The Role of Chemical Laboratories In the Fire Service

The Role of Chemical Laboratories In the Fire Service

CHEMICALS and chemical processes, which are daily playing a more important part in American life, have motivated progressive fire departments to set up their own chemical laboratories. These fire laboratories supply valuable information for fire prevention, investigation and research. Fire officials with such facilities at their command have found them to be a vital adjunct to the work of the department.

Importance increasing

“Since its inception, the Los Angeles Fire Department laboratory has been of increasing importance and value to this department through increased knowledge and efficiency in handling fire prevention and fire fighting problems.” This evaluation of the Los Angeles Department’s laboratory by Deputy Chief Donald T. Hibbard could well be applied to the chemical laboratories maintained by other departments.

As Chief of Department Leo C. Driscoll of Boston points out, “the value of such a laboratory to the fire department is that it furnishes the chief of department and the fire prevention division with scientific advice and analysis of flammables whether in the solid, liquid or gaseous phase, in order to classify substances according to their degree of hazard.”

Expanding on this statement, Chief Driscoll lists circumstances under which laboratory analyses would be important. Among these are: To determine the cause of suspicious, unknown or undetermined fires; to determine the toxicity of gases and vapors generated in fires; to make rules and specifications for testing decorative material used in public buildings, places of assembly and stores; in field investigations of arson and fires or explosions causing loss of life or extensive property damage; to provide expert testimony in court cases involving criminal or civil action; to determine the thermal decomposition or auto ignition of materials, and finally as the basis for permits to store hazardous materials.

In addition, Robert C. Lyons, senior chemist of the Detroit Fire Department, recommends the examination and testing of fire-retardants and extinguishers. Another laboratory function, according to Mr. Lyons, would be the investigation of leaks and spillage of flammable liquid and explosive gases to determine the type of gas or liquid and the source of the leak or spillage. The purpose would be to protect life and property during the emergency and to correct the cause.

Mr. Lyons notes that since World War II, new and highly flammable and explosive materials are being used in everincreasing amounts in industrial plants. Many of these products have appeared on the market so rapidly that sufficient analysis and classification have not been made. Fire inspectors and company officers, as well as those engaged in the use of these materials, are not thoroughly familiar with their hazards and are, therefore, not in a position to determine means for their safe handling and storage. “It is vitally necessary that these materials be analyzed and classified immediately if we are to prevent serious fires and accidents which would impair industry,” Mr. Lyons states.

Granting the value of a laboratory to a fire department, what basic equipment is required? What would it cost approximately to set up a lab? Who should staff it? What would be the principal functions of the lab?

What equipment is needed?

Necessary equipment would consist of a work bench with an indestructible stone top, cabinets for the storage of chemicals, a fume hood with ventilation to the outside air and an electric refrigerator of approved type for the storage of volatile liquids, with a cold section to bring the temperature of liquids as close to zero as possible for low flash-point tests. It is well to install a sump at the sink to prevent chemicals from entering the sewer system.

Boston’s laboratory is housed in penthouse structure atop fire station

—Boston F. D. photo

The basic instruments would be flashpoint testers, both open-cup and closedcup types; glassware such as beakers, flasks, Pyrex test tubes, graduate measuring cylinders and distilling flasks; distillation apparatus; Bunsen burners; a well-constructed and sensitive balance which will weigh to ten-thousandths of a gram; a pyrometer; gas analysis apparatus; a microscope; a refractometer; Reid vapor pressure bomb, thermometers, and an automatic electric drying oven with thermostat.

Member of staff of Los Angeles County Fire Department’s laboratory uses Pensky-Martens flash point tester

—L. A. County F. D. photo

Senior Chemist Robert C. Lyons tests sample in Detroit’s fire lab

—Detroit F. D. photo

Member of Los Angeles fire laboratory staff uses binocular microscope. In foreground torsion balance may be seen, while at right under hood are Pensky-Martens and Tag closed cup testers

—L. A. F. D. photo

Additional desirable instruments would include a spectrophotometer, constant temperature bath; combustible gas indicator; hydrograph; hydrostatic U.G.T. test equipment; anemometer; high-temperature furnace; timer; manometers; thermocouples; potentiometers; ultraviolet light; fractionation, separation and extraction equipment; a spectrograph and a camera attachment for the microscope.

For identification of materials, Detroit has adopted the “Spot Test Method” by Feigl which includes 100 or more organic reagents and a set of inorganic chemical reagents. These reagents would be a valuable addition to the inventory of a laboratory.

What will it cost?

Estimates of the approximate cost of setting up a laboratory vary from $2,500 to more than $10,000, depending on the equipment purchased. Chief Driscoll of Boston estimates that basic equipment would cost $5,000. Chief Hibbard reports that the basic equipment in the Los Angeles City fire laboratory would cost in excess of $10,000. To the writer, the Los Angeles lab seems very completely equipped, and Chief Hibbard notes that a good fire laboratory can be started with an original outlay of $2,500. Past budgets of the City of Los Angeles have allowed $1,000 annually for equipment and maintenance of its fire laboratory. Mr. Lyons of the Detroit fire laboratory recommends perusal of the catalogs of chemical laboratory supply companies which describe the types of instruments necessary for this work and list prices. One municipal chemist believes that a well-equipped lab could cost more than $25,000. He notes that a recording spectrophotometer and a spectrograph would cost in the neighborhood of $15,000.

The Boston laboratory receives some income from its work since it charges a fee of $3.00 for each flash test and $1.00 for each sample of decorative material tested.

Of course, the figures quoted cover equipment only. Providing a new building or remodeling available quarters would add to the original outlay. The Boston Fire Department laboratory is a penthouse structure on the roof of one of the fire stations. Detroit’s lab is located in fire headquarters, while the Los Angeles County lab is in a separate room at the training center.

Incidentally, Chief Keith E. Klinger notes that Los Angeles County does not maintain a complete chemical laboratory and technician capable of making technical tests or analyses. The chief describes the Los Angeles County lab as a physical laboratory which can make flash tests of flammable liquids, run flame tests of fire-retardant materials, check burning characteristics of roofing materials, test combustible dusts for explosion hazards and make other related tests of materials that have been involved in fire or are submitted for study.

The lab’s staff

The Los Angeles County lab is manned by a captain in the fire prevention bureau who handles the work, as necessary, in addition to his regularly assigned detail. Boston’s lab, under the direction of the head of the fire prevention division, is staffed by a civilian graduate chemist with an assistant who usually is a “light house duty” fire fighter. The Detroit Fire Department’s chemical laboratory is manned by Senior Chemist Robert C. Lyons who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. The fire laboratory of the City of Los Angeles is a unit of the fire prevention bureau, under the engineering and investigation section. It is staffed by members of the technical and engineering units of the bureau, under the supervision of a battalion chief. Two members have a college background in science and another is currently studying for his degree.

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Mr. Lyons considers it very important for the man in charge of the chemical laboratory to have a college degree, majoring in chemistry, and to have five to 10 years experience in fire protection work. Such a man will be readily recognized by both court and jury as an expert in this specialized field, and his testimony will receive due respect.

Work of the lab

The work of a fire laboratory covers broadly fire investigation, arson investigation, fire prevention and fire research.

Fire investigation embraces the technical investigation and determination of fire causes. The object is to eliminate hazards and to provide the necessary background information for enactment of laws and ordinances.

Arson investigation includes the collection, analysis and preservation of evidence, and the related legal laboratory reports and expert courtroom testimony.

The fire laboratory is a valuable adjunct to fire prevention by providing laboratory and field tests of flammable liquids and other flammability tests, gas leaks, temperature measurements and ventilation. The Boston laboratory, for example, tests plastics and other building materials submitted by the building department before a permit is issued for their use in construction. It also tests all upholstery and drapery plastics and fabric samples for compliance with law and state regulations, before installation in public buildings.

As part of fire research, the laboratory investigates and tests for combustibility and flame-spread characteristics of materials used for clothing, furnishings or construction. This phase also covers tests for fire department approval of devices such as nozzles, valves, etc. The laboratory also researches and reports on new fire problems such as amateur rocketry and new chemicals. The Los Angeles fire laboratory, through the fire prevention bureau library and extensive chemical files, is on call at all times for fire suppression information on chemicals.

Provision was made for a chemical laboratory in Portland, Ore., fire headquarters, but to date, it has not been equipped as such. Several men in the department have degrees in chemistry, when funds for staffing and equipping such a laboratory are available.

At present, Portland’s equipment is of a mechanical nature, consisting of gas-o-meters, open and closed cup testers, portable ultraviolet lights, an ohmeter for testing hospital surgeries, pyrometers, portable and fixed voice recorders, projectors, cameras and a lie detector. Chief Investigator C. W. Stickney of Portland’s fire prevention division reports that this equipment is used largely for fire and arson investigation.

Substitutes for a lab

Of these departments which do not maintain their own laboratory, some contract out to private agencies any chemical analysis necessary. This is the policy, for example, of Phoenix, Ariz.

It appears, however, that most departments which do not have their own facilities depend on other governmental agencies. Seattle, which reports that it finds the need for a chemical lab very infrequent, has access to the city laboratory if necessary. San Francisco also uses the services of other city agencies when necessary. Most of Oakland, Calif.’s work is sent to the State Criminal Investigation and Identification Bureau in Sacramento. The Oakland Police Department and the state fire marshal’s office in San Francisco have small laboratories, and the Oakland Fire Department makes some use of these facilities.

While Utica, N. Y., has frequently used the New York State Police laboratory at Albany, this department is fortunate in also having the voluntary services of Gustav W. Pirk, chief metallurgist, research center, Rome Cable Corp. During the past 20 years, Mr. Pirk, a good friend of both the fire and police departments in Utica, has devoted a great deal of his time to analyses for arson and other fire investigations.

The Newark, N. J., Fire Department enjoys the full cooperation of the Newark police laboratory. Chief Chemist William R. Seligman does a large amount of work for the fire department. He regards as one of the most important phases of this work warning firemen of the hazards certain new chemicals pose for them. Several years ago, Mr. Seligman made extensive research on the toxic hazards of plastics and submitted a detailed report to the fire department. His office, located in the police-fire academy, is also an information center for students.

Mr. Seligman suggests that, in those communities which have police laboratory facilities, the fire department utilize them either on a cooperative or merged basis. He notes that, since in all probability police laboratories outnumber fire laboratories, particularly in the smaller cities, the cost of establishing new fire laboratories could be avoided and the experience and training of the available police laboratory personnel be utilized in this manner. It seems to the writer, that some fire chiefs might prefer to have qualified fire personnel detailed to the police laboratory to handle the fire department work because of their background in fire prevention and fire extinguishment.

Mr. Seligman also suggests that established laboratories in the larger cities could offer their services to surrounding smaller communities either on a cooperative or fee basis.

During World War II, New York City maintained a mobile fire, gas and chemical laboratory, fully equipped to detect and analyze dangerous fumes and gases. This package-delivery-type truck responded to all multiple-alarm fires south of 59th Street, Manhattan, but could be special-called anywhere in the city. The mobile laboratory operated in conjunction with a research laboratory and technical library located in the quarters of a downtown engine company. The staff consisted of uniformed fire fighters with very good chemical backgrounds and considerable fire fighting experience.

Today the New York Fire Department avails itself of the Central Testing Laboratory of the Department of Purchase. This is an engineering and industrial laboratory equipped to make a wide variety of physical and chemical tests. The Central Testing Laboratory serves approximately 25 city agencies, and its primary function is to test materials purchased by the city for compliance with specifications. This laboratory tests about 1,000 samples annually for the fire department, consisting of flammable materials for permit purposes, and on occasion, for arson evidence. When necessary, a representative testifies in court.

While Memphis, Tenn., does not maintain a chemical laboratory at present, it is contemplating having one in the near future. Chief G. C. Ulrich of the bureau of fire prevention of the Buffalo Fire Department also expresses the hope that his department will one day have such facilities. “There is no question but what such a laboratory would be a tremendous help to this office,” he writes.

Possibly the best recommendation for such a laboratory is the opinion of a fire chief who has experienced its benefits. Chief Keith E. Klinger of Los Angeles County writes, “We feel that a laboratory such as ours is well worth the expenditure and time involved to be able to make physical tests of the many and varied products used by the public today, assist in our fire investigation activities and help plan sensible fire prevention for the industrial plants in our jurisdiction.”

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