True Lab Stories: Fire Safety

Typing up the demolition story reminded me of another before-my-time NIST story. Again, the statute of limitations has run, so it’s probably safe to tell this.

As mentioned in the earlier post, it was very expensive to get the official facilities team at NIST to do construction work, so a lot of things used to be done on the cheap by people in the research group. Most of this was fairly harmless, but it occasionally got taken to extremes.

The worst example I know of had to do with a laser that the group acquired. Large-frame lasers draw rather a lot of power, and so usually require dedicated outlets. When they got this particular laser, though, for some reason– either it was too expensive, or it was going to take too long– they hooked it up themselves. By soldering it directly to the mains.

Predictably enough, this caught fire. That’s not the interesting story. The interesting part of the story is the reason why they didn’t get in trouble for wiring the laser directly to the mains and starting a fire.

As I heard it, everything was working more or less normally, when one of the guys in the lab started to smell smoke. Looking over at the wall where the electrical connections were, he saw, well, fire where the home-built laser connection was.

So, he grabbed the fire extinguisher, pulled the pin, pointed it at the fire, and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He looked at the gauge on the extinguisher, which showed a full charge. Squeezed the trigger again, nothing. Squeezed it harder, nothing.

(Meanwhile, one of the other guys on the project ran into the next lab, got a different fire extinguisher, and put the fire out.)

The fire department showed up, and were about to read them the riot act for creating a hugely unsafe situation, but there was the problem of the fire extinguisher. It turns out that the extinguisher was fully charged, all right, and had, in fact, been inspected only a week before. The nozzle at the end of the hose, however, didn’t actually have a hole in it– it was a solid metal plug. Which nobody had noticed while inspecting the extinguishers.

The fire safety office was mortified, and as a result, never really pushed the incident. Facilities were called in, and wired the laser up correctly, and every fire extinguisher at NIST was re-inspected to check the nozzles, and the whole incident was allowed to slip quietly into the past by mutual agreement.