The partnership is the first of its kind in the nation to take a unified approach between a fire department and utility to fight vault fires.
When a fire erupts in an underground electrical vault, there isn’t much firefighters can do except wait for the flames to burn out. That’s because water conducts electricity and could actually worsen the problem if sprayed on a vault fire.
In the meantime, the fire damages delicate equipment, causes power outages and can evolve into deadly explosions.
Seattle has had 20 vault fires in the past two years, according to Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.
“That’s a big deal, because that disrupts your lives and can affect our infrastructure — the longer these fires continue to burn, the more the infrastructure goes down,” Scoggins said.
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To combat this, the Fire Department and Seattle City Light have partnered to make the city the first in the nation to implement a new unified approach to fighting vault fires using carbon dioxide to snuff out flames, the two agencies announced during a demonstration Monday at City Light’s North Service Center.
City Light has funded a firetruck equipped with carbon dioxide, which denies the fire oxygen.
During Monday’s demonstration, members of the department’s specially trained Vault Response Team inserted a metal wand inside a smoking manhole and pumped carbon dioxide into an underground vault to extinguish the flames. They also covered the manhole to prevent the carbon dioxide from escaping.
City Light General Manager and CEO Jim Baggs said that after a vault fire in 2014, they partnered with the Fire Department to address vault fires, drawing on expertise from both fields.
One 2009 vault fire at Fisher Plaza caused service disruptions to numerous broadcast stations and websites, including one that provides credit-card services for more than 238,000 online merchants. A vault fire this past month left 5,000 customers in the Green Lake area without power for a few hours.
Now that Seattle is the first city in the nation to implement the team approach to fighting vault fires, representatives from fire departments and utilities from around the country will be traveling to Seattle later this week to learn about the program, officials said.
“This partnership is an insurance policy for our customers, the economic drivers in Seattle’s business corps, and for the public servants who address these fires,” Baggs said.
“As our city grows, one of the most important things we have to do is deliver electricity to that growing need. But with electricity can come all sorts of issues and problems,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said during Monday’s demonstration.