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Fires at University of California Science Labs Highlight Need for Sprinkler System

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 - Manuel Ares and his graduate students were conducting human-genome experiments in a lab without a fire wall. Their room, adjacent to a lab in which plant genetics was being studied, was housed in a four-story science building without an automatic sprinkler system.


When a fire erupted in Ares' top-floor lab on Jan. 11 it quickly spread to the lab next door. Firefighters doused the entire building at the University  of California, Santa Cruz, with more than 5,000 gallons of water but in the end the Robert L. Sinsheimer Laboratories facility was reduced to a watery, smoky mess.


No one was injured, but years of research was lost. University officials were left with a massive cleanup and questions about what caused the blaze, how it could have been contained, and how they may prevent a similar disaster in the future.


Though officials have ruled out arson, UC Santa Cruz Fire Chief Charles Hernandez told GenomeWeb, the cause of the fire was not specifically identified. "Investigators' findings state that the fire was accidental by person or persons unknown," Hernandez said. "[It was] caused by electrical equipment that was left on or malfunctioned or disposing flammable/combustible liquids improperly."


"The lab spaces [in Sinsheimer] will be redesigned to meet current code  requirements," Hernandez added, explaining that current code requires one-hour fire-rated walls be erected between each lab. As for sprinklers, Hernandez said  that "even with the current code, fire sprinklers would still not be required. However, it is this campus' policy to provide fire sprinklers on all new construction."


Equipment in room 412A of Sinsheimer that may have triggered the fire included Bunsen burners, centrifuges, heat plates, and water baths,  Hernandez said. Elizabeth Irwin, associate vice chancellor, communications at UC Santa Cruz, said that a list of equipment and manufacturers was not yet available. An investigation conducted by four individuals from various branches of the California Department of Forestry/State Fire Marshall's Office into the cause of the fire is complete, and a written report is expected in the next week or so, she said.


To Phil Porto, an investigator with the CDF/State Fire Marshall's Office, the UC Santa Cruz fire "is best characterized as a fire initiated by acts or omissions carried out by person or persons unknown. This assessment lends itself to possible accidental causes, such as leaving on electrical equipment, which develops heat; electrical equipment malfunction, and discarding flammable-combustible material improperly."


Hernandez, the fire chief, puts it more bluntly: "If Sinsheimer lab was fire sprinklered, the fire could have been controlled or extinguished with a few hundred gallons of water based on a four-minute  response time that the UCSC Fire Department provides to the campus."


Instead, crews have been working 12 hours a day and as much as seven days a week to clean, dry, and test building materials and equipment, said David Kliger, dean of  the UC Santa Cruz's Natural Sciences Division.


The $21.3 million Sinsheimer Laboratories, which opened in 1987, housed offices and laboratories for researchers in molecular,  cellular, and developmental biology; microbiology; immunology; neurobiology;  and biochemistry.


"Equipment throughout the building was damaged in varying degrees by smoke and/or water," Irwin, the associate vice chancellor, said. "It may be many months before a full assessment  can be given as to which equipment is unaffected, which can be cleaned and  repaired, and which must be replaced." A preliminary estimate suggests that the 98,000-square-foot building suffered $4 million to $5 million in damages.


Not isolated


Sinsheimer was the second major lab fire in less than a year at the University of California system. A report released last Friday on an explosion in a chemistry lab last July at Frederick Reines Hall on the University of California, Irvine, revealed safety problems, lack of laboratory supervision, and a six-story building with an automatic sprinkler system confined to the basement. The blaze caused $3.5 million in damages and injured a graduate student.


As a result of the UC Irvine report, "the university is undertaking a survey  of fire safety features in all university buildings," UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich told GenomeWeb on Friday. That survey is scheduled to be complete by the end of the month, Vasich said.


"When the survey is released, the university can address the question of whether fire sprinklers will be put into Reines Hall, or any other university building that does not have them," Vasich said.


The school's initial report appears already to have reached a conclusion: One of the recommendations stated that although automatic sprinkler systems throughout Reines Hall, completed in 1990, were not required by the state fire code, "it is the opinion of the investigation team that automatic sprinklers would have been beneficial in controlling the fire."

"Sprinklers would have activated soon after the fire began, controlling  the fire's growth and subsequently limiting fire damage," read the report.


"Although some safety professionals believe that sprinkler systems in such  laboratories may not be appropriate due to the presence of water-reactive  chemicals, the investigation team argues that the presence of hazardous  materials, including reactive and flammable materials, makes the installation  of automatic sprinklers in these facilities that much more important."


The report continued: "Although sprinklers may not suppress a fire involving reactive materials, sprinklers will control a fire involving combustible materials, thereby reducing the risk of nearby chemicals being exposed to fire."


Hernandez, the UC Santa Cruz fire chief, agreed: "There is absolutely no negative impact in providing fire sprinklers in laboratory buildings. The common misconception of water-reactive material being a concern is groundless."


Ken Groves, president of Sevorg Services, in Rutheron, NM, led the UC Irvine  investigation that produced the original UC Irvine report. Other members were Stanley Pine, professor of chemistry and university chemical safety officer at California State University, Los Angeles; Barbara Hargis, program manager of occupational safety and health at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico; and Michael Madden, a fire protection engineer with the Los Angeles office of Gage-Babcock & Associates, a fire protection-systems design and code-consulting company.


The level of fire protection in the campus buildings at UC Irvine is "typical for public university campuses in the state of California," said Mark Shapiro, a physics professor at California State University, Fullerton, and a former firefighter. 


"Because they are located on state property, [neither the] University of California  [nor] California State University campus buildings are ... required to conform to local building, fire, and safety codes," he said. "Instead, they are constructed under much weaker state codes."

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