Fire Safety in Live Systems

Industrial and residential settings increasingly have one big thing in common: you can’t eliminate all the hazards. When a fire breaks out, we want our buildings and our equipment to default to a “safe” state. We want to shut off gas valves, kill electrical breakers, and get anything explosive like propane bottles and gas cans as far from the fire as possible. Unfortunately, some situations are not this simple.


Standard Residential Procedure

When a house fire breaks out, the fire alarm goes off, you evacuate, and at some point the local emergency dispatch center hears about it and dispatches fire fighters, police, and EMS. Their first priority is to get everyone out alive. Along with that they need to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby fields and buildings. Lastly they’ll try to save as much of the structure as possible, but sometimes all they can do is watch it crumble.

The process of actually handling a fire is a multi-stage exercise in chaos. On scene, fire fighters need to run hose line to spray water, teams have to enter the building to locate trapped victims. Part of the crew has to set up a constant water supply, either from a hydrant or a relay team of tankers that will drive a circuit between their fill station and the fire.

Along the way, the fire fighters need to ID and remove as many hazards as possible. They’ll go right for the electrical meter and cut off all power to the house, which will prevent electrocution once there’s water everywhere and possibly nip an electrical fire in the bud. If there’s a gas bottle outside, that gets turned off, observed, and very possibly removed if the fire spreads.

This is the ideal process. Within minutes the house can be safely turned into an inert stack of wood and rock, rather than a flaming beast with electrical traps and flame-spitting gas lines waiting to turn a simmer into an incinerator.


The Industrial Challenge

This approach doesn’t quite work for manufacturers and other big businesses. Consider something like hydrogen production. We have chemical plants which focus on making pure hydrogen for other manufacturers, for fuel cells, and even for hydrogen powered vehicles. Safe hydrogen storage relies on advanced cooling systems. If you turn off the power, the near absolute-zero level cooling system turns off, and while you might have starved an electrical fire, you’ve also now created a 400 ton hydrogen hand grenade.

Large industrial complexes will have multiple electrical breakers, sprinklers, and even on-site fire fighters to handle these problems. Ideally, the complex is designed for segmented control. Electrical breakers are almost like light switches in these places, where room by room and even machine by machine control keeps things safer than they otherwise would be.


The Small Business and ResidentialChallenge

These problems however, are not just for big industry. This challenge has slowly crept into the residential and small business environment. We’re benefiting from amazing technology, but the off switch is not always viable, or even not always there in the first place.

Solar panels are increasingly becoming a popular way to cut down on electrical bills, but they have no off switch. Fire fighters can’t detect live DC current and can’t stop the panels from working. Light hits the panel, DC comes out. If you smash the panel, you’ll get shocked. If you’re not careful removing the panel, you’ll get shocked. If you step on the panel and break it, you’ll get shocked. It’s a live system that we can’t currently neutralize, and a major thing for fire fighters is roof access to create vent holes, to say nothing of the electrical hazards.

Small businesses have similar problems. Consider a fabrication shop. There are going to be metals of all forms, chemical treatments, gas tanks with everything scary under the sun, and other bits of terror just lying in wait. Garages are about as bad, with gas, oils, and other readily flammable fluids everywhere, even giant tanks of oil-based compounds to be disposed of properly.

We’re living in a golden age of technology, but we’re also in a dangerous age. In many environments, we want and even assume everything will fail-safe. We can automatically open, lock up, and drench every flaming part of a building, but some areas are almost designed by nature to be dangerous in an emergency, no matter what precautions or devices we can invent.


Disarming a Live Problem

The best thing you can do for a fire fighter, if you are own one of these potentially dangerous buildings, is to provide thorough, detailed, and up to date documentation of what they’ll find inside and arrange your building to be as easily disarmed as possible. By that, we mean:

  1. If you have solar panels, provide multiple disconnects so at the very least, they won’t be putting electrical power into the building. If possible, don’t use roof-mounted solar at all.
  2. If you have a solar-heating system, ensure fire fighters know it’s not electrical, so they don’t put themselves at risk for nothing.
  3. Document the location of all chemicals, whether it’s paint or gas cylinders or raw stock like magnesium alloys. Keep this documentation available for fire fighters as soon as they arrive.
  4. If possible, store hazardous items where they can be easily removed. Don’t put your 12 hydrogen gas cylinders next to the furnace, keep them far from hazards and sufficiently easy to access that they can be removed if a fire spreads.

Remember that if things go wrong, the fire fighters won’t be seeing much inside the building. The smoke gets thick and all they see is darkness past their hands when things are good. When things are less good, it can be down to stumbling with some vague idea of the building’s outer walls in their head.

Some of these safety precautions are covered by local fire codes and laws on safe storage of hazardous materials, but in some areas those laws haven’t caught up or some building owners have never given thought to the fire safety aspects of their business. As always, think safe and stay safe with fire safety.


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