Potential Fire Protection Failures – ASSE Philadelphia Chapter – April 16, 2015

April 7, 2015
Why did this sprinkler head fail to operate in a fire?

Why did this sprinkler head fail to operate in a fire?

I will be presenting, “Potential Fire Protection Failures” at the Philadelphia Chapter of American Society of Safety Engineers’ luncheon meeting on April 16, 2015 at the Parx Casino East (Philadelphia Park Racetrack Building), 2999 Street Road, Bensalem, PA.

The pictured sprinkler head was in an actual fire. Unfortunately, it failed to operate. Why did this sprinkler head fail? What could have been done differently? How could an effective Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance program have prevented this failure?

Fire protection systems have a stellar performance record. Fire sprinklers are effective in 97% of fires in which they operate. What causes failure in the other 3%? See some of the factors which can compromise fire protection systems. The main focus of the topic is to show various parts of a fire protection system and explain why and how they may impact the proper operation of the system. The issues identified in the presentation are typically found in many industries and can be applied to the self inspection program at any facility. The talk will include examples of fire protection items which may be compromised. These items could be detected and identified by a well organized fire protection self inspection program.

On April 16 I will describe the events leading up to the fire this sprinkler head was to have controlled, why it the sprinkler head failed to operate, and the aftermath of the fire. I think you will be interested in what happened.

Additional details may be found at phila.asse.org.

I hope to see you there.

Fire Evacuation: Developing Situational Awareness

September 23, 2014

Fire Alarm Pull Station

The fire alarm sounds! What do I do? Well, first of all, it depends on where I am when the alarm sounds. If I am in a hotel and the alarm sounds in the middle of the night, my job is to evacuate via one of the routes I have previously scoped out. Every time I check into a hotel room, I scope out the evacuation routes. Yes, I am one of those guys who will ask the front desk associate where the stairs exit and I will many times walk the stairs to see exactly where they exit. If you have never done this, try it sometime. You may be surprised the response the front desk agent associate offers – and where you end up after walking the stairs, especially in an old hotel. In one hotel attended for a group meeting, a group of us walked the stairs and found ourselves in the basement, adjacent to the door of the main kitchen, and nowhere near an outside exit. The building was built prior to current-day life safety codes and is grandfathered in by the municipality. The lesson – don’t be surprised by the unexpected.

How about a theater or restaurant? I hope you scope out the exits when you go in – I do. So do many of my friends. It seems safety professionals and firefighters do this automatically – not a conscious effort, but a conditioned response to entering new surroundings. It is maintaining situational awareness. Emergency responders learn to do a quick size-up when entering a situation, and this provides a basis for future plan of action in the event of an emergency. The clues and cues noted during the initial size-up will help if an emergency does arise.

Based upon the initial size-up, clues, and cues, the experienced person will subconsciously anticipate what might happen in the next few minutes, hour, or next “period” of time. This level of situational awareness takes a long time to achieve – years of experience and repetitive assessments.

Many people do have such a sense of situational awareness in some areas of their life, but perhaps not other areas. For example, a new teenage automobile driver does not have the same situational awareness on the road as their parents, and must learn through experience and (hopefully) continued driver safety awareness and education. Auto insurance companies recognize this and respond with increased premiums for those under 25 years of age. To compound this lack of situational awareness, a newly licensed teen driver may not even realize or accept their lack of competence. They are not yet able to anticipate actions, reactions, and situations to which they may be forced to respond within the next few seconds. After a few close calls, a few surprising incidents, a few minor fender benders, they reach a realization that they have more to learn. This level of consciousness is the next step in becoming a good driver who can anticipate possible actions of others on the road. Eventually, after several years of practice, a level of unconscious situational awareness developes, and we can drive as if we are in “auto-pilot” mode. This is a state where we absorb clues and cues, process the information, and respond without so much as a conscious thought. Such as hitting brakes and swerving to avoid a collision.

This same development of situational awareness can also be applied to how we respond to a fire emergency. Transferring this situational awareness to a fire condition is not as easy as one might think. Most people do not respond to fires on a daily basis. Most people think they know what to do and will do the right thing in a fire emergency. Unfortunately, we do not always understand our shortcomings. Our lack of practice, knowledge, and awareness may lead to disastrous consequences.

Our place of business – where we work – where we spend almost a quarter of our working life, should be familiar territory. We enter our workplace as a matter of habit. Taking the same elevator to and from our floor, entering and leaving through the same doorway, taking lunch at the same cafeteria, and following the same route. We can become numb to our surroundings. We can go into “auto-pilot” mode. The “auto-pilot” mode should not be relied upon during an emergency. Our normal exit may be blocked and we may need to escape though an alternate exit at the other end of the building. If we do not possess a situational awareness of our surroundings, we may become confused, lost, and unaware of the appropriate response or action.

As managers and safety professionals, we must ensure that every employee is trained and educated in the proper course of action to take in the event of an emergency. The size of your workplace, the hazardous operations conducted, and hazardous materials handled should be part of your employee training. Every employee should understand the hazards which may create an emergency and know what actions they should take in the event an emergency arises. Every employee should understand the function and elements of your emergency action plan. They should understand the hazards, potential emergencies, emergency shutdown procedures, procedures for reporting an emergency, and activating the alarm system. Hazard communication is very important to educate employees in hazards, flammable liquids, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or other special hazards.

Evacuation plans should be practiced regularly. I prefer more than annual drills. A year is a long time to wait between training sessions. Training and educational sessions should be provided for all new employees; whenever an employee changes job tasks or departments; when to process changes or new hazards are introduced; when there is a change which alters the floor plan or evacuation routes; when the emergency response plan changes; and whenever management deems the time is appropriate to conduct an unscheduled drill. Encourage employees to develop a situational awareness mentality. Every employee should take a few seconds before every task to review and evaluate the hazards and anticipate undesired outcomes. After a while, every employee will begin to develop a situational awareness for their work tasks and work sites.

Emergencies happen. It is my opinion that every manager and every employee are responsible for the proper actions and response to prevent a catastrophe. Developing a comprehensive emergency action plan that deals with all types of issues specific to a work site is not difficult, expensive, or burdensome. Management and employees should come together to help safeguard each others’ safety and well being. Evacuation is only one part of an effective emergency response program.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – March 25, 1911

March 25, 2014
Coffins from Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire - Library of Congress. No known restrictions to publish

Coffins from Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Library of Congress. No known restrictions to publish

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred on March 25, 1911. Located in the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, 146 garment workers died – 123 women and 23 men. They died from fire, smoke inhalation, falling, or jumping to their deaths. 62 souls jumped or fell to their death in their struggle to escape the ravages of fire. The building owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris survived.

The doors to the stairwells were locked to prevent theft and workers leaving early. Housekeeping was atrocious. Linen scraps accumulated and filled the space under the tables; the scraps were not removed regularly – only when they could fit no more. There were no fire drills. There were no safety training sessions offered to employees. Most of the workers were immigrants, and most probably did not know about fire safety and proper evacuation.

The Asch Building was a commercial high rise building with other companies occupying lower floors. On the ninth floor, there were 278 sewing machines. Eight rows of machines running south to north, parallel to the Greene Street windows. Every row went right up to the Washington Street windows where the electrical power drove the machine drive shafts. Space was money – there was no free space on the floor. The number of workers in attendance on that Sabbath day is unclear, perhaps 250, mostly women and about three dozen men. Just imagine the crowded conditions, rows and rows of sewing machines, all lined up, one after another. On the eighth floor, a fire started in the cutting table area. The fire quickly traveled to the ninth floor. The building airshaft quickly funneled the flames upward and into the upper floor windows. Women were stacked up against the Greene Street door, unable to pass through the locked door. Across the floor, the Washington Street door was also locked shut. Finally they were able to get through the Greene Street door and many headed to the roof. Those on the ninth floor had to run through a wall of fire to get through the Greene Street Door. Those who hesitated and did not run through the fire perished.

The fire escape was of poor design and installation. The landings were improper. The ladders were too narrow. Window shutters opened outward and blocked the fire escape unless they were carefully folded back and positively hooked back against the wall. During construction the fire marshal identified flaws in the design and the architect promised to redesign the fire escape, but never did. The fire marshal and city inspectors never followed up, and the poor design was installed. With the weight of so many people, the fire escape pulled loose and collapsed, hurling many to their death.

Mr. Daniel Donahue, the chief dispatcher on duty was at the fire headquarters when box 289 was pulled at 4:45 pm. He noted the call was answered by many neighborhood fire stations. He noted the barrage of phone calls reporting the fire and the repeated pulls of the factory’s private fire alarm box. There was another fire in the neighborhood, but there was still adequate equipment and men to respond to the fire at the Asch Building. Engine Co. 72 was the first of eight wagons to immediate respond to the alarm within 90 seconds of the alarm. Engine Co. 18 with Captain Howard Ruch in command arrived within two minutes into Waverly Place from Greenwich Avenue. Captain Ruch looked up to see workers filling the windows of the ninth floor – people screaming for help! One particular shriek caught his attention, “I heard a shriek, and saw the people start to jump. And I ran to the apparatus and ordered the life net to the street.” Afterward, no one recalled a single person being saved by the nets.

Less than five minutes – probably more like about three minutes, was all the workers had to escape, jump, or die. It is said that cotton linen will burn explosively, quicker than paper. Add to that the lint, threads, and fibers which may have floated to land upon the upper fixtures as light as dust. Such light materials will ignite in a fireball, which is what the fire was like.

In the end, 146 garment workers died – 123 women and 23 men. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris stood trial for intentionally locking the doors and causing the deaths and injuries. The verdict vote was 8 to acquit, 2 to convict, and 2 abstains.

Blanck and Harris’ company followed a decline after the fire, going into oblivion by the end of World War I. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union became stronger and worked for more worker protections. In the end, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union purchased the headquarters of their old political foes, buying the headquarters building of Tammany Hall in August 1943.

Today, we should remember the senseless loss of those 146 lives, six of which are still unnamed. Also, the survivors for the memories they carried for the rest of their lives. The firefighters, who tried in vain to save those souls, but were unable. To the families of the victims, who carried on with a void in their hearts.

A very good book of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (from which the information for this post was derived) is “TRIANGLE The Fire That Changed America” : Von Drehle, David. TRIANGLE The Fire That Changed America. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2003.

Christmas 2012

December 14, 2012

Christmas 2012

ASSE Helps Provide Fire Prevention Training for Students

January 21, 2012
Campus Fire Safety

Campus Fire Training - Demo burn of a dorm room

Each year, college students are injured and killed in preventable campus-related fires. To prevent injuries and fatalities caused by fires that occur in college residence halls, off-campus housing and fraternity/sorority houses and to raise awareness about life-saving fire prevention knowledge as students head back to school, ASSE, West Virginia University (WVU), RA Fire Academy and the Morgantown Fire Department are providing key fire prevention information and demonstrations.

According to NFPA, from 2000 to the present, 146 students have died in a combination of off-campus, residence hall and fraternity/sorority fires. The majority of campus-related fatal fires occur in off-campus housing. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, of the 146 campus-related fire fatalities that occurred from January 2000 to the present, 85% happened off campus. Today, more than two-thirds of the U.S. student population lives in off-campus housing.

WVU’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) recognized the importance of having a strong, vibrant fire safety program. The RA Fire Academy evolved out of several training sessions the department offered for the students, campus community and local high schools in the area. By working collaboratively with various university departments, administrators, student staff and the Morgantown Fire Department, the RA Fire Academy was created. Some form of this fire safety training has been offered since 2003 to students in the campus community. WVU EH&S envisions offering this fire academy training to all first-year students.

All student RAs are required to participate in the RA Fire Academy in a variety of hands-on training scenarios. The RAs then share the information they learn with the students on their respective floors. Activities include:

•  smoke-filled hallway

•  hands-on fire extinguisher training

•  quizdom training

•  movie/lecture

•  competition games [Skeet Shoot Frisbee (shoot Frisbee from the air) and Medicine Ball Push (push ball with fire hose to a designated distance)]

•  live burn (A mock dormitory room is constructed with the appropriate early warning fire protection. The room is then set ablaze. Students observe how quickly a room is engulfed with smoke and flames; and, they learn the importance of smoke detectors, evacuation and sprinkler systems. Additionally, the importance of using open flames with caution is discussed.).

Each RA rotates through each training station. The training culminates in the sixth station where a dorm room mockup is lit, and students are able to see just how quickly a dorm room fire can spread. The overall goal is to provide each RA a rounded training session.

The RA Fire Academy is intended to provide student leaders with the necessary knowledge and skills to better enable them to assist others in the event of an actual fire emergency on campus. The goal is to give them some real life hands-on experience in a safe and controlled setting so if they are ever faced with a real fire emergency, they will have the confidence to make the right decisions in a quick, calm way and hopefully save lives.

See the article by John A. Principe III CSP, CHCM & Walter S. Beattie, CSP, CFPS, CSHM: ASSE Helps Provide Fire Prevention Training for Students

Fire Protection articles have been added

August 10, 2010

Hello,  I have added several articles on the ARTICLES page of this blog. Each of these was published in ASSE publications, including Professional Safety, Fireline, and The Monitor. Please feel free to take a look. Your comments are appreciated. – Walt