A Radical Approach To A Serious Problem

By Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow)

Letters to the Editor (Fire Engineering, June 2000) contains a lengthy letter from Jim Crawford, fire marshal of Portland, Oregon, explaining the NFPA consensus system of developing standards in response to Bill Manning’s Editor’s Opinion “Rockets on the Rooftop” (Fire Engineering, March 2000).

As a longtime participant in NFPA activities and a close associate of government employees who were even more active than I was, I would like to comment. There is no question that some committee members come to a meeting with specific instructions from their employer as to the position they must present. Sometimes, by one means or another, the member would convey that he was from “Western Union”1- i.e., delivering a message.

I submit that the fire service and particularly the IAFC have a vital decision to make. NFPA 58, Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code, would allow the storage of thousands of gallons of propane gas on roofs of certain buildings. The structure of the code is such that the installation is okay unless the fire chief objects. This would be fine if the fire chief was a dictator. In the real world, the chief is often in the unenviable position of saying NO to a “progressive improvement approved by a 60,000-member international assemblage of fire experts.” The pressure can be awesome, and many of us are familiar with the cases of fire chiefs and fire marshals who lost their jobs for vigorously protecting the interests of people who in fact could not care less about the hazard.

The present situation is only a straw in the wind. In the rush to internationalization, practices and standards used overseas may be inferior to our standards, which were often bought by blood and tears. It is probable that other internationalized standards would have the same format. “We think it’s okay but the final decision is up to the fire chief.”

I propose to reverse the situation. Instead of the fire chief being required to prove lack of safety in the face of code approval, the proponent would be required to prove safety of the proposal to a Board of Review of Hazards to the Public’s Life and Property (or some such name). I propose that the board be sponsored by the IAFC.

Each member of the board would be publicly sworn to make his decision based solely on the grounds of public safety. A fire chief would bring a proposed installation to the attention of the board. The board, which need not meet but rather would communicate by phone, fax, and Internet, would ask the proponent to answer serious questions related to public safety in writing. It would then issue a report that would be far more valuable to the embattled fire chief than just his own opinion. It might get a city official, anxious to please a friendly developer, to thinking about his personal liability situation. “I never heard of such a thing. There is a code. The developer just proves that the code has been met. Case closed.”

Not so fast.

The Standard specifically makes the fire chief the ultimate authority.

The fire chief needs a competent appraisal of the matter.

The IAFC Board provides the competent appraisal by asking the proponent how safety is assured.

In the case of NFPA 58, the board might ask such questions as the following:

The problem with NFPA 58 is that the potential hazard was not completely considered. A pair of young thugs lugged propane bottles made into bombs into their high school to slaughter scores of their classmates. Fortunately their technology was faulty. What plan does the proponent have to deal with the wonderful opportunity such tanks would provide to terrorist groups wishing to make a spectacular point? Or when some teenage delinquents who no longer get their jollies by putting cherry bombs into mailboxes decide to go big time? How long do they think that such an installation would be in place before a plan to blow it up would appear on the Internet? Did you consult the antiterrorism unit of the FBI?

The 2000 Emergency Response Guidebook issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Transport Canada recommends evacuation from one-half to one mile for a propane tank truck fire. Such an evacuation would obviously be required for a roof tank fire. What plans have you made to notify those within a mile if the need for a possible evacuation arose? Such evacuations are costly. What plans have you made to indemnify those who are affected? If you now have complete control of the one-mile circle, will you provide assurance that no property will be transferred to another owner within that circle?

What plans have you made to be absolutely sure that no leaking heavier-than-air propane will flow down into the building, through roof drains or other openings?

The questions might even cause the withdrawal of the proposal.

WHERE IS THIS DONE ELSEWHERE?

This is done in a modest way in testing the ability of passengers to completely evacuate an aircraft on fire on the ground in a specified time. The manufacturer provides a mockup of an actual proposed airplane cabin. The FAA tests it using a group of people representative of airline passengers. It hasn’t worked perfectly. A number of coach passengers died in a burning aircraft on the ground because the curtain separating the peanut eaters from the brandy drinkers was not open, thus hiding the fact that coach passengers could exit forward. The passengers died in their seats while an available exit went unused. Now you will see the flight attendant tie the curtain back as the plane lands. This safety feature was purchased at the cost of a number of innocent lives that had been entrusted to the airline industry, and it was the regulators who had failed to evaluate all contingencies. There was no mechanism by which credible contingencies that might be conceived by outsiders would be considered.

THERE IS A DIFFERENT WAY

When nuclear energy was proposed for peacetime use in the form of nuclear power, it was immediately recognized that a reactor combined a huge quantity of radioactive material with the energy, which could disperse it over a wide area. Many procedural safeguards were required. It was recognized that such procedures might fail. The ultimate safeguard was a sturdy containment vessel adequate to resist the maximum overpressure that might be created by the “maximum credible” reactor accident. The term was later changed to “design basis accident.” The proponent of a reactor had to prove that the containment would work. The Russians had no such system; thus, the Chernobyl catastrophe.

For the first time, a proposed reactor containment vessel was in an airport flight path, which made the collision of an aircraft with the containment vessel, at the same time the reactor staff was attempting an emergency shutdown. A credible accident. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) staff wanted a vessel that could resist a force of XGs. The proponents wanted to consider a lesser force based on the assertion that half the 250,000-lb. weight of the design basis plane, the fuel, would disappear at the time of the crash. I had been asked what I could do with 60 seconds.

The matter was before the Reactor Safety Advisory Board, an independent body of top-flight scientists. As the proponent advanced the discussion of G forces, it was easy to see that the board members were doing their own calculations and agreeing with the argument offered. In my 60 seconds, I said, “The 125,000 pounds that the proponent gets rid of is the fuel, liquid or vapor, burning or not, no one can say. The proponent says it will ‘close up against this hazard.’ I tell you that there is no technology existing or on the horizon to do so.” The chairman forthwith denied the petition until the proponent came up with a solution.

I didn’t have to argue or do their work for them; I just had to show that THEY had not done THEIR job.

This was a sea of change in the concept of public safety. In fire safety, the burden of proof is on the regulator to prove that a situation is unsafe. In the nuclear case, the burden of proof is on the proponent to prove the public is safe. This is not just a matter of words. Ask any lawyer.2

The people who set up this system were often astonished when I explained how they had completely reversed the entire previous method of attempting to assure safety. They said, “This is the only logical way.”

I was so impressed that I tried to get the AEC to apply the same principle to fire risks at our own vast property investment. No sale, but it did set stated dollar limits to the amount of property in one fire area. A fire area was bounded by unpierced3 fire walls or sufficient space to preclude extension.

A related case involved a building at a national laboratory that housed a reactor and a sizeable number of researchers. The building was built as a containment vessel. By orders of reactor safety staff, the massive exit doors opened inward so they would lock into the frames to resist the overpressure developed by a reactor failure. The gaskets were required to be unable to be cut with a sheath knife. I took note of the flammable contents and turned to two top chemical engineers with the question, “Could a credible fire develop enough overpressure to lock in the doors?” They confirmed my suspicion. When the management was notified, it immediately sprinklered the building, in spite of the genetic aversion of scientists to sprinklers.

Endnotes

1. One man was totally different. The most dedicated privately employed professional I ever worked with was Arthur Guise, the chief chemist many years ago of Ansul Chemical. Arthur did not give a tinker’s dam whether a proposal benefited Ansul or not. He was a straight professional. At one point in time, he was out of favor at the company because of his attitude, but Ansul now sponsors the Arthur Guise Award presented annually by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

2. I have been told that unrealistic crime shows on TV have convinced some jurors that, “If the defendant says he didn’t do it, he must prove who did do it.” This is not the case. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

3. Fire doors and other closing devices in fire walls are not dependable for a variety of reasons.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 57-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known for his lectures and videotapes and as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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