Science at Its Worst

Issue 7 and Volume 11.

Laboratory fires and spills can present significant challenges to firefighters. There are a wide variety of laboratories including research laboratories for any variety of products or materials, quality laboratories that test/validate the quality of a product and raw materials that go into that product, and healthcare laboratories that perform testing on specimens to help make diagnoses or provide other information on patient samples. There are other types of laboratories as well. In particular, research laboratories can present a wealth of unknown or slightly known hazards because the work they perform is “bleeding edge.” In this work, risks can be high, but the rewards can be high as well. Scale-up labs take small experimental processes and turn them into small- to medium-scale products, but in this environment the process is still being tinkered with and subject to things going wrong.

I’ve worked with labs that perform drug discovery work, and some of the experiments they work on can last for three years, and potentially at the end of that time a product may be developed that could bring in more than $1 billion in revenue per year. Any interruption to that research could result in their restarting at day one, with very high potential revenue losses that cannot be insured. On the other hand, knocking a quality or validation lab out of service can also cause a production facility to grind to a halt until it is able to get that capability back online.

Laboratory Hazards

Many types of hazards may be present, depending on the science that is being performed in the laboratory; this may include chemical, biological, radioactive, and others. Understanding what is in the lab to start with will go a long way toward fostering a safe and effective response and protecting people and the vital work that occurs in the lab, while an uninformed response may result in unnecessary hazards to firefighters and lab occupants as well as damage or loss of critical research. Where are the labs in your coverage area? What type of work do they do, and what hazards does this work present when an incident occurs? What safety precautions must be taken to handle an incident in these facilities? If something occurs in these labs, is it even necessary to take an “offensive” approach to an incident, or is an isolate-and-deny-entry strategy more appropriate until the situation stabilizes? These are all questions that should be known and studied in advance to provide the best possible service to these facilities.

Depending on their function, laboratories can have a wide range of hazards present. Research may work on developing new chemicals or new and improved products related to whatever the company does, working with blood or other body fluids, or using radioactive isotopes. Some research may not involve chemicals but may work with lasers or other sophisticated electronic equipment. Corrosive and flammable liquids may be common, and some labs manage them well while others have lots of containers out in the open. Although chemicals often come in four-liter sizes (a bit more than a gallon), it may not be unusual to see some labs using chemicals in 55-gallon drums. Metal containers known as pressurized liquid dispensing containers, which resemble a beer keg, may be used and come in various sizes up to almost 55 gallons. These containers are pressured with a nitrogen blanket, which allows the contents to be dispensed on demand. The containers are metal and robust but present an unusual fire load in a laboratory.


Lab environments can contain a wide variety of flammable, corrosive, and toxic materials. Various gases may be present, with less hazardous gases such as nitrogen, helium, and natural gas being among the most common, with the possibility of more exotic gases such as hydrogen chloride and cyanide also present. Cylinders can be a variety of different sizes, from tank sizes we are used to seeing that can be four feet tall down to “lecture bottle” sized containers that aren’t much larger than an aerosol can. These smaller size cylinders can often contain more exotic/hazardous gases. If the call is for one of these cylinders leaking, there is a good likelihood that the leak will be finished before first responders even arrive. There may also be larger “dewars” of nitrogen or other cryogenic gases.1

Hydrogenation areas may be present using hydrogen gas, which is very difficult to see when it is burning and is one of only a few flammable gases that are lighter than air. Lab chemical/gas storage areas can present multiple hazards providing significant challenges during a response. It will be important to quickly gain as much information as possible about the area prior to initiating a fire attack, and the use of gas meters and thermal imagers as part of size-up will be crucial.

Labs may also contain biohazards, and often labs working with chemicals will be separate from biohazard labs, although this may not always be true. Biohazards are often designed to be worked on in containment areas but if released many biohazards do not live long in general environments. This is particularly true if sprinklers have discharged, as many dangerous biologic agents cannot survive without specific temperature and other environmental conditions. However, remember that labs are doing research often on newly discovered things for which safety information may not even be determined yet. In a fire situation, protect yourself with full turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) as well as the same fluid precautions you would take on an emergency medical services call. If no victims are in the hot zone, it may be best to isolate the area until the Planning Section can provide more details on an action plan.

Equipment and Tools

Equipment that presents high magnetic fields, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), may be present in labs. The magnetic field extends around the equipment including over it and potentially extending above the roof. Any ferrous metal equipment can be drawn to this equipment with great-even dangerous-force. Think about all of the metal tools and equipment that you carry and use. NMR equipment utilizes both liquid helium and liquid nitrogen to supercool the equipment. In a quench situation involving this equipment, the liquid nitrogen may relieve into the room, resulting in a rapid cloud of condensation that not only creates vision problems but reduces the oxygen concentration in the room. A sudden change in the magnetic field, such as an ax carried by a firefighter who enters the field, can result in the ax being pulled into and then causing the unit to quench. Be on the lookout for signage indicating “Magnetic Field” or “No Metal Objects in This Room.”

Lab equipment continues to become more sophisticated and expensive. Robotic equipment may be used that is designed to handle delicate, repetitive, and/or very hazardous research. The robotic equipment may turn on and begin to work at any time and often may be monitored and controlled by scientists remotely. This equipment is usually highly susceptible to water damage and should be covered or otherwise protected against firefighting water.

To help firefighters plan and respond to lab incidents, there are a variety of tools available. First and foremost, information is supposed to be readily available at the lab facility about the chemicals/biohazards that are present. This includes safety data sheets (SDSs) or biological safety data sheets, which are similar to SDSs but are applicable to biological agents. These sheets will provide some information about the hazards present, but often there will be many chemicals present in a laboratory and it isn’t easy to quickly understand what is going on when multiple chemicals are involved in the incident.

Chemicals that are being developed may have limited to no safety information available about them as the separate testing needed to develop that safety information hasn’t been performed yet. They may be able to be generally classified as to what hazards the chemical may have but detailed information has yet to be developed. For established chemicals, there are plenty of reference tools available both in hard copy and in smart-device apps such as the WISER tool. Check for warning and information signage at the entrance to the lab, but unfortunately some labs do not maintain these hazard warnings up-to-date.


Animals may be found in some lab environments. They may include anything from fish to frogs, rats or mice, and primates. These are likely not tame, domesticated pets and should be treated as such. Labs may perform surgery on animals, and tactics for these areas would be similar to tactics for hospital operating rooms. Beware of oxygen, flammable anesthetic gas, and other hazards. You may need to secure and ventilate these areas quickly to allow animal handlers access to the sedated animal. These areas normally have numerous security measures in place to contain the animals. Be sure you are aware of where these areas are, how the security works, and what firefighters should do when responding to these areas.

Fire Suppression

Many labs have fire suppression systems that can contain or extinguish fires, controlling damage to the lab and protecting adjacent areas. Firefighters must understand how the systems work and ways that they can help the systems to function optimally when needed. Commonly, but not always, laboratories are provided with sprinkler protection. Often it may be a wet pipe system, but preaction sprinkler systems may also be used.2 Understand how to shut the sprinkler valves down and drain the system once the fire is extinguished so that you can reduce collateral water damage.

Some labs may be protected by specialty suppression systems such as gaseous clean agent systems, dry chemical systems, water mist systems, or others. Each is intended to flood a specific area with a suppression agent, be it gas, dry chemical, or water. They may protect an entire room or be limited to protect specific hazards in the room, such as the inside of fume hoods. In each case, it is important to know how the system is supposed to work and allow the system to do its job. For example, gas systems usually require the protected space to remain closed up for a period of time (often 10 minutes) to allow the extinguishing agent to provide an environment where it can snuff out the fire. Opening a door to the room prematurely can disturb the protection and allow the fire to grow. When entering areas protected by these types of systems during an incident, the use of breathing apparatus is paramount until the atmosphere has been tested to verify that it is safe to breathe. Figure out where the systems are and how they work before they activate at an incident.

In spill or release situations, the lab may have its own response personnel or you will need to have hazardous materials response resources rolling to assist you. Depending on the incident and the lab, the best tactic might be simply to ensure that the doors to the lab stay closed, size up the situation through windows to the lab, isolate the area, and stand by on the perimeter until more information is available and additional planning can be done to understand the hazards and implement a strategic attack.


Firefighters must be ready to stretch lines into a lab building to extinguish a fire where appropriate. Some labs have long hallways and can be two to three stories without standpipes; 200-foot-long preconnect handlines may not be long enough. Be sure to set up your apparatus to allow extending handlines for longer stretches. Foam capability can be quite useful in labs where significant amounts of flammable liquids are in use, and foam/compressed air foam systems can help with a rapid knockdown of lab fires. Initial entry teams conducting recon into a lab building with a smoke condition should, at the very least, either carry extinguishers in with them or know where to access them in the building. Use extinguishers no smaller than a 2½-gallon water/foam unit or a 15- to 20-pound ABC dry-chemical or carbon dioxide/clean agent unit.

Ladder Operations and Ventilation

Ladder company operations at lab incidents may be facilitated by building design features. Stairways or access ladders, sometimes on the exterior of the building, may provide easy access to roofs. Many laboratories have chemical fume or biological hoods that exhaust at the roof level of the building. You may be able to use them to ventilate individual labs. There may also be hoods that exhaust from radiological operations or other high-hazard operations. These hoods may have high-efficiency particulate air filters to contain the hazard prior to the discharge. Firefighters operating on lab roofs need to remember that these exhausts may be discharging a variety of chemical fumes; they should be wearing SCBA when on the roof, especially near these exhausts. Some labs may be designed to have the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems placed in full exhaust mode to ventilate the room. In many cases, the HVAC system will be designed to have the hallways positively pressured to the labs. Understand how this works in advance so that you can take advantage of these capabilities during an incident.

Property Conservation

Life safety is the primary objective at any incident but, as has been mentioned, protecting the equipment and work of a laboratory can keep a company in business and ensure its future growth. Laboratory equipment can be very expensive, and a few strategically placed salvage covers can save hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment as well as possibly months or years of research work. Although forcible entry may be necessary, firefighters need to respect labs with high levels of security; there may be a good reason for this because of the presence of unusual hazards.

If a lab has an airlock at the entrance (a door into an entrance vestibule then another interlocked door leading into the lab), it is likely that some type of biological or other unusual hazard is present. Ask before you enter if any special precautions are needed to access the lab, and be sure you are wearing full personal protective equipment. Understanding how to safely ventilate smoke can also reduce collateral damage.

Laboratory Knowledge

Knowing what you may be facing will be one of the most important things your fire department can do to prepare for lab incidents. A lab may not be “just a lab.” Know what is being done in the labs, what the hazards are, and what resources are available on site to deal with anticipated incidents. Be sure that the scientist or other individuals knowledgeable about the science are present to help guide your response. Think about what can go wrong and how to advance extinguishing equipment and hoselines to all the areas in the building. If all occupants are removed from the building, approach with caution and keep the problem isolated until a more detailed action plan can be developed.

Note: The author is also an alternate member to the NFPA 45 Technical Committee on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals.


1. Cryogenic Storage Dewars from Cole-Parmer, www.coleparmer.com/Category/Cryogenic_Storage_Dewars/2642.

2. Jakubowski, Greg. “Firefighting in Sprinklered Buildings,” FireRescue, September 2013, www.firefighternation.com/article/strategy-and-tactics/firefighting-sprinklered-buildings.