A SINGLE MATCH CAN CREATE A LETHAL ENVIRONMENT

BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow)

Editor’s note: Francis L. Brannigan had submitted this column, and others, before his sudden death on January 10.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) rented an office building in Bethesda, Maryland. The Operational Safety and Fire Protection Division, my office, was among the divisions that occupied it. The exit situation was very bad. The developer had provided two exits as scissor stairs located in one corner of the building.1

I worked out a plan to separate the stairway accesses by partitions, which involved, among other things, an “Emergency Only” doorway through the men’s room.

One stairway was partitioned off to exit through the open-air, street-level parking space, not the lobby. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was split off from the Atomic Energy Commission, it took over the building. The parking area was enclosed and used for storing records in cardboard boxes. The Building Department said all that was needed was a two-hour firewall around it.

A fire in the contents would pour toxic gases up the stairway into the offices. A number of the occupants were my friends.

I had no responsibility in the matter, but I decided to butt in. I told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission management of my concerns. Its attitude was that fire was simple stuff you learned about in grammar school and the agency was far beyond that-regulating nuclear hazards.

I then asked how management would react to the storage of toxic gases in the space. The response was, “No way, José!”

I said, “The area is full of solidified carbon monoxide that can be released not by opening valves, but by ….” I then lit a cigarette and threw the burning match on the floor.

The response was, “Okay, we will sprinkler the area.”

I suggested to the Bethesda (MD) Fire Department that it preplan to pull the whole front enclosing wall of gypsum board on metal studs out of the building by tying ropes to it and pulling with a truck.2

This would greatly lessen the volume of smoke going up the stairway and would make the whole area open to heavy streams.

Files in cardboard boxes on metal shelves require specially designed sprinklers. Harold (Bud) Nelson, SFPE Fellow, GSA fire protection engineer, had designed such a system for the National Archives. We duplicated it at AEC headquarters.3

Some contents are worse than others.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Report F2004-04 tells the story of the death of an FDNY firefighter in a fire in a mattress warehouse. Firefighters should be trained to realize that ordinary combustibles closely packed in a tight area are nothing more than solidified carbon monoxide and other toxic gases that can be released by a match to create an atmosphere that is close to 100-percent carbon monoxide.

When the fire department learns of such a potential disaster situation, it should be documented as part of the intelligence system, by whatever name it is known. A brief statement of the hazard in standardized language should be archived in the alarm office to be included in the initial dispatch.

Experience has shown that SCBA face pieces can be displaced in a variety of ways. In one case, a firefighter who had a dislodged face piece and had gotten a dose of carbon monoxide was combative and pulled the face piece off his rescuer. In a high CO atmosphere. the firefighter can be disabled almost instantly.

Firefighters should use a CO detector to determine the CO level.

Fire departments should set SOPs stipulating special precautions at high CO levels, including total withdrawal from operations in almost pure CO atmospheres.

A recent progress report for an FDNY operation reported withdrawing from a one-story commercial building, and mattresses were mentioned in the report.

HOSPITAL “IN CASE OF FIRE” SIGN

Following is the text of an “In Case of Fire” sign posted in a hospital:

IN CASE OF FIRE

1. Use alarm box.
2. Call operator, and give location of fire.
3. Remove patients and visitors.
4. Close all doors.
5. Return to fire. Use fire apparatus from fire closet.

I think this must have been written by someone who has little knowledge of the hazards of fire and has been “educated” by phony gas on steel scenery fires in movies and on TV.

We spend about $2,000 per firefighter for personal protective gear. We require other firefighters to be on hand for rescue. This instruction sends unprotected and uneducated-except for possibly an extinguisher class held outside-personnel into a hazardous environment. To get back to the fire, a door must be opened, thus canceling the effect of closing all doors. Whatever happened to “get out and stay out”?

From the phraseology, I suspect the sign was from the United Kingdom. It may well be that your hospitals, or perhaps one of our British readers, might care to comment. It is quite possible you would find similar instructions here in the United States.

• • •

Many nursing homes are fully sprinklered! Great! Recently, a female nursing home resident, who used a wheelchair, set fire to her bed as a result of smoking. She rolled out of her bed into the wheelchair. The chair got stuck right under a sprinkler head!

Endnotes

1. See “Scissor Stairs,” Ol’ Professor, Fire Engineering, April 2003.

2. I had seen this technique used on a fire in an upscale men’s store in New York City. The interior was an expensive wood finish. Fire was behind the paneling. Captain Walter Lamb of Rescue 1 tied ropes to the paneling and pulled with a hose wagon. The entire paneling pulled out like a cork out of a bottle, largely intact, and showed fire moving up the wall.

There is another point. The buffs were standing across the street. We could see smoke seeping out from upper floors. Command was notified. An additional alarm was ordered for units to get lines to the upper floors. There were other similar cases of observation from a distance. From time to time, I recommend that a command officer be assigned to be a distant observer. Now the Fire Department of New York sends a chief officer to the police helicopter base to fly over the fire.

3. See the story of a high-rise record room fire on page 496 of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, which required monitor nozzles for 72 hours.

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