Field Trip: RIGIS Summer Meeting Includes Fires, Earthquakes and Explosions

On Monday a busload of GIS practitioners and friends got to be twelve year olds again. We were guests at FM Global's Research Campus for the Rhode Island GIS User Group Meeting. The Research Campus is where the commercial insurance company researchers set things on fire, shake them up and blow wind on them to learn about how to lessen risk. The test also help the company produce a list of products and services to help in that quest.

If FM Global does not sound familiar at one time it was Factory Mutual Insurance (full history in pdf). The company founder, Zechariah Allen, carefully outfitting his factory in the early 1835 with things he thought would lower risk of loss from fire. Then, he asked his insurance company for a break on premiums. They said no so he started the company. We learned about that in a flashy film in a theater reminiscent of an Omni theater.

We watched two stacks of plastic pallets burn in the large fire lab. Flames went up 30 feet and you could feel the heat even in the viewing area behind the protective glass. It was remarkable how much material was left to burn even after FM Global's firemen put it out. I was amazed at how quickly the temperature dropped (again behind the glass) after the fire was put out. Alas, we could not take pictures in there. But there is a very nice video of another FM Global fire on the value of sprinklers during fires.

Next we went to the natural hazard lab where FM Global explores floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. We saw some solutions that are far better than sandbags at keeping water out and how wind can pop a roof like a balloon. Then we saw a 2 x 4 shoot out of a cannon at plywood. Half inch will not do; start with 5/8" even if it's more expensive.

This cannon shoots 2 x 4s (and other things) to simulate wind blow debris during a hurricane. The 1/2" plywood failed, but 5/8" and two 1/2" pieces together will protect glass windows. Masking tape does nothing to help secure windows.

Next up was an earthquake. Properly supported shelving kept its contents from falling while unsupported shelves allowed every product box but one to fall to the floor. The other cool earthquake item we learned about is a special valve. It stays open when things are calm or when a car goes by, but where there is an earthquake it shuts off gas to the building to prevent fire. And, you only need one for each location where gas comes in. Some residences in California sport this valve, which if I recall is but a few thousand dollars.

Visitors wear protective gear while watching a 10' x 10' shake table simulate an earthquake in the Natural Hazards Lab. If you secure shelving to the floor you can prevent a lot of damage from products falling to the floor.

The final excitement was a dust explosion. it turns out that anything organic that can make dust can set off an explosion. A little heat, a little confinement and a spark and BOOM! Or as we learned , "If it didn't start out as a rock, it can explode." The chamber the dust explosion occurs in has one "plastic" wall. That's the wall that's meant to guide the explosion, that is, to tell the explosion, "go this way" and don't damage the rest of the structure. That works for smaller explosion and in fact many facilities have walls that can "blow out" to reduce risk.

To keep the excitement up, all of the papers presented during the afternoon had to do with response to catastrophe. The most memorable for me related to Hurricane Sandy. It turns out the wind and water destroyed some roads in Rhode Island, but also revealed archeological artifacts. And, that meant that some emergency archeology had to be done. It turned out that even novice GIS using archeologists were able to predict where the artifacts might be found along the shore.

A few random thoughts:

  • The tour was a huge advertisement for STEM education. There was science, engineering, modeling and many cool toys. Unfortunately, while the Research Campus works with local colleges, it does not have a program for high school students. And, for those of you who might want a tour, they are arranged only for professional groups in related fields like GIS. We also had a few clients join us while they waited for their tests to be set up in the fire labs. I met a fellow whose company owns lots of server farms across the world. They were doing some testing to see if they were prepared for fire.
  • Field trips are fun - especially if they include fires and explosions. And, wearing a hardhat and safety glasses isn't so bad.
  • FM Global continues to use Cadcorp's GIS software. The company was a client of mine when I worked at Cadcorp 15 years ago.

Published Friday, June 27th, 2014

Written by Adena Schutzberg