QinetiQ delivers a robotic solution for fires involving Acetylene cylinders

04 Dec 2007

Commuter disruption caused by fires that are close to railway tracks and involving Acetylene cylinders could be minimised if the current six month trial using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) continues to prove successful. Network Rail, working with the London Fire Brigade (LFB), has commissioned QinetiQ, the international defence and security technology company, to provide and operate specialised ROVs. These can be used to safely assess and deal with the cylinders, allowing incidents to be resolved more quickly, so enabling the lines to be promptly reopened.

If Acetylene cylinders are thought to be involved in a fire, the Brigade can request the attendance of QinetiQ. The ROVs, with their all-terrain capabilities, will be able to enter environments that would be unsafe for firefighters. Their cameras can identify whether any Acetylene cylinders are present and, using thermal imaging, can gauge whether the cylinders are sufficiently cool for the Brigade to safely approach and deal with them.

In the last year there have been an increasing number of line-side fires, each causing massive disruption to passengers. The total number of Acetylene incidents across London (not just trackside) has also risen.

When fires break out near railway tracks, and Acetylene cylinders are found or suspected to be present, the standard Brigade procedure is to initially impose a hazard zone of up to 200m which could remain in place for 24 hours or more. This is because the risk of explosion following heating can remain long after the fire is extinguished and even after extensive cooling has been applied – causing enormous disruption to train services. Should an unstable Acetylene gas cylinder explode the resulting dangers can include a fireball, large flying cylinder fragments and other debris potentially causing structural damage to nearby buildings in the 200m radius.

QinetiQ’s response team is available 24/7 and if called upon a special QinetiQ response vehicle, containing the three different ROVs with operators, is dispatched to the incident. On arrival they immediately come under the command of the senior fire officer present who determines how and when to deploy them. The three specialised vehicle types comprise: Talon, a small, highly manoeuvrable tracked vehicle, extensively used in Iraq for bomb disposal, that’s equipped with video and thermal image cameras; Black Max which is similar in size and appearance to a quad bike which again has a video link camera but also provides a remote hi pressure hose and water delivery capability; and the Brokk 90, a heavier duty mini-digger based vehicle designed to remove debris and gain access to vehicles or structures and therefore any cylinders.

Derek Holmes, Network Rail’s Head of Operations, said: “We are very conscious of the fact that fires involving suspected or actual Acetylene gas cylinders have caused misery to passengers. In situations such as this we have only closed lines when we have had no other choice and been advised to do so by the emergency services. However, the deployment of the ROVs will give us more options for faster resolution of incidents and hopefully lead to less disruption to train services.”

Val Shawcross, Chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which runs LFB, added: “It has always been our intention to explore alternative ways of overcoming the disruption and danger caused by Acetylene incidents in London. This innovative trial using equipment and people provided by QinetiQ, and with the support of Network Rail, shows how determined we all are to improve this situation for commuters and the wider public. I would however continue to urge Acetylene users to closely follow industry guidance on its use and storage or find alternative gases where possible.”

“QinetiQ has already been called to deploy the ROVs on a number of occasions and they have each proved useful in assisting the Fire Brigade in dealing with the incidents,” concluded Simon Christoforato, QinetiQ’s business group manager for robotic systems. “The ROVs are designed to work in harsh environments and are proving they can assist in fires involving Acetylene gas cylinders along with a number of other dangerous scenarios. We are still exploring what is the best solution to make the logistic services, specialised equipment and training more accessible to other emergency services both in the UK and overseas so that more people can benefit from these potential life and certainly cost saving capabilities.”

Notes for editors

Recent line side fires involving suspected Acetylene gas cylinders:
26 06.06 York Way, Kings Cross
01.10.06 Edith Road, South Norwood
16.10.06 Winslade Mews, Paddington
23.10.06 The Vale, Cricklewood
28.11.06 Park Royal Road, Park Royal
03.02.07 Morning Lane, Homerton
16.03.07 Pensbury Place, Clapham
04.04.07 White Hart Lane, Tottenham
26.04.07 Canal Approach, Deptford
23.05.07 Blue Anchor lane, Bermondsey

Summary of deployments for the QinetiQ service

19.09.07 Service started

05.10.07 A12 Dual Carriageway, Mark's Tey, Essex - Acetylene cylinder located using ROV, cordon reduced, northbound carriageway and railway re-opened - saved 14 hours

08.10.07 Scrap yard, Ferry Lane, Rainham, Essex - Acetylene cylinder located using ROV, cordon reduced to within scrap yard - saved 19 hours

30.10.07 Boat yard, St John's Road, Hythe, Hampshire - Gas main alight identified using ROV

02.11.07 Norwood Road, West Norwood, London - Aborted run and team stood down on-route Acetylene not present

04.11.07 Box Lane, Barking, Essex - Contents of fire unable to be identified Acetylene not present

11.11.07 Chesterfield Way, Off Old Kent Rd, South East London - Cylinder located within office building and identified as not having been heated - saved 16 hours

London Fire Brigade is calling for improved control over the safe use, signage and storage of Acetylene gas cylinders; and a greater awareness of the dangers when the cylinders are involved in fires and other incidents.
Acetylene gas cylinders present a unique challenge as the risk of explosion following heating can remain for 24 hours, unlike all other gases which are safe once the initial fire has been extinguished.
Typically the closure of a rail line can cost the network operator tens of thousands of pounds each hour the service is not operating in lost revenue and fines. The closure of other key transport routes or commercial facilities can equally mean significant losses in income and provision of services for the companies involved.
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QinetiQ delivers a robotic solution for fires involving Acetylene cylinders