At one side of the field, sheets of flame sweep across the surface of a containment pool. A few yards away, more flames leap from the dark green housing of a natural-gas separator. Smoke billows into the blue sky.
Dozens of firefighters spring into action. Within minutes, hoses are pouring water and foam onto the blazes.
And so goes an early round of training exercises at Pennsylvania College of Technology's Energy Technology Education Center.
As natural-gas well pads proliferate in Pennsylvania, it's essential that firefighters and ambulance crews learn about them, said Craig Konkle, emergency response coordinator for Lycoming County, in the heart of the Northern Tier.
The same goes for commonwealth residents training for work in the Marcellus Shale drilling industry, said Tracy Brundage, assistant vice president for workforce development and continuing education at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, based in Williamsport, Lycoming County's county seat.
They need hands-on experience, not just classroom instruction, she said.
The center was developed with exactly those needs in mind, Konkle and Brundage said. Unveiled this spring, the open-air training site for natural-gas workers and emergency workers is the first of its kind in the state.
"This state-of-the-art facility … will enable participants to experience the same type of conditions and scenarios they can expect to encounter in the field," college President Davie Jane Gilmour said at the center's May 18 dedication.
The center is a collaboration among Penn College, Lycoming County and dozens of industry partners, Brundage said. It is at the college's Schneebeli Earth Science Center, a few miles south of Williamsport in Clinton Township.
Well pads represent a new environment for emergency responders, and they need to recognize hazards and understand what to expect in crisis situations, Konkle said. In addition to fire training, the site allows fire and ambulance crews to practice confined-space rescues, high-angle rescues and hazardous-spill control.
Konkle consulted on the center's design and oversaw the first major training exercise, held the day after the dedication. Emergency workers dealt with a scenario that involved a variety of events and hazards; county officials evaluated their responses.
"Then we stand back and say, where do we fall short?" Konkle said. Based on that so-called "gap analysis," officials will design training programs to address the shortcomings they discern, he said.
To an outside observer, the center resembles a high-tech obstacle course. Numerous pieces of equipment, referred to as "props," dot the perimeter of a gently sloping field. About half of them can be set on fire as part of training exercises, Brundage said.
Propane fuels the flames, supplied via underground pipes and monitored from an elevated wooden control tower in the middle of the field. Valves in the tower allow training supervisors to turn the propane on and off.
Most of the props are typical elements of a natural-gas well pad. There's the wellhead, which looks like an immensely complicated water valve; a separator, which separates gas from the various fluids that accompany it up the pipe; and a pair of large storage tanks, referred to as a battery, sitting in a containment system consisting of a heavy tarp draped over a perimeter formed by Jersey barriers.
At one corner, a propane nozzle points at a large steel flange. Instructors can adjust the prop to produce flames at various angles and trajectories. A few feet away is a concrete-walled pool that serves as a flammable liquids simulator. Instructors fill the pond with water, inject gas across the surface and set it alight, Brundage said.
Amidst all this, it's surprising to come across a household gas meter next to the wellhead. It's the ordinary kind you would find in your basement.
First responders need to practice dealing with those, too, Brundage said: "It's another prop we can use."
For classrooms, the center has installed two trailers on the east side of the site. Penn College also uses the classrooms for commercial drivers' license courses; students can practice driving tractor-trailers in a large gravel lot adjacent to the energy technology center.
The training center isn't finished, Brundage said: The major missing element, a mock drilling rig, is planned for phase two, she said.
For the past several years, the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center has been working to ramp up training for workers in the natural-gas industry, Brundage said. The MSETC, organized in 2008, is a partnership of Penn College and the Penn State Cooperative Extension, both Penn State University affiliates.
In 2011-12, Penn College trained more than 4,500 people for natural-gas jobs, Brundage said. The energy technology center will allow the college to reach "a whole new constituency," she said.
Similar training facilities for emergency responders exist in other gas-producing states, such as Texas, but sending people that far is inconvenient and cost prohibitive, Konkle said. Having a training site in Central Pennsylvania is a huge benefit. The Pennsylvania Fire Academy has approved the center to train municipal and county personnel from anywhere in the state, he said.
"We're excited to see the site get ramped up and get classes on the schedule. We're excited to see where this is going to go," he said.
A sampling of the courses Pennsylvania College of Technology plans to offer at its Energy Technology Education Center:
• Confined Space
• Crosby Rigging
• Fall Protection/Fall Rescue
• Fire Extinguisher Training
• Gas Measurement
• Hot Work Air Monitoring
• Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance
• Responding to Gas Field Emergencies
• Rigging and Hoisting
• Rough Terrain Forklift
• Roughneck (multiple subject areas)
• Roustabout (multiple subject areas)
• Spill Prevention and Cleanup
• Trenching Safety
• Well Control, Advanced
• Well Control, Basic
• Well Tender
Source: Pennsylvania College of Technology