Y2K: ARE YOU PREPARED FOR HIDDEN HAZARDS?
ANDREW A. FREDERICKS
As the year 2000 approaches, fire departments are faced with many questions: Will in-house computer glitches affect physical plant functions (heating, lighting, security), communications, record keeping, and payroll? Will external computer glitches affect the performance of fire alarm systems and the delivery of water, electricity, phone service, and natural gas? Will power outages affect response times, workload, and the ability of personnel to travel to work? Will terrorists seize the opportunity to advance their agendas? Although proactive fire departments have developed strategies for coping with these issues, there may be lurking other, more insidious, problems, the ramifications of which may be felt for many years. Let me explain.
This past July, while I was training recruit firefighters at the New York State Academy of Fire Science, a fellow instructor and deputy chief in the Olean (NY) Fire Department related to me some of the questions citizens are asking his department concerning Y2K. Questions such as the following have been posed to Olean Fire Department code enforcement personnel:
“Can I wire my new gasoline-powered generator into my home`s electric panel box?”
“How much gasoline can I store in my basement? I just purchased a 300-gallon tank.”
“How much propane can I store in my basement? I just purchased a regulator/ adapter to convert my natural gas furnace to LPG.”
“Do I need a building permit to construct an underground shelter?”
These questions should not only throw up red flags–they require an immediate and aggressive response. As the year 2000 nears and the chorus of doomsday prophets grows louder, it must be assumed that more and more individuals and businesses will attempt to cope with possible outages and shortages by stockpiling water, food, and fuel. It is this latter category–large quantities of diesel and kerosene and highly volatile fuels such as gasoline and LPG–that are of most concern to fire departments. The danger is obvious in the short term, but stockpiles of these materials are like unexploded bombs that kill and maim long after the war is over. Unused gasoline stored in a basement may someday injure or kill firefighters advancing a handline. A long forgotten LPG cylinder may undergo a BLEVE (boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion) during a fire and fatally injure dozens of firefighters. A tank containing several hundred gallons of kerosene may plummet through a fire-weakened floor, killing firefighters operating below.
PREPLANNING IS KEY
What should the response of fire departments be? Although all incidents such as those described above cannot be prevented, certain steps can be taken to help ensure the safety of the public and firefighters alike. An aggressive public education campaign should be mounted immediately. The Olean Fire Department has taken ads in the local newspaper and is using radio announcements to warn of the dangers posed by the storage of gasoline and LPG and the illegal modification of heating and electrical equipment. Newspaper reporters have also been invited to attend meetings of Olean`s disaster preparedness committee to report objectively on the seriousness of this threat to public health and safety. Other public education options include cable TV advertising and direct mailings to homes and businesses. Certainly, this year`s Fire Prevention Week activities should include Y2K issues.
Problems involving commercial occupancies should be discovered during normal code enforcement activities, but most of these dangers are likely to exist in private residences. Firefighters should take note of anything unusual during everyday response to minor fires, emergencies, and EMS incidents that bring them into people`s homes. It may also be beneficial to meet with local hardware store owners, gasoline station managers, and heating oil and propane dealers to educate them about these dangers and to determine if any oddball requests or large-scale purchases have been made in the past several months. Enlisting the assistance of other municipal government agencies–the building inspector`s office, the police department, and the sanitation department–is also recommended. Any unusual incidents experienced by these agencies should be noted and followed up as appropriate.
Obviously, public education alone will not solve the entire problem. The Y2K danger is real, and we should take nothing for granted. Police departments have had success with “guns for cash” or “guns for toys” exchanges; perhaps fire departments could institute a similar program in which the public would be asked to surrender excess quantities of gasoline and propane in exchange for something else. Of course, complete immunity from all fines and penalties must be granted, and the program should be well publicized. It may be necessary for the local haz-mat team or private vendors to collect and transport the materials and containers because of the risks involved.
TIPS FOR OPERATIONAL SAFETY
Despite these efforts, dangers posed by Y2K storage will persist. We must not let our guard down. If we do, a seemingly “routine” fire operation might suddenly change into a catastrophic event. Here are some tips when operating at fires and emergencies to help keep everyone safe:
Always wear all personal protective equipment and SCBA.
Always carry a powerful handlight and a portable radio.
Note anything that seems different, unusual, or out of place, particularly for the type of occupancy involved.
Be aware of uncharacteristic odors and smoke colors when operating at fires.
Be alert to illegal wiring arrangements and heating system modifications.
Look out for drums, tanks, and compressed gas cylinders, particularly in garages, basements, and cellars.
Look for ramps leading to below-grade areas, and be cognizant of overloaded floors.
Above all, get on the radio and report your findings.
Your information could be the key that leads to a change in firefighting strategy that ultimately will save firefighters` lives.
Thanks to the Olean (NY) Fire Department, particularly Deputy Chief Chris Young, for assistance with this article.
ANDREW A. FREDERICKS, a 19-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Squad 18 in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is a New York State-certified fire instructor at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York, and an adjunct instructor at the New York State Academy of Fire Science. He has two bachelor`s degrees, one in political science and the other in public safety, with a specialization in fire science, and a master`s degree in fire protection management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He developed the Fire Engineering “Bread and Butter” Operations videos Advancing the Initial Attack Handline (1997), Stretching the Initial Attack Handline (1998), and Methods of Structure Fire Attack (1999).