reach the roofs of the Novelis Oswego facility. This actually came from a fire department in Ontario. If I had to choose, I’d say this is my favorite truck.
And then there’s our SCBA’s, or what you might think of as our air tanks. The standard SCBA air tank allows for 30 minutes or so of breathing time. Ours allow for 45 minutes. Why? Because our facility is so large we often have to walk 10-15 minutes just to arrive at the source of the fire. By then, we’d only have half a tank left.
Jason: Well, we do our own laundry. You’d be surprised at how much it costs to wash a firefighter’s uniform, so we wash our own. These jackets and pants have three or four protective layers, and with all the smoke and the extinguishers we use, not to mention our own sweat, these things can get really dirty, really fast. And you don’t want to wash one of these in your washing machine at home, especially with all the smoke and chemicals. So, we bought a special washing machine and we wash them here. We fight fires, and then, we do laundry.
Jason: All fun aside, being a fire fighter can be hard, both physically and emotionally. These guys out here, they’re here because they really love what they do. At one point I had the opportunity to become a full-time firefighter in the city of Fulton versus working at Novelis. Knowing what this fire department can do, the resources and talent we have, the difference we can make, I knew right away I made the right decision. And these guys keep making me prouder every day.