By Jack Rubinger, Graphic Products,

From time to time, we like to share perspectives of members in our connected communities. We’d like to thank Jack Rubinger, an expert in industrial safety, for providing this two-part guest post:

I never imagined I’d be filling sandbags at work, but when the Willamette River crested at 28.6 feet, some 10.6 feet above flood stage, after heavy rains and a melting snow pack, everyone at Chrome Data pitched in to keep the downtown Oregon City from being flooded, no matter where you worked.

Before we left the building, our CEO asked us to participate in a disaster planning brainstorming session to address every aspect of how the floods could impact our business, customers, vendors, and employees. This became our evacuation preparedness plan. While kind of scary, it brought us all together. Then, our boss sent us home. The next day, flooding left several streets accessible only by boat. Fortunately, our building, which was on higher ground, was okay.

Whether it’s flooding or fires, emergency evacuations range from being slightly frightening to truly epic.

In the event of a fire, one of the last places you want to be is in a tunnel, according to Henry A. Russell of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Russell, whose engineering firm has designed and built many of the world’s major tunnels, recalled the 1999 Mount Blanc Tunnel disaster in which a refrigerated truck carrying margarine and flour caught fire. The fire spread to the vehicles behind the truck. Intense heat and smoke filled the tunnel preventing emergency evacuation and firefighting operations. It was believed that the fire’s fast growth was due to the truck’s large fuel load which included 550 liters of diesel, 9 tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour. Also the shell of the refrigerated trailer was made of combustible isothermal foam.

Conditions in the tunnel included a weak air flow in the Italy-France direction, forcing smoke and flames to spread toward the tunnel’s French entrance. As a result, vehicles stopped behind the truck were trapped and caught in the fire. The fire burned for two days and reached temperatures of 1000°C. More than 30 people lost their lives, mainly drivers trapped in the tunnel during the fire. Those who tried to escape managed to make it a short distance before collapsing from toxic smoke inhalation.

An analysis highlighted the dangers of smoke in an enclosed area without an adequate smoke extraction system, including:

  • Obscurity which prevents people from fleeing due to lack of visibility
  • Toxicity which incapacitates the mobility of people
  • Temperature which also incapacitates mobility

As a result, a 2002 refurbishment of the tunnel included:

  • Fire-resistant stainless steel cladding fitted to walls
  • Concrete-lined pressurized emergency shelters fitted with fire doors and connected to a safety corridor parallel to the tunnel
  • Smoke extractors at regular intervals
  • Heat sensors at both ends of the tunnel to detect overheated trucks before they enter the tunnel
  • Command and control centers
  • Additional traffic lights and warning signs

Does your business have a plan in the event of a disaster? Do you know where to begin? In Part 2 of this post, Jack will provide tips for disaster preparedness and surviving emergency evacuations.