WEST FARGO, N.D. – Like thousands of his neighbors, Scott Roller woke up on Sunday morning to an alarming text message.
“Shelter in place,” it said, telling residents the location of an industrial fire in the city and that they should stay where they were.
Just after 5 a.m., about 30,000 barrels of diesel fuel in a large storage tank owned by the Magellan Pipeline Company caught fire. The plume of black smoke swept over homes for the next seven hours.
Roller, vice president of Diamond B Technology Solutions, ignored the warning and jumped into action.
With help from TechLink, Roller’s company had just licensed the Local-Rapid Evaluation of Atmospheric Conditions, a real-time plume modeling software invented by a team of researchers (led by a meteorologist) at the Army Research Laboratory.
Using wind and weather data the application maps a smoke or chemical plume’s distance and direction, showing emergency managers precisely which areas to evacuate during a crisis. Diamond B Technology Solutions, headquartered in Billings, Montana, is developing the Army technology, which was inspired by burn pits in Iraq, for industrial customers and civilian first responders.
“Being familiar with the city I knew what facility this was,” Roller said. “I logged into our web-based app and set the incident location.”
Using data from the public weather sensor at the nearby Hector International Airport in Fargo, Roller had an accurate plume model within five minutes.
Industrial fires often produce toxic smoke that can be carried far afield by gusty winter winds. Knowing he had critical information, Roller jumped in his car and hurried to the incident.
On scene, a city official told Roller to call 911.
“After telling the dispatcher that I had plume modeling technology and given the prediction of changing weather conditions that this is something they need I was connected directly to the West Fargo Fire Chief,” he said.
Roller was asked to immediately join emergency managers in the operations center where he stayed for the next four hours.
“I kept running new models for them as the weather conditions changed,” Roller said. “The app-based version of the system is entirely cloud-based, so there is nothing to set up. All you have to do is select your incident location on a Google map and set your chemical types, and you will have five, 50, and 100 meter 3-D wind field models, and an ALOHA plume model in under five minutes. Subsequent runs of the same models take less than two minutes.”
“We appreciate the help,” said West Fargo Fire Chief Dan Fuller. “It really made the decision to shelter in place easier.”
West Fargo firefighters were assisted by crews from the Fargo Fire Department and its hazardous materials team, employees of the Hector International Airport, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe company, and the North Dakota National Guard, according to news reports. A law enforcement team from Grand Forks deployed three drones to provide live video to firefighters and emergency responders.
All of the assisting agencies had access to Roller’s plume and 3-D wind modeling, and city officials posted one of Roller’s plume maps to the city’s Facebook page.
No one was injured, and the cause of the fire is still unknown, though mechanical failure is suspected, according to fire officials.
“It’s great to see Diamond B getting the Army’s technology into the hands of first responders where it can help save lives, said Dan Swanson, the senior technology manager at TechLink who assisted the company in licensing the technology from the military.
“I can’t imagine a better field demonstration than Scott walking it into the operations center like he did.”
Troy Carter can be reached at email@example.com or 406-994-7798.