Secrecy and Security
Recently a fire in an eastern chemical plant was fought by several volunteer companies which encountered considerable difficulty in controlling and extinguishing it. Not only were the men punished by fumes and smoke but, according to local borough officials, the fire apparatus of two companies was damaged to the extent of S1,000 each.
It was disclosed that in attacking the fire, borough firemen knew nothing beforehand about the chemicals or the processes used in the plant. Further, information which they requested upon beginning operations, was refused by plant officials.
The chairman of the borough fire committee reported: “Our firemen were not treated as they should be by officials of the firm.” He said that when firemen fighting the fire asked questions about possible hazards, they were told: “See the company’s lawyer.”
The community in which this plant is located reportedly has no fire prevention code or ordinances. Understandably, no inspections of the plant were ever made by the fire department; nor was the latter ever encouraged to visit the premises or to offer suggestions for fire protection and/or prevention.
This situation parallels instances recorded in “target areas” during World War II wherein industrial concerns—particularly those engaged in war production —refused entry of any firemen into plants and premises. Secrecy in the guise of “security” cost the country dearly in many cases before wiser counsel prevailed and the “iron curtains” were removed and fire fighters were made welcome.
Although the nation is not now engaged in a “shooting war” the feverish race to meet the challenge presented by Soviet science and technology in the military and space fields is finding a reversion to the “secrecy means security” policies of the last war.
Firemen roll to fires in factories and institutions today to be confronted by an increasing number of locked doors and gates, and signs reading NO ADMITTANCE . . . KEEP OUT . . . RESTRICTED AREAS, etc. It does not matter whether or not the fire fighter has authority by law to enter upon the property and even take command of situations involv- ing fire emergencies, if he is ignorant of the hazards and dangers on the other side of those restricted “iron curtains” he can’t be blamed for hesitating to penetrate these sacred areas.
Sometimes, it must be admitted, refusal of industrial and other concerns engaged in confidential operations to take fire fighters into their confidence is due not so much to fear of leak of “classified” information, as to the misconception that firemen are “wrecking crews” which will destroy everything that fire doesn’t. Silly as it may be, there are still businessmen who hold to this hoary old belief.
In larger establishments such as exist in the chemical fields, where products and processes are highly “sensitive,” and where fire control calls for the utmost in scientific approach and methods, plant security authorities can hardly be blamed for preferring to assume the responsibilities of fire protection for which most of these companies are well organized. In most cases, these private plant fire forces are specially trained in the kind of fire they will encounter and are competent to cope with whatever normal emergencies arise. But experience has proven that even these wellequipped forces can, and do, encounter emergencies of disaster proportions. At such times, the assistance of the municipal fire department is most welcome.
Actually, studies by FIRE ENGINEERING indicate that most of these well-equipped and self-reliant companies, although they may have and do practice the strictest kind of security measures, nevertheless want and invite cooperation of their local municipal fire departments. Many of them go further and bring fire fighters into their plants, explain plant hazards to them, and invite their cooperation in development of prefire plans.
Where this cooperation is lacking, the fault may not rest entirely with the industrial plant or institution. It may be that the fire department is uncooperative. Cooperation, like mutual aid, is a two-way stretch.