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Anatomy of a fire

Fire never just burns. It rips and tears and blazes and guts. At least it did in the rash of headlines which accompanied Monday’s reports of the serious fire in our Biomedical Sciences Building on Sunday evening. With hindsight, the headline writers had a point.

The fire itself was confined to a small section of BMS, just a handful of rooms on the second, third and fourth floors – but it was the thousands of gallons of water used to extinguish the outbreak whose effects mean St Andrews has lost one of its most significant research buildings for a period of up to a year, perhaps considerably longer.

The fire managed to displace Brexit, for a few hours at least, closed the main road into St Andrews, needed 30 firefighters to bring it under control, and in a few short minutes had spawned one of the most complex and significant challenges our university will face this century.

It began on the third floor of BMS late on Sunday afternoon when a routine post-experiment wash-up went wrong. Colleagues followed safety procedures to the letter – a fire blanket was used immediately to try to extinguish the first flames in room 305, and when that failed they raised the alarm and evacuated.

The fire brigade, who had been given full details of the nature of the outbreak and its exact location by the evacuees, were on scene within minutes.

Despite the speed of response, it was to take several hours to bring the fire under control.

The University’s major incident protocol was activated and the cafeteria in the Medical Building quickly became incident HQ. Smoke which had funneled through the air vents on the roof of BMS blanketed a windless North Haugh, while the University’s first-responders faced the inevitable fog of confusion in the early stages of the crisis.

Was there anyone still in the building? Would the quantities of chemicals in BMS pose a public health risk? Would we have to evacuate neighbouring buildings, including some of our biggest student residences? Where do you put hundreds of cold, displaced students on a winter’s night at short notice?

Confirming the safety of everyone in the BMS building was the top priority. The team worked through swipe card logs, checking names against a staff/student database and calling home numbers and mobiles for confirmation. Where a phone went unanswered, our security staff would go to that person’s home, knocking on doors to make contact.

Meanwhile, knots of students and public formed close to the perimeter to watch the flames, despite warnings via the media that hazardous chemicals may be involved. Wardens were called to incident HQ, briefed and asked to tell students to return to their residences, and to keep windows closed. Some of those wardens then returned voluntarily to incident HQ to join the team calling mobiles and home numbers.

The swipe entry log sheets were cleared shortly before midnight – the strongest reassurance, short of a physical inspection of the burning building, that there had been no injury or loss of life.

An industrial consignment of burgers and chips arrived from Blackhorn, courtesy of the Director of Estates, while colleagues in RBS turned up with tea, coffee, water and more biscuits than was decent.

As Sunday slipped into Monday, the fire brigade announced the blaze had been extinguished and infra-red monitoring had revealed no significant hot spots. Concern lingered about the effects of chemical contamination however, and air quality monitoring and water sampling were carried out urgently. By 1.30am the brigade had confirmed no significant air quality issues.

The University trains for days like this. The teams who worked together on Sunday night – Estates, RBS, Communications, EHSS, Planning, IT Services, the Principal’s Office, Student Services and staff from Chemistry and Biology – are equipped by practice and previous experience to deal with the first fast-moving hours of a crisis.

In our midst however, senior academic colleagues from the Schools of Biology and Chemistry – who share the BMS Building – were turning increasingly concerned thoughts to the hours ahead.

Built in the late 90s as a new model for interdisciplinary research, the four-storey BMS building houses labs conducting medically focused research in organic and synthetic chemistry, virology and microbiology. BMS is known as a centre of excellence addressing issues such as antibiotic resistance and infectious disease.

Its precious biological source material – central to all of that research – is kept in large freezers which maintain temperature at a constant minus 80.

If power to the building had been lost in the fire and flood, the freezers would quickly start to defrost.

Losing the freezers would mean losing the careers and futures of many of the 100 staff and postgraduate students who work in BMS. That simple.

Manufacturers estimated we had a maximum of 20 hours from loss of power to the point that rising temperatures would degrade the contents.

By 9am on Monday – 16 hours after the fire started – any relief we had felt at confirming no loss of life and the extinguishment of the fire was supplanted by the knowledge that we were in a race against the clock to rescue careers and a body of research whose loss would have been felt far, far beyond St Andrews.

Inside BMS, while the compartment design of the building had restricted the fire to just a few rooms, the vast quantities of water forced through the windows on Sunday evening had affected every level.

Monday midday and water was still pouring down the stairwells. Floors and electric cables lay under inches of water. Just getting in to the building safely was a challenge.

At 2.40pm, the fire brigade and our Estates colleagues cut all power to the building to limit the risk of electrocution.

A systematic rescue operation began. Academic colleagues kitted out in protective clothing, accompanied by EHSS and Estates staff and assisted by the fire brigade, were able to enter the building to start recovering the minus 80 freezers, moving them along corridors and to safety via the BMS exits to the Purdie Building.

Over the course of many hours, these teams recovered the vast majority of BMS refrigerated storage capacity, and with it the careers and the research critical to so many strands of microbiological and biomedical understanding.

The highest temperature found in any of the large freezers was minus 79. The relief felt at the success of this operation has however been tempered by the knowledge that not everything could be saved, and for some of our colleagues the fire will have been career limiting.

We are barely five days in from the outbreak. Our insurers have described the University’s response to the crisis thus far as “textbook”, a view which owes much to detailed ongoing management of the incident by senior colleagues in Estates.

Offers of practical help and moral support have been made to Chemistry and Biology by colleagues across St Andrews, and indeed from around the world. The collegial nature of the response has been instinctive, and in itself has played a key part in addressing the threat to morale.

While a huge amount has been achieved in a very short space of time, the tasks ahead of us as an institution and a community are daunting, complex and considerable. But they are achieveable.

BMS is extensively water damaged and will be out of action for at least a year, more likely longer. Options are being explored urgently to allow researchers to get back to fully equipped benches, with everything they require to continue their work, as soon as possible. BMS has been central to our identity as a research-intensive university for two decades.

The Principal and Quaestor will address a joint meeting of the Schools of Biology and Chemistry this afternoon to listen to concerns and questions, underline St Andrews’ commitment to restore what we had and discuss the options we are already looking at for providing timely access to lab facilities and equipment.

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12 thoughts on "Anatomy of a fire"

  1. Sandy says:

    which over-excited fresher taking English and Comp Lit wrote this?

    1. Rachael says:

      I disagree, I thought it was an excellently-written, fascinating and moving article!

  2. Dave says:

    Hopefully when the repairs to the building are planned careful consideration will be given to the installation of automatic fire suppression systems. With regard to the water damage at least most things that get wet can be dried and recovered things that burn cannot. Hopefully the lessons will be learnt.

    1. Sam says:

      Your response is very reasonable. In fact, when I was a researcher at a large U.S. university, I asked the Environmental Health and Safety officer why our building didn’t have automated sprinklers (the exhaust fume hoods do actually have automatic powder extinguishers but those only work for fires that are small-to-moderate and are contained in the fume hood. That’s why most work is supposed to be done in the fume hoods.) The safety officer gave me several good reasons. First, because many flammable solvents float on water, automatic sprinklers in a chemistry lab can actually spread a fire without extinguishing it. Second, in a chemistry lab, you have reagents that will ignite when sprayed with water, starting new, hard to extinguish fires. Third, automatic sprinklers can wash potentially dangerous/toxic combinations of chemicals into the drainage system. All of those reasons suggest that you don’t want an automatic system to kick in unless you already have a massive fire, at which point automatic systems wouldn’t be sufficient anyways. Hopefully this answers others have have a similar question or comment.

      1. Dave says:

        Sam thank you for your thoughts, I was careful to say that consideration be given to automatic fire suppression, this is far wider than just sprinklers, it covers a multitude of extinguishing media that can be tailored to specific risks. The article points out the concerns about loss of valuable materials, ending careers and affecting a wide research community, it is for these reasons that higher levels of protection are worthy of serious discussion, let’s hope the opportunity to protect the research future of St Andrews is not missed. If a system had been present the story would in all probability been of a few days loss of work in one lab with minimal damage else where. What cost will be assigned to the loss of use of the facilities for a year?

        1. My sympathies to the St. Andrews family.

          As a fire marshal for a research university, I can say that sprinkler protection in laboratories is a worthwhile trade-off. The concerns listed above (spreading pool fire, water-reactives, and off-site contamination) are largely mitigated by the small quantities we expect in labs.

          While it is true that solvent floats on water, water from above passes through flames and cools them dramatically. By itself, this might extinguish the fire. Also, water has tremendous heat capacity, which cools the solvent pool from below and reduces vaporization (the vapor being what burns, not the liquid). If the solvent quantity is low enough, and the water pool large enough, the spread itself extinguishes the fire for lack of fuel. Water-reactives in labs should a) be in closed containers to prevent reaction with atmospheric air, and b) in limited quantities such as to make secondary reactions small. Even so, the secondary reaction will be over by the time the first responders arrive. Though we might at first worry about off-site contamination, a sprinkler will flow something like twenty five gallons a minute (at most), and much of that will stay inside the building. Most of the contamination in the water will stay with the pooled water (because most of the water will pool, instead of sticking to surfaces), so will be collected as part of the cleanup.

          The primary function of the sprinkler is to control fire and minimize losses. If the sprinkler controls, or even extinguishes, the fire, there is no need for firefighter hose streams at 1,500 gpm knocking down a large fire.

          There is a trade-off between burned, wet, and dirty. We have often found it easier to dry and/or clean things than to un-burn them. This is so true that new US labs are required by both prevalent fire code families (ICC and NFPA) to have sprinklers installed.

          In my own experience, a single sprinkler contained and extinguished a lab fire that might have been on the scale of the St. Andrews event, but instead resulted in a very short shutdown for all but the fire area, which was back in service in three months. Still big, still wet, still dirty – but very short, for a fire recovery.

  3. Automatic fire suppression systems as selected by many leading UK Universities and research facilities would have contained the fire event to the localised area of the fume hood, given of course that the protocols on site were to conduct all hazardous activities inside fume hoods.

    Systems like you can see in the above link can deal with fire events locally and at source preventing spread to the wider building without the need for sprinkler or full room fire suppression systems. We would be pleased to engage with you on the topic and offer our best advice.
    Simon Rollason, Jactone Products Ltd

  4. Gary Bartley says:

    One of my colleagues and I were wondering, does anyone know what the fundamental cause of the fire was from the workup? We are synthetic organic chemists and have done MANY varied reaction workups throughout our careers, and so wanted to know if a cause might have been, for example, a solvent (such as ether) getting lit from a spark, an exothermic quenching of a reagent, or what . . . ?

    1. Niall Scott says:

      Dear Gary

      There has been an investigation and the precise cause is very difficult to determine. What we do know is that somehow an isopropanol base bath ignited, possibly through an exothermic reaction on quenching of a reagent. The actual reagent is unknown. Obviously most of the evidence of what was there is gone and so we will probably never know the exact cause. What we can say is that the students in the laboratory did a great job in containing as much of the fire as they did before evacuating the building.

      1. Gary Bartley says:

        Thank you for the new and additional information Niall Scott. I really appreciate it. In my experience I have come to observe that isopropanol baths (typically KOH/isopropanol) can be more of a liability than an asset. This is not only from a flammability perspective, as in your case unfortunately, but also from a splash / exposure / PPE hazard standpoint as well. When glassware gets to a point where it needs to be cleaned by a base bath, in industry, it should be typically discarded and replaced with new. Perhaps depending on the specific University’s particular situation, this same practice in academia may make sense as well to likewise reduce these same risks.

  5. flygyumri says:

    Fire is a chemical reaction between oxygen molecules and some kind of fuel. This reaction releases the heat and light that we call fire.  You might wonder how a chemical reaction like this turns into the colorful flame you see dancing on a candle. What are flames made of?

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