Nonfire Emergencies: Oil Burners and Electricity
In many of my columns, I’ve written about fires—how to control them, I how to vent them, and most important, how to return home from them safely.
This month I’d like to take a realistic look at two nonfire emergencies the fire service is commonly called to— emergencies involving oil burners and electricity. They seem simple, but let’s explore their sometimes hidden complexities.
On the surface, a puff (or delayed ignition) of an oil burner may look routine so routine that it could be the last fire you repond to.
You may be reading this and saying, “Is he kidding? I’ve been to thousands of oil burner emergencies and they’re a piece of cake.” But not too many years ago, 1 responded to an emergency in which the oil burner not only puffed, but puffed so violently that it ripped the burner out of the boiler, snapped the copper fuel line that feeds it, and started a cellar fire fueled by a 275gallon, gravity-fed oil tank.
Another phenomenon associated with oil burners is the infamous “white ghost.” Most oil burner fires and emergencies will fill the basement with black smoke, but the white ghost is another possibility; it fills the basement with unignited oil vapor.
This happens when the oil spray is injected into the hot boiler, fails to ignite, and escapes into the oil burner room. It can be dangerous, and it calls for the immediate stretch of a charged line in preparation for mitigating an explosive vapor release within the building. Vent the area and disperse the vapors with a coarse fog spray.
Many times, fire will still be burning in the fire box of the boiler. If this fire isn’t a threat, shut down the electric and oil supply and let it burn. Applying water or foam to a hot fire box may ruin it, cause a violent reaction, or, at the least, damage the integrity of the lining. Similarly, application of dry chemical or carbon dioxide extinguishers will put the fire out, but it may cause the white ghost to appear because the oil in the fire box may continue to vaporize.
Nonfire emergencies, like fires, require control. This control might not necessarily be in the hands of the chief or senior officer at the scene; instead, it may lie with the person at the scene who has the most experience with the particular type of incident. Many fire departments have members who are oil burner mechanics. If there’s one in your department, let the person size up the situation and make recommendations or decisions. Although this member may not be an officer, the mechanic is familiar with the installations common to your locale and may even service this particular burner.
If you’re not this lucky, ask your local oil burner company to send a representative to give a drill on proper procedures to follow. The company will be more than happy to do so, since it will make the company’s job easier and yours safer.
Like oil burner emergencies, incidents involving electricity are common. From a simple overheated ballast in a fluorescent light fixture to a major electrical fault, these are emergencies to which a fire department is likely to be called.
I’ve attended many classes dealing with electricity. I know how to pull a meter, isolate areas within a large building, and perform emergency shut-off of major electrical service. But even though I’ve performed these tasks many times, I’ve never felt comfortable doing it. Electricity to me is like a snake behind a rock: You can’t see it, but if you get too close, it will jump out and bite!
I’d like to have a nickel for every ballast I’ve disconnected without any precautions; now we find out that the oil oozing from them may contain PCBs. The area should be adequately vented, and the firefighters should wear full protective gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus.
As with all responses, a good size-up is crucial. Find out what’s going on and whether the situation can be isolated. You may find that disconnecting the main fuse or pulling the meter will solve the problem.
If so, great! Do it. But for the types of emergencies I’ve mentioned, I always follow the rule of diminishing expertise: 1) Let the power authority handle it; 2) have one of your members who’s an electrician do it; 3) call in a nonmember electrician; 4) have a jackof-all-trades do it (only if the person has a good head and the situation is life-threatening;. . . 100) call me.
Being a chief or company officer doesn’t require you to know everything about everything. Your job, many times, is to know where to get help. The decision to do nothing may be the most appropriate for the situation.