CAPT. RON MCKIMMY
Combined Joint Task Force-101 Safety
As a member of the Combined Joint Task Force-101 tactical safety team, my position takes me to command outposts and forward operating bases all over Regional Command-East. I see some interesting things and I’m constantly surprised at the ingenuity of how personnel set up their living quarters. Being safe where you live is no less important than any other safety concern. I have seen firsthand all kinds of living conditions. With every visit, I see reoccurring issues that raise safety concerns. This article covers some of the more common safety problems, which fall into three categories: fire prevention, electrical safety and do-it-yourself projects.
Fire prevention is a very important concern. This is the biggest danger to anyone that resides in wooden structures (e.g., B-Huts or other combustible structures). Studies have shown that fire and smoke will consume a typical B-Hut in less than four minutes. It will be fully engulfed in flames in less than 16 minutes and nearly burned to the ground in less than 29 minutes.
B-Huts, originally constructed as temporary housing, continue to be used well past their expected service life, so the wood is very dry and extremely susceptible to fire. We mitigate this risk by installing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Each room must have a smoke alarm. Rooms with wall partitions that do not extend to the ceiling are not required to have individual smoke alarms just as long as they are centrally located.
Some areas in Afghanistan are especially prone to problems with fine dust which infiltrates living spaces and often triggers the smoke alarm. Soldiers are known to remove the batteries from these devices to prevent the alert from sounding. These actions disable smoke detectors and leave the occupants without any fire detection capabilities. Disabling the smoke detector for any reason is dangerous and prohibited.
To mitigate the dust problem, regularly clean the smoke alarm. You can do this by removing the battery and cleaning it with canned air. Regular maintenance is important to maintain the smoke alarm’s effectiveness. Replace the batteries as soon as the smoke alarm starts beeping or a minimum of twice a year. Maintenance and testing work together to ensure the smoke alarm is ready and working when required. A good maintenance routine is to test the smoke alarm during monthly fire extinguisher checks.
Heating is also a major factor in fire prevention. Space heaters with an exposed electrical element are major causes of fire. Fire often ensues when something flammable comes into contact with this element. According to the CJTF-101 Safety SOP, heaters of any type are prohibited. This prohibition also extends to scented candles, incense or potpourri cookers individuals may use in shared living quarters to mask odors.
Fire extinguishers are required for every living area. At a minimum, one fire extinguisher should be mounted by each entrance/exit door. Additional fire extinguishers can be located in other areas where there is a potential for fire. All fire extinguishers require a monthly inspection to ensure they are serviceable and ready for use. Most fire extinguishers are mounted on wall brackets. At no time, however, should a fire extinguisher sit on the floor or be used as a door stop.
There are several different types of fire extinguishers. The most common type used in Afghanistan is of the dry chemical variety. They are suitable for Class A, B and C fires. These are filled with foam or powder and pressurized with nitrogen. The type A, B, C is required for billeting or housing facilities.
Here are the fire extinguisher type definitions:
• Class A extinguishers are for combustible materials such as paper, wood, cardboard and most plastics. The numerical rating on these types of extinguishers indicates chemical/agents equivalent to gallons of water it holds.
• Class B fires involve flammable liquids such as gasoline, kerosene, grease and oil. The numerical rating for Class B extinguishers indicates the approximate number of cubic feet of fire it can extinguish. You will see this class in MRAPs and other military vehicles.
• Class C fires involve electrical equipment such as appliances, wiring, circuit breakers and outlets. Never use water to extinguish Class C fires; the risk of electrical shock is far too great! Class C extinguishers do not have a numerical rating. The C classification means the extinguishing agent is non-conductive. You will find this type next to generators or electrical systems.
• Class D fire extinguishers are commonly found in chemical laboratories. They are used for fires that involve combustible metals, such as magnesium, titanium, potassium and sodium. These types of extinguishers also have no numerical rating, nor are they given a multi-purpose rating. They are designed for Class D fires only.
Power strips and surge protectors are something we often take for granted. It has been found that some individuals are using power strips and surge protectors that are not safe. Additionally, it was found that individuals are using extension cords with multiple-end connectors as power strips.
There is a big difference between a power strip, surge protector and extension cord. It is important to note the difference. Though surge protectors and power strips may look similar, they are not the same. A power strip allows a person to connect multiple plugs into one outlet. It may have a switch and light but it has no circuit breaker, fuse or surge protection. A surge protector has a built-in circuit breaker that will trip if the voltage exceeds a predetermined amount. Most surge protectors are rated for between 10-20 amps.
The CJTF-101 Safety SOP authorizes the use of power strips and surge protectors, but they must have an Underwriter Laboratories or the European equivalent "Conformité Européene" certification. In Afghanistan, there are various types of power strips and surge protectors in use that do not have this UL/CE certification. These units have been known to fail, melt, short out and catch fire. Don’t be fooled by unreliable, ineffective power strips and surge protectors just because they have fancy dials, meters, colors or lights. Only use power strips and surge protectors with the proper certification. At least you know that the unit has passed stringent testing and can be trusted to perform as needed. We can mitigate the risk and eliminate the fire potential by using only power strips and surge protectors with this certification.
Extension cords are another necessary item here in Afghanistan. There are extension cords in use which have a three-plug connector on one end. This type of extension cord is similar to a power strip and must have the same UL/CE certification. It is important to remember these extension cords do not have any circuit breaker safety mechanism and will overheat and burn if used incorrectly. In addition, never use extension cords as a substitute for permanent electrical wiring.
In Afghanistan, most living quarters have rooms which are limited to one outlet consisting of two plugs. One outlet is nowhere close enough to meeting the needs of any tech-savvy individual. It is not uncommon to see the two-plug outlet powering their desk light, laptop, coffee maker, refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV, gaming console, DVD player, battery charger, cellphone charger and fan. These items draw electrical power that puts a lot of stress on the existing wiring. When the total amount of electricity drawn exceeds the amount available, the surge protector circuit breaker is tripped. This reinforces the necessity of power strip UL/CE certification.
This leads to another problem commonly found in living areas. When you plug a power strip or surge protector into another power strip or surge protector, it creates a condition called daisy chaining. The condition can cause electrical circuits to fail and circuit breakers to trip. The safety protection provided by UL- or CE-certified surge protectors cannot be underestimated.
Unless you are fortunate enough to live in newly constructed quarters, you reside in quarters that have been used for several rotations. These older quarters are the primary focus of our discussion. As Soldiers rotate through these quarters, they add little things to make it more livable. Some install coat hooks, while others put up shelves. While these do-it-yourself projects may start with the best intentions, they ultimately cause problems. Here are a few of the most common issues found with do-it-yourself projects.
Internal partitions inside living quarters cannot be modified. Most B-Huts designed as living quarters were built with interior partitions to create individual rooms. Some tents also have these types of partitions. Often the do-it-yourselfer adds or extends room partitions in an attempt to afford them more privacy. Many times these home improvement warriors build extensions on top of the interior partitions that connect to the ceiling. They use various materials to extend these partitions, including plywood, bed sheets, tarps, plastic, poncho liners or blankets. In fact, some of these materials are made of synthetic materials that, when burned, produce toxic fumes. So, while they may improve privacy, they inadvertently reduce the effectiveness of the heating, cooling and fire safety systems (smoke and carbon monoxide detectors) that are designed to keep Soldiers safe and alive.
Pathways and exit routes must also stay clear and free of any obstruction in the event of an emergency. This means hallways should not be used to store excess supplies. Nor should shelves or cabinets be installed in an attempt to increase storage space. Such installations may constrict and block hallway traffic to and from exit routes. Stairwells are also a major concern, and the landings can’t be used as storage. Keeping the hallways clear and exit routes free of obstructions is essential.
Heating is another area of concern. The Wilms automatic oil-fired heater or other fuel-powered heating units are used to provide building heat. These units use JP-8 or diesel fuel to generate heat. The burning process creates carbon monoxide gas, which is toxic and deadly. Venting these heaters is important to use them safely. The heating ductwork must not be re-routed to feed directly into one room. Repairs to the flexible ducts must be made with non-flammable materials. The heater exhaust stacks must be clear and free from overhead obstructions and far enough away from the building so the exhaust will not to become a hazard. Carbon monoxide alarms are required in all buildings using oil-fired heaters. The Chigo-type heating and cooling units do not pose a safety risk and are the first choice when available.
With a little knowledge and common sense, we can eliminate many of these safety concerns. Remember, it’s up to you to make sure your living areas are safe.