“Hey! Instead of just opening these fire extinguishers and emptying them out, let’s actually set them off!” The eighteen year-old kid thought that his idea would be a lot more fun than simply doing the job they had been sent to do at the old lumberyard. His work with the fire and safety company was certainly not boring, but at eighteen, anything he could do that livened up the day a little more was even better.
His supervisor thought for a minute and then nodded his head. “No one’s around and it gets the job done anyway. Let’s do it!” They had five or six of the old chrome tanks sitting beside their service van, so the young man simply grabbed one of them and flipped it upside down. Waiting for a second or two and seeing nothing coming from the nozzle, he exclaimed, “It’s a dud!” and started to reach for another. His superior quickly called out, “Wait. It will come.” Sure enough, within another second or two there was a hissing sound from the plastic nozzle and then the liquid began spewing from the tip. He grabbed the hose and pointed the nozzle into the grass nearby, spraying it around as the fluid continued, nonstop, for a couple of minutes. When all two and a half gallons had been expended, there was a residual noise of air escaping for a moment and then all was quiet. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as he had expected, but it was far better than just unscrewing the steel top and manually removing the little acid canister before dumping the soda-infused water out onto the ground. They repeated the process until all of the extinguishers were emptied and, loading them into the back of the van, headed back for the shop.
The ingenuity of the old canister fire extinguishers was pretty astounding. And, their simplicity of design was almost mind-boggling. The tank was filled with a couple gallons of water into which had been mixed bicarbonate of soda, essentially simple baking soda. In the neck of the tank, there sat a little reservoir of sulfuric acid. If the tank was left upright, it would never do anything at all. But, if there was need, all one had to do was to upend the tank, standing it upside down. The acid would dump out into the soda-water, resulting in an immediate production of carbon dioxide. Not only was the CO2 a great flame-retardant, robbing the fire of it’s one absolute prerequisite–oxygen, but it also provided the aerosol effect necessary to spray the water out from the canister. As the pressure built up inside, the water was pushed at a high rate, right out the rubber hose and, hopefully, onto the fire where it did precisely what it had been designed to do, extinguish the fire. But, there was a reason that the men had been sent to pick up all those old extinguishers. They were to find out why when they told their boss what they had done, moments after they arrived back at the shop. His reaction was immediate and unexpected.
“You did what?” His face had turned red and his eyes were glaring as the two men described the process. “Don’t you know how dangerous those things are?” He had returned, not long before, from a meeting with the Fire Marshalls in the state capitol. While there, the gathering had viewed a video recording of a controlled experiment which had been performed with the old soda-acid tanks. The lab technicians had purposely placed a plug in the hose of one and flipped it upside down inside of a test cage. The resulting explosion had bent the bars of the cage. When there was no avenue for release, the gases from the reaction between the acid and soda continued to build up inside until the tank itself failed. It was even reported to the men at the safety meeting that one person had been decapitated while attempting to discharge an extinguisher which he hadn’t realized was plugged with an insect’s nest. The potential for disaster was the main reason the old things were being removed from service. They were all being replaced with newer, safer ones which didn’t depend on a chemical reaction that couldn’t be stopped once it was started.
Now, the young man and his supervisor were the ones visibly shaken. Any one of those old tanks could have had an obstruction in the hose and they might have been injured badly or even killed. There was no possible way that they could have known if a tank had been defective. They would only have found out as it failed. It was the last time they ever set off any extinguisher which had been marked for taking out of service. Sometimes, boredom is preferable to the alternative.
And, speaking of boredom, I hope this lesson in safety hasn’t brought you to that state. There is, as usual, a method to my madness, as the red-headed lady who raised me would have said. I’m struck by two things specifically. The first is the incongruity of it all. The sole purpose for a fire extinguisher is to protect the person who uses it. Instead, there was actually the potential to maim or kill that person. How sad it would have been, had you been the person who patented the process, to find out years later that what you intended for great good had actually done great harm. I realize that this is often the case when people put their minds to creative use. I think the poet had that in mind when he penned these words, centuries ago: “The best laid schemes of mice and men, go often awry.”* Sometimes tools intended to protect simply don’t do what they are designed to do. When that happens, we go back to the drawing board and start anew.
I am also struck with the personal application of the sad lesson about pressure and its necessity for relief. It is commonly understood that if we close off the release for the day-to-day stresses which build up inside of us, effectively bottling up the anger and emotion, there will come a time of reckoning when that internal stress will find its way out anyway. We are not designed to withstand this pressure, any more than the metal tanks of those old fire extinguishers were. The eventual release of pressure, if not done in a controlled and systematic way, will cause great damage, not only to us, but to any bystanders. I have seen this from a much closer perspective than I care to admit on any number of occasions. The result was not pretty, as I have unloaded on folks who had nothing whatsoever to do with the original issue. Perhaps, you too have done this, maybe not in the too distant past. The anger, guilt, and frustration of a lifetime can wreak havoc in families, in churches, in communities, when the explosion occurs as it inevitably does.
What is the answer? I would suggest regular and systematic checks of the communication system. It has long been my suspicion that if we will clear up issues when they happen, we won’t have to take care of damage control when the explosion takes place later on. I’ve said it before, just like the mother of the blubbering toddler: “Use your words, please.” Talking now beats apologizing later for the mess. Many a fire has been put out with a simple stream of water, judiciously aimed at the place where the flame originates.
As always, I suspect that my solution is a bit simplistic. You will have complicated issues to deal with which I cannot begin to fathom. I don’t expect that talking will be the panacea for all the world’s problems. But, it’s a start. For the others, which are already past the easy fix, you may need to take apart the canister and separate the chemicals before more damage is done. Sadly, not every issue can be cleaned up neatly.
For now, this windbag has released enough pressure for one night. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. More fires to put out, one shouldn’t wonder.
I hope the ancient equipment will be up to the task…
“In your anger, do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
“Anger is only one letter short of danger.”
*”To a Mouse…” by Robert Burns~1785~English translation from the original Scots language
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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.