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October 10, 2023

D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant’s Fire Brigade Blazes the Way to Safety

The key to fighting a fire is prevention. October is National Fire Prevention Month. At the D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, Mich., fire prevention is maintained 24/7 thanks to the Fire Protection Department. 

In the United States, commercial nuclear power plants are required to have their own fire brigades to prevent, respond and extinguish a potential fire. Cook Nuclear Plant is one of only three U.S. nuclear plants to have a full-time dedicated fire brigade. This is important because fire represents the highest risk for damage to plant equipment designed to keep the nuclear reactor core cool. 

“If these trained first responders weren’t on-site ready to act, the plant could be waiting up to 15 to 20 minutes for a local fire department to respond,” said Justin Turner, Cook Plant’s Fire Protection manager. “Every minute, a fire can double in size so seconds and minutes matter.”

The Fire Protection Department has a minimum of five people on shift, including a shift supervisor and four fire technicians. Each member also has a daily job inside the Cook Nuclear Plant. They hope to never have to use their skills and training, but remain ready to respond.

“We are responsible for protecting billions-of-dollars of assets and that comes with major hazards beyond what’s protected by local community fire departments,” Turner explains. “For example, these hazards include but are not limited to high energy steam pipes, hot pipes, high voltage systems, transformers, confined spaces, radiation, heights, flammable gases and large motors.”

The training to be part of the brigade isn’t easy. State certified firefighters are hired and put crew members through two to three months of specialized training for an industrial and nuclear environment. Members participate in training exercises and drills wearing full firefighter gear and practice entering fire-controlled buildings, using equipment, extinguishing fires, and enhancing their communication skills.

At Cook Nuclear Plant, the 33-member fire brigade heavily focuses on fire prevention. Employees routinely test the plant’s fire prevention systems designed to protect key areas and alert the fire protection department if a fire occurs.

“We are responsible to ensure the plant remains safe from the impact of a fire, including fire prevention walkdowns, issuing/monitoring permits when it comes to work involving welding, burning and storage of combustible materials,” Turner said. “We test most things on site that provide a fire protection function including but not limited to sprinkler systems, detection systems, fire doors, fire dampers, fire seals, fire extinguishers and some gaseous fire systems. We operate the sites three 2,500 gallon per minute fire pumps, flow water through fire hose stations and fire hydrants.”

But, that’s not all the fire protection department aims to prevent. The team also is in charge of the respiratory program and test, inspect and issue all respirators on site. They also perform fit testing for more than 700 people annually. The department also tests and inspects pumps, generators, front-end loaders and chain saws that are dedicated to be used during a natural disaster style event (flood, tornado, earthquake, etc.) to keep the reactor core cool in the event offsite power is lost. The team is also trained to respond to medical emergencies, confined space rescues and hazardous material spills.

Protecting the plant and the plant’s employees is vital. However, just as important to the 33- member department is serving their local communities.

“What’s so special is 21 out of the 33 people in the Fire Protection Department at Cook are on-call firefighters in their hometown. We have a fire chief, three assistant chiefs, one captain, four lieutenant’s and 12 firefighters who serve as local emergency responders,” Turner said. “We’re all proud to serve AEP, I&M and the community where we live in more ways than one. We stand ready to help at a moment’s notice.”

The 33-member Fire Protection Department is dedicated not only to the safety of the Cook Nuclear Plant, but to each other and their hometowns. That’s why we call them heroes.

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