How Union Carbide Plastics Company protects its plant from fire

Brigade goes into action at surprise drill. When the alarm sounded, all the fire fighters were at their regular jobs. Until they arrived at the location, and were given problem to solve by Chief Cuattery, they were unaware it was not an actual fire

—Photos courtesy Union Carbide Plastics Company

Fire fighter wets down burning propane gas tank. Within four minutes after alarm sounded, men had water on the fireWith fire out, brigade member, still clad in protective suit, checks tank valveMembers of rescue squad-ambulance, who respond to all alarms, care for a casualty.” The plant’s brigade has a mutual aid pact with the nearby American Cyanamid industrial fire brigade

How Union Carbide Plastics Company protects its plant from fire

POTENTIAL FIRE HAZARDS are inherent in the manufacture of synthetic resins and molding compounds —the basic materials of the plastic industry. Protecting a plant from fire is important, not only to the company and its employees, but the economy of the community could also be seriously impaired by any interruption of production.

To find out firsthand how the management protects such a plant from fire, the writer visited Union Carbide Plastic Company’s plant at Bound Brook, N. J., interviewed the plant’s fire chief, Mark Guattery, and the plant’s fire protection engineer, William B. Lynch, and watched the plant fire brigade solve a problem during a surprise drill.

Mr, Lynch has been fire protection engineer at the plant for the past 20 years. Chief Guattery was formerly assistant chief of the Middletown, N. Y., Fire Department. He began his fire service career as a volunteer in Middletown and has served as a section leader in the Stewart Air Force Base Fire Department; as a section leader, U. S. Army Fire Service during World War II; and as a member of the U. S. Military Academy Fire Department, West Point. He also served as Orange County, N. Y., fire instructor from 1950 until his appointment at the plant in 1958.

The hazards

The National Board of Fire Underwriters in Research Report No. 1, “Fire Hazards of the Plastics Industry, points out that most of the gases and liquids used in the manufacture of synthetic resins and molding compounds are highly flammable. When mixed with air, many are explosive. The grinding, milling and blending of synthetic resins with wood flour and other finely divided materials present the hazard of dust explosions. The use of high temperatures and high pressures also creates hazards.

Union Carbide Plastics Company is primarily a manufacturer and supplier to industry of plastics and resins that are further fabricated or processed into end products by its customers. At its Bound Brook plant, the company manufactures phenolic, polyethylene, polystyrene, epoxy, and vinyl resins, compounds and film and sheeting.

Among the flammable liquids stored at the plant are: Benzene, methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, acrylonitrile, toluol, ethylbenzene, styrene monomer, formaldehyde and phenol.

Every new employee and even former employees returning to the company must see a series of sound slides which indoctrinate them with the plant’s fire safety principles and practices. Thus they are introduced to the traditional “fire triangle,” the types of extinguishers in the plant and the kind of fire each is designed to extinguish, the fire alarm system and the water supply system. In addition, the employee is warned about the company’s stringent enforcement of smoking regulations.

On a broader policy level, whenever a new building is planned for the plant, the safety division is called in for consultation during the designing of the building to make recommendations for over-all fire safety.

Fire protection

All buildings in the plant are protected by sprinklers and standpipes. In all except the older buildings, these systems may be supplied independently of each other although, because of the excellent water supply and pressure, it is ordinarily not necessary to hook up to a building’s standpipe or sprinkler connections with a pumper.

A foam hydrant system protects certain areas of the plant, and all critical areas are protected by automatic foam or water deluge systems which are operated by a heat-actuating device. The alcohol tank farm is diked and protected by an inert gas blanketing system.

Dust collectors throughout the plant are protected by automatic carbon dioxide systems, or can be flooded with an inert gas. As a final resort, water spray is used to control fires in these collectors. The big bins in which resins are stored are protected by automatic carbon dioxide systems similar to the type used in record vaults.

An explosion control system protects one of the unusual hazards of the manufacturing process. Certain molding materials are mixed in stages on three different floors. They pass through ducts from one stage to another. Each floor is isolated by explosion dampers in the duct, which are released by the percussion of dynamite caps. An increase in pressure or temperature activates the system, closing all dampers in the duct and shutting down all operations in the building.

Water supply

The Bound Brook plant has its own water system with a 30-inch intake from an unlimited source of supply— the Raritan River. A pump house at the river houses a twin six diesel fire pump capable of pumping 2,500 gpm at 120 psi. A 1,500-gpm steam pump in the power house provides additional pressure if needed. Water for the steam pump is stored in a million-gallon reservoir and in a 50,000 gallon elevated tank. Mains throughout the plant are 10-inch and 14-inch and are looped so any break can be isolated. Static pressure in the mains is maintained at 100 psi. There are 56 hydrants in the system, and every hydrant is gated. The plant uses New York Corporation thread and as the surrounding communities are equipped with National Standard fittings, the company brigade carries adaptors on its apparatus.

The fire brigade is staffed by 17 maintenance men on each shift. Under modern production methods, the general workman is usually familiar with only his own part of the operation and the locality where he performs. The maintenance men are selected because their work gives them a familiarity with all areas of the plant and they are stationed throughout the plant. At present 16 foremen are being trained to serve as emergency captains. Four shift foremen serve as deputy chiefs.

The plant also has its own coded fire alarm system of 128 boxes, divided into six areas. When an alarm is sounded, the first numeral of the signal identifies the area of the fire. Those members of the brigade who are nearer the location report there rather than to the fire station. They are trained not to come in emptyhanded, but to bring in an extinguisher or stretch a line if they pass a standpipe. The electricians shut off power in the affected area. The two fire trucks approach the fire from different directions. For a building fire, it is standard procedure to stretch a 2 1/2-inch line wyed into two 1 1/2-inch lines and backed up by a 2 1/2-inch line. A 2 1/2-inch line is stretched from the hydrant into the clappered Siamese of the pumper.

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Extinguishing agents

Depending on the material burning, fog, foam, carbon dioxide or dry chemical is used. Straight streams are never used unless specifically ordered by the fire chief. Fog tends to absorb fumes and to prevent agitation of dust, minimizing the danger of a dust explosion. Dry chemical is effective where cooling is not the primary objective. If the material is above its ignition point, dry chemical will not be too effective and the material will flare up again. Penetrants, such as carbon tetrachloride and wetter water are effective on unbagged phenolic resins.

The plant maintains a rescue squadambulance manned by eight men on each shift. These workmen are all active in rescue groups in their own communities and have volunteered for duty with the plant unit during their working hours there. The unit responds to all alarms under the command of a first aid captain and lieutenant who report to the fire chief for orders.


As might be expected in view of Chief Guattery’s background, training is stressed at the plastics plant. A fire drill is conducted once a week. Every month each shift of the fire brigade goes through a surprise drill, during which a specific fire problem is presented for on-the-spot solution.

Drills in the training area are made realistic by burning in the test pits “still wash,” a potent mixture of various waste flammable liquids. Every brigade member undergoes a twohour training session each month. He receives his own copy of a brigade training manual and the plant maintains an extensive library of fire fighting and training films. Twice a year a full-scale disaster drill is held. On these occasions, guards set up road blocks at all plant gates, the cafeteria provides coffee and sandwiches for the emergency workers, and facilities are made available for the press, all according to the plan effective in an actual disaster.

Closely allied to training are experiments in new methods of fire fighting to cope with the industry’s specific problems. For example, Chief Guattery and Mr. Lynch are testing the efficiency of dry ice to extinguish flammable liquid fires. Cakes of dry ice are eased into 110-gallon tanks of burning “still wash” to lower the temperature and extinguish the fire. Tests are also being conducted with 3 per cent wet water, as a 2 per cent solution has proved ineffective on liquids miscible in water.


The company has two pieces of fire apparatus at the Bound Brook plant. One was especially built by American LaFrance on a G. M. C. chassis. It carries 1,000 gallons of foam liquid, and has six 2 1/2-inch outlets at the rear of the rig which will discharge either foam or water. These outlets are supplied from the main pump through a manifold. Because of the special design of the apparatus, it is possible to pump foam from these outlets while the main pump is supplying water lines. The apparatus is equipped with a 750-gpm pump, a hydraulic foam tower and a fixed deluge gun which can discharge a straight stream, fog, water or foam. The hose bed holds 600 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose and 350 feet of 1 1/2-inch.

Form which inspector serves on discovering an unsafe condition

The other apparatus is a 500-gpm, single-stage, Class B pumper which carries 1,000 gallons of water, 1,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose, 350 feet of 1 1/2-inch, and a booster line of 200 feet of 1 1/2-inch high-pressure hose.

Both pumpers carry demand-type breathing apparatus, aluminized clothing with pockets built into the back for a mask cylinder so the suits can be used together with self-contained masks.

One truck is radio-equipped and the other is presently being so equipped. Both carry walkie-talkies and voice amplifiers.

Each apparatus is service-tested at least once a year, and Chief Guattery personally supervises the tests.

Two full-time fire inspectors perform duty according to a schedule drawn up by the fire chief which insures regular inspection of every area of the plant once a week. Each inspector carries a violation order book. If a violation is found, a written order is served on the area supervisor, who is required to acknowledge service by signing the inspector’s copy of the violation order. A reinspection is scheduled to check on abatement of the violation. In the case of an extremely hazardous condition, immediate correction is demanded.

The inspectors check on all smoking, burning and welding in the plant. An employee discovered smoking outside of the designated smoking areas is suspended. If burning or welding is necessary, the fire chief issues a permit which stipulates the conditions under which the work is to be done, for example, the number of fire guards to be on duty, asbestos blanket or even a hose line in readiness. The inspector takes an explosimeter reading before the welding or burning is started. The inspectors also check and recharge all of the 1,700 extinguishers in the plant.

Process safety

In addition to the fire inspectors, five full-time process safety inspectors are employed. Process safety is closely interwoven with fire safety’ and one complements the other. Process safety primarily provides protection for equipment. As an example, a reaction kettle or “still” in which flammable liquids are processed could pose a hazard because of the possibility of excessive pressure. Process safety is responsible for the testing and inspection of vessels, safety appliances and equipment and is also responsible for conformity with governing codes.

While fire protection and prevention and process safety are stressed at the plant, with the processes and materials involved it is impossible to eliminate all fires. However, every fire, no matter how small, is thoroughly investigated to learn and eliminate the cause. As far as possible, no fire report lists the cause as “unknown.” The fire chief, the fire protection engineer and the head of the operating department where a fire occurs collaborate on a “post mortem” after every fire. If one unit of the brigade encounters any serious problem, the fire chief briefs the brigade members on the other shifts to promote the over-all knowledge and efficiency of the entire brigade.

The lack of serious fires is proof that Union Carbide Plastics Company’s safety program pays off for management, employees and community.

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