Special Mobile Unit Manned by Technicians Makes Tests on Fire Ground

ANOTHER step forward in the application of scientific principles to fire suppression has been taken by the New York Fire Department by the inauguration of a “Fire, Gas and Chemical Laboratory,” a unique feature of which is a mobile unit for conducting scientific “on-the-scene” tests.

The direct supervision of the Fire, Gas and Chemical Laboratory, according to the order establishing the enterprise. signed by Fire Commissioner Patrick Walsh, is vested in Second Deputy Commissioner Harry M. Archer, M.D.

The same order directs that “for administrative and disciplinary purposes this unit shall be in charge of the Commanding Officer of Engine Co. 33, but shall respond in command of an Acting Lieutenant or Fireman 1st grade assigned thereto.”

Under command of Acting Lieutenant Milton Brody, the rolling laboratory is manned by four firemen, all in their early thirties, all of whom have majored in chemistry while at college. Lieutenant Brody was graduated from Long Island University in 1937 with the degree of bachelor of science in chemistry. Fireman John Kovach came from Brooklyn College in 1939, Fireman Max Glasser and Jesse Grosse are alumni of City College (New York) and Fireman Robert Winnung was graduated from New York University in 1938.

The laboratory and its mobile unit are the outcome of several years of planning and experimenting, largely by Lieutenant Brody and members of the department, in an effort to set up advanced safeguards for firemen and public against toxic gases, explosive mixtures, poisonous fumes, chemicals and acids. According to Dr. Archer “the laboratory is complete in every detail, and a pretty large affair, second to none in the city and the five men assigned to it have been selected with great care, and should know all the answers.”

Mounted on a two-and-a-half-ton International Truck, the mobile laboratory looks from the outside not unlike a modern department store delivery truck, except for the conventional red finish. Inside, however, it is quite another story.

Most of the equipment carried is designed to facilitate making “at-the-scene” analysis of toxic gases, explosive mixtures, and chemical and physical tests. The truck also carries several types of gas masks, including the latest type self-contained products; forcible entry tools and a portable gasoline motordriven generator to develop its. own electrical power. Some of the equipment used was designed and built by Lieutenant Brody and his co-workers; other instruments and devices were purchased from manufacturers. Lieutenant Brody and his colleagues spent many weeks developing their own indicators for measuring the rarer gases which firemen might be called upon to encounter. At the same time they experimented with the various types of masks and respirators used by government and private agencies.

The mobile unit is not assigned to respond on normal fire alarm signal box alarms, but is “special called” as needed. It is, however, in service twenty-four hours a day.

According to the order establishing it. the Fire, Gas and Chemical Laboratory may be requested by the Otficer in Command of any fire or other emergency when in his judgment its trained personnel and special equipment can be utilized advantageously. “When required for use other than at fires or emergencies, the Chief Otficer in charge of the department shall be so advised and he in turn shall order a special call for the unit transmitted by the Manhattan Dispatcher.”

The Fire. Gas and Chemical Laboratory is assigned as a “unit of the 3rd Battalion and 2nd Division.” The member personnel “shall not be detained at a fire or other emergency longer than is necessary” in fulfilling the purposes for which it is created. In general, the laboratory is operated in compliance with the rules and regulations applying to other fire department units in quarters, and when responding to, operating at, or returning from fires or emergencies.

Although the primary purpose of Fire, Gas and Chemical Laboratory, according to the departmental order, will be to procure samples and make analyses of toxic gases, chemical fumes, explosive mixtures, chemicals, acids, etc., in buildings, vessels, or premises wherein the safety of operating forces may be endangered by these substances, the work of the technicians covers many other fields of fire service activity.

Actually, the Fire, Gas and Chemical Laboratory works with all branches of the fire department, including medical, fire prevention, investigation and apparatus as well as the fire fighting forces.

How and Where the Lab’ Works

The first official special call for the mobile unit was received on Friday, October 5. at 1:59 P. M. (Signal 9-2161-33) on requisition of Chief David Kidney of the Bureau of Fire Prevention for a combustible job at 816 Fast 140th Street. It is reported that the rolling laboratory had been at that address upon previous occasions for the same purpose, although not in response to telegraphic signals.

The problem was to detect and determine it possible the source of fumes of what were believed to be petroleum solvents, which all summer long had been annoying employees of a paperbox factory at the location. The mystery had puzzled the staff of the Division of Combustibles of the department, which found that the fumes were more concentrated when the tide of the Fast River was high.

Inspector Barbuto of the Bureau of Combustible’s staff discovered that the chemical tank of a neighboring factory that made wax dolls was the source of the trouble. The tank was losing 7 gallons of solvents an hour which disappeared into the earth. The tank had been in service ten years.

The escape of the contents, and the consequent fumes, alarmed the management of the paperbox plant who were afraid to light a lire in the furnace to obtain necessary heat.

Lieutenant Brody and Fireman John Kovach, answering the official call, returned to the scene with the mobile laboratory. They took samples of the contents of the pit in the cellar of the factory and, by means of their equipment and devices, they were able to determine that the fluids had a flash point of 115 degrees F. The survey and subsequent field tests were attended by Deputy Chief Muto, 7th Division; Battalion Chief Galligan. 14th Battalion, and by a representative of the oil company which supplied the wax doll factory with the special solvent that was escaping. The tank was ordered discharged and replaced.

New York Fire Department Mobile Laboratory Has Many Unique Features Unromantic in appearance, the traveling lab nevertheless affords additional safeguard for firemen by facilitating at the sccne tests.

New York Fire Department Photo—Hollrelgel

Interior View of Mobile Laboratory

New York Fire Department Photo—Hellreigel

Second Run: Subway in Danger

The mobile laboratory made its second run on November 15, when the unit with Lieutenant Brody and Fireman Kovach was called to St. Nicholas Avenue and 141st Street, Manhattan, where there was a heavy concentration of fumes in the Eighth Avenue Subway.

A subway inspector had detected the fumes about 11:00 A. M. He notified the fire department and Chief McAllister of the 16th Battalion responded. He was joined by Deputy Chief Dennis Curtin. The condition was then reported to Chief Kidney of the Fire Prevention Bureau and the mobile laboratory was ordered to the scene at 3:00 P. M.

Lieutenant Brody confirmed the findings of the inspector and the fire officials, namely, that there was a heavy concentration of vapor.

Having located the trouble, the task was to find the source of the gas. This was accomplished by the scientific detectives and it was found that a combination of crankcase oil, gasoline and water had leaked into the subway ducts and manholes from an oil separator in a nearby garage.

Manholes were vented immediately and conduit vaults and chambers in the subway were opened to permit the escape of the fumes. A spare pumper was brought into play by Captain Harry Irwin, Supervising Fngineer of the Department, and the flooded manhole was emptied of its residue. Samples of the fluid were continually taken by Lieutenant Brody and Inspector Barbuto of the Bureau of Combustibles. Later, as night came, further specimens were taken and evaluated until it was scientifically determined that all danger of explosion had passed.

The Bureau of Fire Prevention took appropriate action against the offending garage owner the next day.

Nine Months’ Search Is Productive

Although the mobile unit was not concerned in this episode, the incident had a bearing upon the decision to place the unit in service.

For a long time the department had been bothered by some unexplainable something which was clogging strainers and carburetors of its fire trucks, particularly those that did the least traveling.

Lieutenant Brody, assigned to locate the cause, if possible, put in nine months’ research and disclosed that the combination of inert gasoline and copper gas tank caused a gummy residue which was not found in those trucks which did a lot of running.

Mere turning of the motors, it was revealed, was not enough to vitiate the affinity of long-standing gasoline for its metallic container.

Once the cause of the trouble was located, Chief Jones of the Fire Department Shops and Captain Irwin, Supervising Engineer, solicited Lieutenant Brody’s services in an effort to develop an antidote.

The chemist obtained many samples and conducted intensive and numerous analyses. It was found that the gasoline itself was not at fault. After long and tedious experiments, and trial-and-error, Lieutenant Brody finally arrived at a solution—an antidote said to be known as methyl, ethyl, ketone—an acetone or organic solvent, which, when mixed with the gasoline in the tank, stabilizes the fuel and at low cost. This formula, it is said, calls for about ten ounces in each 1,000 gallons of fuel.

Subsequent reports are to the effect that the department plans to treat the gasoline in tanks of all fire companies that move infrequently and thereby eliminate the possibility of some fire apparatus getting “stuck” in quarters, or on the road.

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