New technology can make rescue work safer – Close collaboration is required between fire and rescue services, the industry, and researchers in order to develop new technology for use in case of underground fires. “Development is progressing rapidly – but we have to make sure the right things are prioritised”, two researchers at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden write.
Fire in an underground environment is a difficult challenge to face for both the local fire and rescue services and a private organisation. The greater the complexity of a facility, the better prepared everyone involved must be. At a complex facility, all of the various technological systems must work under all circumstances, and the margin for error is far less than for everyday accidents. There is a danger in complacently assuming that what has always worked before will continue to do so tomorrow.
We are happy to be able to contribute to the advancement of research in the field in collaboration with those who have the most need of the results – the fire and rescue services and the industry. We possess expert understanding of the development and propagation of fire and the capabilities of fire and rescue services, and this is complemented by the knowledge of the industry with regard to safety in mines and tunnels. As part of all five of our most recent large research projects on underground fires, both the business community and society in general have contributed with knowledge, involvement, and funding. This is however not enough. If we are to continue to build our cities and sub-surface infrastructure, and the mining industry is to continue to be one of our strongest industries north of the Dalälven river, we need to do more; we must work together.
The industry must continue to take responsibility and maintain its vigilance. Fire and rescue services need to develop tactics and methods for moving through a complex, multi-level underground facility and for efficiently extinguishing fires without putting firefighters at risk. Legislation must be adapted to such facilities, and to performed research and the reality in which we live today. We need to develop technology which supports rescue operations and which can eliminate the necessity for personnel to enter in person in order to extinguish a fire. We need to develop vehicles which do not burn and, if a fire nevertheless occur, protection systems which efficiently extinguish it.
This is, of course, no easy task. Nor is it possible to deal with within a single organisation; rather, it requires large-scale cooperation and team efforts. There is a good word for this – co-production with all partners involved. If we set out together towards a common goal, using a sustainable strategy, and prioritise the right things, we are bound to succeed. This means that research funding must be allocated and open to applications from universities and other research institutions. Research needs to be conducted in close co-production between those conducting the research and the end users – regardless of whether this group is constituted of fire and rescue services or the industry. Identifying relevant areas in the borderline between research and innovation requires both interdisciplinary collaboration and that we, as researchers, are able to communicate our results.
So, what have we accomplished so far, and what is left to do? Sweden is at the forefront of fire research in general, and world-leading in certain areas regarding fires in underground constructions. In Swedish hard rock mines fire spread is less difficult to handle than in other European coal mines, as the rock itself cools the smoke and the surface does not contribute to the propagation of fire.
The probability that a rescue chamber will heat up is low, but the smoke spread constitute a problem. At present, we possess relatively complete knowledge of how fires in mines start, and for how long a mining vehicle burns. There is, however, a discrepancy between recommendations, legislation, and reality. Four hours’ availability of fresh air in a rescue chamber is insufficient due to the fact that a combusting mining vehicle can burn in excess of this and, in such a scenario, it is far from certain that fire and rescue personnel will be able to reach the rescue chamber before the air is depleted. The industry, however, is well aware of this fact, and new regulations are in the process of being drawn up.
Another problem which requires a solution relates to keeping track of where vehicles, personnel and fire fighters are during a fire and rescue operation. A reliable positioning system contributes to the safety of both the personnel in the mine and the fire and rescue personnel. If we expect fire and rescue services to be able to continue to solve problems in buildings and facilities of ever-increasing complexity, innovative technological advancements are required. We need to achieve better knowledge transfer between robotics and fire & rescue, IR-imaging need to be better adjusted to fire & rescue in underground environments and expertise and technology better linked at all operational levels. In recent years, research has propelled us towards this goal, but we are not yet there. We know that due to the limitations of the present regulations and today’s technology, it is difficult to reach further than 2-300 metres into a smoke-filled tunnel, and that the response routes of many tunnels and systems exceed this distance.
The most obvious solution to this issue is, naturally, to avoid having to send in personnel, and to instead extinguish fires using advanced technological solutions. With the fire extinguished, the environment in the tunnel will improve and thus no longer expose miners and others to danger, in turn allowing fire and rescue services to allocate their resources to evacuating personnel. We are, however, not yet at this stage, and this is why there is a need to closely examine this part of the legislation, to ensure safe BA-operations (Breathing Apparatus) in facilities where they may be expected to advance further into a smoke-filled environment. The legislation regulating BA-operations is, at present, adapted to enclosure fires in normal buildings, rather than to complex subterranean facilities. That we have an occupational health and safety legislation which ensures a safe working environment for BA firefighters is excellent.
However, at present it is not possible to simultaneously adhere to the legislation, perform an effective rescue operation, and move far into a smoke-filled tunnel. In practice, it is impossible to practice for this kind of contingency, as it is prohibited; this does not, however, prevent the prohibited rescue operation from being attempted when the emergency nevertheless occurs, although it is then carried out without the proper training or preparations. Reconsidering legislation should not involve making conditions less safe, but rather making them at least as safe, if not safer, but by different measures. Different conditions require different methods.
There is a considerable difference between a fire in a hard rock or concrete tunnel and one in a building. In a tunnel, the surface layers are non-combustible and flashovers do not occur if there is a sufficient airflow. It may occur locally in a vehicle, but not in the environment of the tunnel itself. There are, of course, risks in a mine, but the depots and underground spaces in which these risks are greatest are almost always protected by a sprinkler system. In addition, sprinklers are required in larger mining vehicles, although only in the engine compartment. Methods for assessing the effectiveness of a sprinkler exist but are not always in full function, and there is at present no standard for vehicles operated underground.
Important research, development, and innovation are yet to be performed. ‘Research driven innovation’ is a beautiful term; the ambition is to make this a reality. Researchers are often experts at solving problems, but not always as interested in marketing the results – they are already on their way to solving the next exciting problem. In light of this, we believe that many research financiers are wise to involve the industry in certain kinds of projects. We need real collaborations, with real co-production, and with meetings between real people. Together we have the resources to solve these problems!
A rescue operation in a mine may be very complex. The picture shows a rescue attempt commissioned by the MSB in the Tist mine near Sala, Sweden.
This “New technology can make rescue work safer” article was written by Mia Kumm and published by Brandposten.