By Jerry Knapp
Somewhere in your first-due area are specific, high-hazard occupancies. They could be as simple as a gas station or as complex as a manufacturing plant with numerous hazardous materials in large quantities, a group home, or a hospital.
We tend to forget about these low-profile and high-hazard occupancies because we have not had a fire or an alarm in them in recent memory. We are all painfully aware of the frequent flyers, the places that have automatic alarms that we go to all too often.
The purpose of this article is to remind you to look for specific target hazards in your area and to conduct a prefire inspection. This inspection will familiarize you with the hazards, existing suppression systems, building characteristics, life hazards, and so on. It generally only takes an hour or so (except for exceptionally large buildings) and the information you gain can save your life and the lives of your members during a fire. In addition to identifying hazards to firefighters, you will be able to develop action plans for a fire or an emergency at the facility. Tactical and strategic priorities become apparent and are often the topic of lively discussions back at the firehouse after the site visit. The site visit is good for the occupants and good for firefighters.
Recently, my department conducted a site visit to an ordinary-looking building in our area. It was a telephone switch station or hub building for telephone, fiber optic computer, and television lines to the three local communities. The building blends in well with the surrounding environment; a few employee trucks are parked in the lot, and overall it generally does not get anyone’s attention. That held true until we went there for a false alarm a few weeks ago.
During the false alarm, we learned a few important things: The exterior door lock was changed and the key in the key box was not, so we could not get in; the employees changed, and our dispatch center did not have a working number for a building contact; and when we gained entry, we were shocked by the new equipment and hazards in the building. As Frank Brannigan always said, “The building did not just land from Mars,” so we should have been familiar with it. It is an easy, common oversight with all the other priorities we have to deal with.
Department leaders contacted the corporate headquarters facility manager and arranged for a visit. I am not an expert in these buildings or their high-tech contents, but I will try to share with you some of the more extreme hazards we found. The specifics of the hazards aside, the important point here is to schedule annual site visits to target hazards in your area to update names, keys, alarm system, and other important information.
Corporate safety has come a long way in the past few years, which is good for firefighters when we respond to these target hazard facilities. Just inside the front door is the alarm annunciator panel and building drawings and fire plans. The specifics of this installation are not important. What is important is that your department knows where these plans are and at least the basic details they contain.
This particular building was similar to a Type I building: steel skeleton, concrete panel roof, concrete/block walls, and limited doors and windows. Obviously, ventilation could be a serious problem for working fires. Additionally, the building dates back to about 1960, when codes were a bit less stringent, and it appeared there were some unprotected steel structural members.
These buildings may or may not have extinguishing systems; most likely, they have detection and alarm systems. A fire of any consequence could halt phone, TV, and computer service to a wide area.
To provide uninterrupted service, two backup power sources are often present: a wet cell battery and a standard electric generator. The wet cell batteries are like common auto batteries, but much larger (48V). Like all wet cell batteries, they can generate hydrogen gas when heated, and they contain high-concentration sulfuric acid.
To provide a longer-term electric source, a backup generator is present. This may be inside or outside the building. A fuel source, usually a diesel tank, is nearby or piped into the generator if it is inside.
Several years ago in the southern part of our county, a department experienced a significant fire in the insulated wires in the cable trays that run throughout the building. It took several tries to get the redundant electric backup systems safely shut down, with obvious hazards to firefighters in the process.
With the advent of fiber optic and computers in every home, these buildings contain both old-style twisted copper switch gear and support equipment and modern distribution and switch gear for the fiber. Visually, you will see racks of color-coded, copper-insulated wires and stacks of computer-controlled equipment.
As you may guess, all the electronics generate a large amount of heat. The heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning equipment is unusually large for a typical building of this size. The HVAC equipment requires substantial electric service, and you may find exceptionally high-voltage service to the building. Look for pad-mounted or underground-mounted transformers near the building.
Although there may not be such a thing as a typical fire, fires in these buildings often involve the rubber and plastic insulation on wires running in racks and trays throughout the building. Consult your local facility and equipment experts for the best extinguishing method. Water from hose streams is not a good choice, for obvious reasons. Dry chem powder will seriously damage computer systems, thus leaving CO2 as a likely choice.
This short article has touched a few of the hazards and strategies and tactics for you to consider at just one target hazard in your area. It goes without saying you and your department must conduct these prefire inspections to familiarize you with the hazards and develop your action plans long before the tones come in. Many departments have captured this important data in computer systems that provide instant retrieval on receipt of the alarm.
JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.