Argonne Fire Fighters Teach Techniques of Living with Radiation
Photos courtesy Argonne National Laboratory
FIRE FIGHTERS at Argonne National Laboratory, Ill., live a double life. They are responsible for the fire protection of 4,000 employees and more than 100 buildings at the big nuclear energy research facility. In addition, they find time to inform fellow fire fighters, and the public, of the problems involved when radiation is present during fire fighting operations.
Through lectures and demonstrations at meetings of firemen’s associations and municipal fire departments, the Argonne men seek to clear up confusion about fires which might involve radioactive materials and possible contamination—and to dispel unwarranted fears.
Argonne National Laboratory is operated by the University of Chicago for the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission. It is one of America’s leading centers for the research and development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The fire protection department, which has 43 full-time members, is headed by Superintendent Fred O. Pancner. Equipment includes one 1,000-gpm pumper, one 1,000-gpm squad truck, one 925-gallon tanker, two ambulances, a forestry jeep, an emergency carry-all, and a panel truck.
In recent months, at least 350 persons engaged in community fire protection have been informed by Argonne fire protection personnel about radiation problems and how to cope with incidents involving radioactive contamination. These persons have included: Chicago Fire Department officers; members of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Chicago Chapter; and members of the Illinois Institute of Technology Student Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. Firemen’s associations have included: Cook and DuPage Counties; Kane County, Hampshire, Ill.; Shabbona, Elwood, Ill.; and Porter County, Ind.
Special courses in how to fight fires involving radioactive materials are taught to assist local organizations and interested citizens with the problem. Lt. Virgil V. Rudolph recently completed presentation of a five-week course, “Living with Radiation,” for representatives of the Des Plaines Valley Firemen’s Association. The course explained the fundamentals of nuclear energy; some present-day uses; practical approaches to the understanding of industrial radiation hazards and effects; protection techniques; and methods of handling hazardous incidents. Lt. Rudolph had previously instructed two other firemen’s associations in meetings at Argonne. Commenting on the courses, Rudolph said:
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“The subject of ionizing radiation and its effects usually is confusing to the layman. Many laymen believe that only a highly skilled technician can understand radiation and evaluate the possibility of danger. Sometimes the layman has an unreasoning fear of radiation injury in situations where in fact no real hazard exists. One of the end results of the course is to place the radiation hazard in proper perspective with the other hazards of our everyday world.”
Argonne personnel have practiced at home what they have “preached” to others. In the 12-month period ending October 31, 1960, fire losses, including costs of cleaning or replacement of items radioactively contaminated as a result of fire, totaled only $255. The fire protection department has not had a fire-caused lost-time injury since 1953. The Laboratory has placed within the top 10 each year since 1950 in the Industrial Division of the National Fire Protection Association Fire Prevention Contest. Argonne won the Grand Award in 1954.
The Laboratory attributes its good record, in part, to employee cooperation and the distribution of information about fire prevention. About 60,000 pieces of literature are disseminated to Laboratory workers each year.
In order to provide additional manpower for the Argonne Fire Protection Department, volunteers from other divisions and departments are trained for service in the Laboratory’s fire brigade. The brigade has 140 members scattered throughout the buildings on Argonne’s 3,700-acre site. These volunteers are prepared to assist when emergencies occur.
The 43 members of the department are assigned four main functions: Engineering; inspection and fire prevention; rescue, fire fighting and ambulance operations; and office personnel. During the course of routine duties in 1960, Argonne fire fighters carried out over 2,000 “welding stand-bys,” Whenever welding operations are carried out at the Laboratory, outside of designated welding areas, a member of the fire protection department is present. Fire fighters also escorted and stood by during 167 deliveries of flammable liquids. The inspection and fire protection department maintains 3,000 fire extinguishers located at strategic points throughout the Argonne site. In addition, the department routinely inspects some 100 “built-in” fire protection systems (heat and smoke detection, automatic sprinkler, carbon dioxide, etc.) located throughout the Laboratory.