Firefighters encounter many risks while on duty, including hazardous materials and high pressure bottles. High pressure bottles are used for a variety of purposes in firefighting, including powering hydraulic tools and providing breathing air. However, if not handled properly, they can pose serious dangers to firefighters and those nearby. Therefore, it’s essential that firefighters understand how to approach and handle high pressure bottles safely.
In this blog post, we’ll cover the proper techniques for approaching and handling high pressure bottles, as well as the potential risks associated with them. We’ll also discuss best practices for handling high pressure bottles in emergency situations, such as gas leaks or fires. By the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of how to approach high pressure bottles safely, and what steps to take in case of an emergency.
Risks Associated with High Pressure Bottles
High pressure bottles / cylinders pose dangers simply by their design. They are designed to compress large amounts of air into a tiny space. Which is why the government identifies all such cylinders as compressed gas cylinders and has codes and regulations identifying them as a hazardous material. If controlled by a regulator the release of this gas is safe and effective. However, if the bottle / cylinder were to rupture, they have the potential energy of a hand grenade (or two). The exact amount of explosive force is determined by the volume, pressure and rate of release.
Cylinders are manufactured to very high standards, designed to prevent any unexpected release of their contents. However, if the cylinder or valve is damaged, the user can no longer expect it to operate safely. The user must be aware of the risks associated with high pressure bottles / cylinders. Preventing and being able to locate damage is vital to any user of a high pressure gas cylinder. Each type of Bottle / Cylinder, steel, aluminum or composite, has their own limitations. Aluminum is a softer metal subject to gouging. Steel around moisture corrodes at an acerated rate. And any damage to the composite fiber, or exposure to a chemical could weaken a composite cylinder. Learning how to measure and identify each type of damage is critical for the user.
Proper Approach to High Pressure Bottles
Before the use of any cylinder the user should give it an external cursory examination. If they locate any unusual dents, dings, scratches or chemical exposure, they should not use the high pressure bottle or cylinder until it has a full inspection. In addition to the external inspection of the bottle / cylinder the user should also check the valve for proper operation and read any attached pressure gauges. Monitoring the pressure gauge may indicate an unexpected leak.
Damage to a high-pressure cylinder generally occurs when it is abused or not stored safely. Abuse could be considered when a cylinder is not secured and falls over. Depending on the size of cylinder, and area of impact, the cylinder may get dented, or the valve may shear off. Simply securing each unused cylinder can prevent a serious incident. Other things to consider include unexpected moisture in the storage area or, if using a rack, an exposed bolt. Excess water in an area may accelerate exterior corrosion on a cylinder sitting in the water. An exposed bolt may cause a scrape or gouge on the side wall of the cylinder when placing it within the rack. Training cylinder users in proper storage techniques can go a long way in keeping a facility safe.
When approaching a bottle / cylinder always use caution. If it used in normal day to day operations such as in public safety, the cylinder will only require a quick external cursory inspection prior to use. However, if the firefighter or emergency service personnel comes across a cylinder during an incident, take extra caution.
An example would be a house fire involving an oxygen cylinder within the structure. House fires create temperatures well above 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. An aluminum oxygen cylinder begins to weaken between 150 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit. When the public safety personnel enter the structure during or after the fire, and locate an oxygen bottle, they should consider it an explosive hazard. The Public Safety personal will not know if the cylinder contains a compressed gas, if the cylinder has been weakened by the heat or if the burst disc activated as designed. Use EXTREME caution and don’t step on the cylinder. Treat any cylinder found in such an environment as an explosive risk.
Issues may come up in normal operations, such as filling a compressed gas cylinder. During the filling process the burst disk may activate without warning. The unexpected release of the gas may cause damage to the skin, if the fill station technician is too close to the burst disc. The sudden release of gases also causes a high pitch noise at decibels well above a safe level for the human ear. Simple safety precautions can keep the fill station technician safe. Don’t hold on to a valve with a hand, or be too near while the cylinder is filling. If the burst were to rupture, and create a high decibel sound, have a towel nearby to throw over the cylinder. Simply placing a towel over the cylinder valve will reduce the decibel levels considerably.