Fire

How do you solve a problem like ... acetylene? In this special report, FIRE asks how can the economic impact and disruption caused by acetylene incidents be minimised while not increasing the risk to the emergency services which have to deal with the management of the incident.(Operational Assurance)

IN 1987, A FIREFIGHTER attending an incident in a quarry in rural Oxfordshire attempted to lift an acetylene cylinder that had been involved in the fire when it exploded, injuring him so severely that he died a few hours later. The implications for the Fire and Rescue Service were immense and measures were rapidly put in place to help reduce the risk of that tragedy occurring again.

Recent events, including the mass disruption of transport systems and paralysis of major cities since the introduction of revised operational procedures in 2003 have led to questioning the economic and operational viability of continuing with such measures. With momentum building from the compressed gases industry and the media for a perceived rationalisation of procedures, the Fire and Rescue Service is in the middle of a controversy that at the moment seems insoluble.

How can the economic impact and disruption caused by acetylene incidents be minimised while not increasing the risk to the emergency services which have to deal with the management of the incident?

Spiralling Cost of Disruption

The cost of these incidents and the thousands of other fires where initial reports have led fire crews to assume acetylene is involved is almost unquantifiable. Last year's closure of the M25 and Kings Cross station (for 48 hours), will have cost London and the UK as a whole millions of pounds.

A study carried out by Transport for London looked at 11 incidents that occurred on the underground between 1999 and 2006. The total cost of these incidents was 6.8 million [pounds sterling]. According to London Fire Commissioner Sir Ken Knight: "Decisive action must be taken by the industry and by the authorities to limit the impact of these incidents before lives are lost."

Acetylene as all firefighters should know is a relatively simple substance--each molecule consisting of two carbon atoms and two hydrogen atoms--but under great internal tension. This tension makes it one of the less stable molecules. To make it suitable for use the gas is dissolved in acetone and held within an inert substance or porous mass which acts as a stabiliser.

In a fire the heat impinging on the shell of the cylinder may cause the porous mass to disintegrate which will in turn form voids which will allow the acetylene to decompose and cause distortion or rupture of the cylinder. …

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