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Fire Protection at the Speed of Light

The proximity of large, powerful minds to large, powerful animals makes perfect sense, as you’ll learn during your tour of the laboratory on June 6, part of the pre-conference events at this year’s NFPA Conference & Expo in Chicago . The common denominator between fauna and physicists is a focus on the frontier: the bison are part of a re-creation of the American prairie that is under cultivation on Fermilab’s 6,800-acre National Environmental Research Park, while the big brains explore the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The combination is no accident, and is part of the facility’s commitment to understanding and preserving the world that it seeks to explore.

Located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Chicago in Batavia, Illinois, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory boasts the world’s second-most-powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron, which is housed in a tunnel about 30 feet (9 meters) beneath the restored prairie. The facility also includes seven smaller accelerators. The Tevatron streams protons and antiprotons at just under light speed, and the particles collide in the center of two 5,000-ton detectors. In addition to new quark discoveries that have enriched the field of particle physics, Fermilab scientists have also gathered information that is helping them understand astronomical data, and that has even led to new approaches to fighting cancer—the facility now includes a cancer patient treatment center.

Conducting experiments on the tiniest of particles ironically means scientists must use some extraordinarily large pieces of equipment. The circular particle accelerator, for example, is 4 miles (6 kilometers) in circumference, and the super-magnet-equipped colliders are four stories high. The length of wiring at Fermilab is in the millions of feet. In one year the laboratory generates a pentabyte (1 million gigabytes) of data—enough to fill 500 million diskettes.

The Fermilab visit is one of two day-long, pre-conference, "behind-the-scenes" tours offered on June 6. You can also tour the corporate campus of Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) in Northbrook, Illinois. There, you can observe a large-scale fire test involving a warehouse rack configuration and sprinkler system within UL’s state-of-the-art fire safety engineering testing laboratory, the largest of its kind in the world. You can also see how various building materials, fire alarm systems, and sprinkler systems are tested and certified to applicable safety standards. The visit also includes a tour of UL’s one-of-a-kind Traveling Safety Exhibit, a mobile safety vehicle designed to promote safety awareness, and you can participate in a presentation by UL fire safety engineers and regulatory staff on applicable fire codes as they relate to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems; NFPA 20, Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection; and NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®.

Antimatter and fire safety
The Fermilab tour begins with a presentation on the laboratory’s fire protection and an overview of the physics research conducted at the facility. You’ll visit the research facilities, including several detector buildings, the main control room, and the remote operations center Fermilab uses in its partnership with the world’s most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Geneva, Switzerland-based CERN Laboratory—the acronym is for Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Council of Nuclear Research.
Fire protection for Fermilab’s 300 buildings and 10 miles (16 kilometers) of tunnels is led by Dr. James Priest, senior fire protection engineer for the facility. "It’s fun here," he says. "You have some of the standard aspects of the work, but I get involved with the things that the physicists are doing… the experiments can be above ground or below ground, there are high-energy sources, and there are matter and antimatter bombardment protons."

Priest, the fire protection staff, and the fire department are also charged with making sure the critical output of Fermilab, the data that result from any experiment, is fire-safe. This effort includes two customized safety systems: robots to retrieve data tape, and in-rack smoke detectors, equipped with automatic computer power supply shutoffs, for use in electronic racks, as well as in the gaseous suppression systems in the data centers.
Among the more volatile substances the lab deals with are hydrogen gas, special mixes of flammable gases, and the hydrofluoric acid used to etch semiconductor wafers. With such a range of potential hazards, the issue of suppression is a complex one. "We probably have one of every kind of suppression system there is," Priest adds. "And we develop suppression systems that are unique and cutting-edge, because the experiments are unique and subject to high radiation levels."

Priest, along with the Facility Engineering group and outside consultants, reviews each experiment and its facility as it goes through Fermilab’s submission process to see if they require additional detection and suppression systems, special noncombustible materials, or shutoffs, and how particular research projects should be supervised. "You really have to listen to what the physicists’ goals are, how they are building their project, and what their needs are," he says of the review process. "You first look at it from the life safety viewpoint: how will this experiment operate, and if this project had a fire, how would the fire affect the program?"

While scientists test their theories, Priest makes sure life safety comes first. "We don’t want anybody getting hurt," he says. "When you build something that’s unique and you have a problem with it—a fire—it’s shut down for months, or years, for investigation. We have a lot of graduate students that work here who are counting on getting their PhDs from being involved in this research."

Priest recalls his review of a project called NOvA—the acronym stands for "NuMI Off-Axis ve Appearance," in which NuMI refers to "Neutrinos at Main Injector Accelerator at Fermilab"; it all has to do with studying how neutrinos change types over long distances—and how the scientists busied themselves formulating and gluing their own PVC tubes, which would be filled with a mineral oil mixture. "I kept trying to burn this stuff to see if, structurally, it would withstand the pressure of the mineral oil in the tubes, if it could withstand the test environment, and how long it would last if it was exposed to some type of fire," Priest says. "The PVC actually never burned, but there would be deformity. [The scientists] kept trying to add alumina to try to make it more structurally safe."

Protons & people
Emergency planning is also a key consideration for Fermilab. Roughly 3,000 scientists pass through the facility each year, and at any given time a few dozen reside at the small on-site village that includes a recreation center and pool. Fermilab is also open to the public, and hosts a large number of visitors that attends outdoor concerts and presentations at the facility’s auditorium, or tours the hands-on children’s science education center.

"We have extensive emergency planning—we have our own fire department, and the reason for that is they have to be trained to go into the site’s few radioactive areas," says Priest. "Anything you take out of these areas is going to be considered radioactive waste and must be disposed of properly."

Fermilab’s 19-member fire department plays a key role in new construction on the site, as well as in projects the lab undertakes. The fire department reviews construction and project plans to determine if it will need additional equipment or training. "When we do an experiment or start up an experiment, they do a walkthrough per shift, so that they understand what’s going on in the facility and where there are any special shutoffs for gas or power," Priest says. "They have to deal with cryogenics, radiation exposure, radiation incidents, decontamination, and hazmat. They have special air packs if they have to do a tunnel rescue. Just in our regular beam tunnels, there are ultra-high voltage, cryogenics, and radioactive materials. They are really a unique fire department."

Not all of its preparation is for exotic fires. Fermilab firefighters must also be prepared for civilian fires started by inattentive cooking and electrical incidents in the residential area, and they also provide emergency support to surrounding communities. The fire department works in an urban environment that includes a 16-story high-rise, as well as in an outdoor environment; as a National Environmental Research Park, Fermilab conducts annual burns of its prairie ecosystem. 

One thing Fermilab’s fire protection specialists can be certain of is that the facility will continue to throw new challenges their way—and one of the latest proposals is even named "Project X," which has to do with creating an intense proton source for beams used in experiments. Priest is still figuring out what Project X could mean for his fire protection staff. Whatever the challenge, they will have to continue to match the ferocious creativity of the scientific minds that populate Fermilab.

And, just maybe, chase down the odd stray bison. "There probably is an emergency plan for an escaped buffalo," says Priest



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