CHFD Welcomes “TAC-52″

Did you come out to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Holiday Parade on Saturday? You might have caught a glimpse of “TAC-52,” the Chapel Hill Fire Department’s new blue truck.

The department recently acquired TAC-52 through the Firefighter Program (FFP), a program through the U.S. Forest Service that provides local fire departments with excess U.S. Government property.

TAC-52 Blue Chapel Hill Fire Truck 2

The fire department will use the vehicle for utility work, storm evacuations, brush fires, and other support functions.

Vehicle Fire Damages Chapel Hill Home

A vehicle fire on Saturday evening wound up doing $30,000 in damage to a home in Chapel Hill.

At 6:05 pm, Chapel Hill Fire crews were called to 110 Middlebrook Court, in a subdivision near the intersection of Erwin and Sage. When they arrived, they found a vehicle on fire inside the garage and the fire beginning to spread.

Officials quickly evacuated the home and put out the blaze, but not before the fire did $30,000 worth of damage to the garage and the vehicle. Parts of the home also suffered smoke damage – but fortunately there were no injuries.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Chapel Hill Fire officials are reminding everyone to make sure you have working smoke alarms on every level of your home.

CH Fire Department Hopes to ‘Keep the Wreath Green’ for 2014

An illuminated wreath at Chapel Hill fire station on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is keeping score on residential fire safety this holiday season.

“What we do is, we hang a wreath on Fire Station 1 on MLK Boulevard,” said Chapel Hill Fire Marshal Todd Iager. “And we start the season off Dec. 1. It runs through New Year’s Day. We keep green lights in that wreath. And the goal is to keep it green.”

Iager further explained that for every residential fire in Chapel Hill during the holiday season, a green bulb is replaced with a red one.

“Keep the Wreath Green,” as it’s called, is an annual initiative of the Chapel Hill Fire Department.

And it seems to be working. The program had existed for a decade. During a few of those holiday seasons, Chapel Hill, did, indeed, “Keep the Wreath Green.”

“It is a fantastic public service announcement program,” said Iager, “and they followed that up with all the tree farms getting a tag for each tree.”

Iager was referring to locally farmed Christmas trees being tagged with safety tips for consumers.

The reasons for increased fire hazards during the holidays are obvious. Houses are full of decorations, candles, lights, trees, and there’s paper and plastic everywhere.

“Candles are a big ignition source for fires in the home around the holidays,” said Iager. “So we have to be really, really careful with candles. So when you leave the room, when you leave the house, blow the candles out.”

First and foremost, said Iager, people should make sure they have proper smoke detectors in every level of their home, inside and outside of bedrooms.

Residents need to work out a fire escape plan for themselves, Iager added.

“Most importantly, like game day in football or basketball, you play like you practice,” he said. “So make sure you’re practicing these plans, OK?”

Iager urged adults to keep kids at least three feet away from the stove while the holiday dinner is being cooked; and to never leave a hot stove unattended.

Here is a complete list of holiday fire safety tips from the Chapel Hill Fire Department.

Chapel Hill Firefighter Helps Deliver His Own Baby Downtown

Chapel Hill Fire Captain David Sasser has attended several unexpected births in his eighteen years as a firefighter, but he never thought one of those would be his own daughter.

“Right on South Columbia Street between Carolina Inn and Sitterson Hall, Kayleigh Ruth Sasser was born into the world,” says Sasser.

Sasser’s wife Vanessa went into labor Monday night, so the couple began the 45 minute drive from their home near Sanford to the Women’s Birth and Wellness Center in Chapel Hill. They almost made it.

“We were about five stoplights from the Birthing Center and labor had progressed to about a minute and a half [between] contractions and she just felt like she had to push.”

Although Vanessa gave birth in the truck, her water never broke, meaning the baby was still encased in the amniotic sac. Luckily, Sasser knew just what to do.

“I immediately pulled over and went from excitement and nervousness and fear into work mode,” say Sasser. “Somehow in one fell swoop I parked the truck on the side of the road on the sidewalk, broke the bag of waters, and called 911.”

Fire and medical personnel responded to the scene, including the fire truck Sasser usually rides on. Mother and baby were transported to UNC Women’s Hospital for observation, but Sasser says everyone is doing fine.

While he was there to help after the birth, Sasser says full credit goes to Vanessa, who delivered the baby herself while the pick-up truck was in motion.

“I always thought that childbirth is a natural thing and women have been doing it for thousands of years. My wife proudly showed me that.”

In Affordable Housing Push, Chapel Hill Sticks With DHIC

The Town of Chapel Hill is sticking with the Raleigh-based developer DHIC in its effort to get more affordable housing in the Ephesus-Fordham district.

That’s the word from Monday night’s meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Chapel Hill partnered with DHIC last year on a project to build 160 low-cost rental units on Legion Road. But in order for the project to be financially viable, DHIC needs to obtain a Low Income Housing Tax Credit from the state – and last month, their application was denied due to a paperwork error.

Town Council had the option to give DHIC more time to resubmit the application, or try to go in a new direction – but on Monday, Council members elected to stick with the company, extending the tax-credit deadline until August 31 of next year. (Assuming the tax credit goes through, the town will sell DHIC the Legion Road property at a low cost by the following April.)

Also at the meeting: Council members took the next step toward approving a proposal for the redevelopment of the fire station on Hamilton Road near East 54. The plan is to make it a mixed-use property: the town would transfer the land title to East West Partners, who would demolish the current fire station and build a new one for the town, along with a 45,000-square-foot office building.

Council members also took steps to help the 89 families in Orange County who face eviction and displacement because their landlords have stopped accepting Section 8 housing vouchers. Those steps included the creation of a $10,000 pilot program to provide rental and utility connection assistance.

Chapel Hill Fire Dept Completes Controlled Burns Training

The Chapel Hill Fire Department has finished their training with the controlled burns of the old houses along 15-501 South between Arlen Park Drive and Market Street, now making way for the new Southern Village hotel.

Public Information Officer of the Chapel Hill Fire Department, Lisa Edwards, says that the burns were a success, and that everyone involved most importantly, stayed safe.

“The burns went very, very well,” says Edwards. “First and foremost, they were safe. We didn’t have any injuries of firefighters or any personnel that were on-scene.”

Edwards says that it has been 10 years since the department has had an opportunity like this, and that being able to obtain the permits to practice it on houses, outside of their limited training areas, offered invaluable training for firefighters.

“The biggest thing was that it gave us that practical application of trying different fire fighting techniques based on what they were dealing with as they entered the scene, whether they could assess smoke patterns and flame patterns,” says Edwards. “Sometimes, we’d go in there and just knock [the flames] down just a little bit so it could come back up, so they have another opportunity to fight it before they put it out; that was just invaluable.”

In addition to thanking the citizens of Chapel Hill for being patient about the fires and the lane closures that occurred during the burns, Edwards also wanted to reach out and thank other local services that cooperated in conjunction with the live burn training.

“I want to thank Orange County Emergency Management and South Orange Rescue for having staff there each day to take our vital signs and make sure hydration was given, and to Bryan Properties, to give us the homes to burn.”

The Chapel Hill Fire Department has uploaded a point-of-view cam video of one of the controlled burns. You can watch it by clicking here.

Chapel Hill Fire Dept Plans Live Fire Training Near Southern Village

You might smell smoke or see flames near Southern Village next week, but fire officials say there’s no cause for alarm. The Chapel Hill Fire Department will conduct firefighting training exercises that will involve controlled burning of three homes.

Deputy Chief Matt Lawrence says that’s rare opportunity for the department.

“It’s really important that we’re able to do this type of training because it’s as real as we can possibly make it for our fire-responders,” say Lawrence.

The houses, located along 15-501 South between Arlen Park Drive and Market Street, are scheduled to be demolished to make way for the new Southern Village hotel. But first, firefighters will have a chance to hone their skills in a live fire.

“The majority of our training is conducted in our training center, which is a concrete and steel building that we can light fires in, but it is very difficult to recreate fire behavior and how fire moves through an actual wood frame structure, so this is a good opportunity,” says Lawrence.

The department will burn one house each day from Monday through Wednesday. All fire crews will have a chance to participate.

One southbound lane of 15-501 will be closed starting at 9 a.m. during the drills, but the lane should be reopened in time for the afternoon rush hour.

Here’s the full text of the department’s press release:

On August 4, 5, and 6, 2014, The Chapel Hill Fire Department will be conducting live burn fire training along US 15-501 South between Arlen Park Drive and Market Street.  The training will begin at 9:00 a.m. and conclude by 4:00 p.m. each day.

For the safety of emergency personnel involved in the training, the right lane of US 15-501 South will be closed between Arlen Park Drive and Market Street during these exercises.  Motorists are urged to use caution throughout these closures.

Those close to this area may experience the odor of smoke and see flames visible.  There will be an electronic signage board indicating the training area to clearly identify to citizens and residents where the training event is taking place.

While we expect to have smoke and visible flames at the training site, if you encounter a situation that causes you concern, do not hesitate to call 911 and make a report.

Firefighters Battle Heavy Chapel Hill Blaze

Firefighters responded to a blaze at a two-story Chapel Hill residence at around 2:36 a.m. on Friday.

The flames were reportedly visible from the back of the residence at 321 McCauley Street, just to the west of UNC’s campus.

According to a press release from the Town of Chapel Hill, a total of 18 personnel from various fire and police squads in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, New Hope and South Orange were called to put out the heavy flames.

No injuries were reported, but two cars in the garage were destroyed, and three others were damaged.

Two residents of the burned structure were reportedly displaced.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation as of Friday afternoon.

How to Be Safe with Fireworks

This July 4th, Chapel Hill is offering a variety of ways to celebrate, notably the fireworks display at Kenan Stadium. The Chapel Hill Fire Department is reminding citizens that the best way to practice good firework safety this summer is leave it to the professionals.

Fire Marshall for the Chapel Hill Fire Department, Todd Iaeger, says that the best way to be safe with fireworks this Independence Day is simply not to use them.

“The obvious answer is not to use them at all,” says Iaeger. “If you are going to use consumer fireworks, people have to be cognizant of the fact that these things emit significant temperatures, and anything around those things can easily ignite. People have to remember too that the statute of North Carolina states that if it leaves the ground, if it moves, if it makes a big bang, it’s illegal.”

Iaeger also says that the use of sparklers is something that might be safest to avoid altogether, especially for child safety.

“To me, it’s a bit counterintuitive,” says Iaeger. “We give small children sparklers and tell them to wave them around. What people don’t understand is that patterned material on those sparklers has the ability to reach to 1,200 plus degrees. So, we’re putting 1,200 plus degrees of a little wire in the hand of a child. If you are going to use those, you’ve got to make sure there is an extreme amount of adult supervision. I believe, and I think statistics prove, that sparklers alone are very dangerous, particularly for smaller children.”

With the celebration events that Chapel Hill has to offer this July 4th, Iaeger says that there is essentially no reason to risk your own fireworks show, when you have one of the best in the country right at your backdoor.

“I want to stress significantly, please, forgo the consumer fireworks, forgo the homemade fireworks. Go to the professional display at Kenan Stadium. It’s ranked as one of the top ten best displays in the country. Take advantage of that. Please leave it in the hands of the professionals.”

For more tips on fire safety, click here.

Brazil and BBQ

I did not publish a column for the last two weeks because my family and I were in Brazil attending a few World Cup Soccer games. For this week’s column, I want to share a few non-science thoughts about our Brazil experience, and also tell you about a safety incident that occurred at my house just before we left town.

Much of news coverage here in the U.S. about the World Cup has focused on protests by Brazilian citizens regarding the expenditure of vast sums of money on a sports tournament in a country with so many other needs, as well as safety risks for tourists during the tournament. I’d like to provide you some first-hand insights of experiences in these areas.

There was a protest march in Fortaleza while we were there. What we observed was exactly what one would expect here at home. The protesters marched, held signs, and chanted slogans. Their rights to free speech and free assembly were respected and their interactions with the police were orderly and respectful. Except for it being in Portuguese rather than English, it could have been a Moral Monday march, except the Brazilian police didn’t arrest any of the protesters.

As for safety, the generous citizens of Brazil as well as the police officers were looking out for everyone and helped to create a secure and welcoming environment. For example, we had to catch a bus from a soccer stadium back to our hotel and were a bit confused. Two Brazilian women took notice of us and asked where we were trying to go. A couple of minutes later we saw one of them running through the crowds, risking missing her own bus, to find us and make sure we got on the right bus. I could list many other similar examples. It was a great trip and we felt secure and welcome the entire time.

With the travelogue completed, let me tell you about the first time I had to call the fire department since moving to Chapel Hill 14 years ago. It was the evening of the Belmont Stakes, and in-laws were over for a BBQ. I lit the propane grill on our back deck to let it warm up and went back inside to watch the horse race. When I checked on the grill about 15 minutes later, I noticed that something was wrong – really wrong.

The black insulation on the side of the grill cover had developed large blister-like bubbles. I checked the temperature gauge and it read 700ºF! I grabbed one of the valves on the front of the grill to try to start turning off the propane, and found that it had melted and no longer functioned. At this point, I decided it was time to call for professional help.

I quickly went inside, grabbed my phone and told everyone, calmly but firmly, that they needed to get up and head out the front door. Once we were out of the house and away from the overheating grill, I called 911. The dispatcher was calm and clear and stayed on the line with me until I could see the fire trucks coming. The firemen were there in under five minutes, donned their gear and stopped the fire by shutting the valve on the top of the propane tank, which was located in the cabinet below the grill. I had considered attempting this myself before calling 911 but (correctly, I think) decided that getting everyone out of the house and letting the firemen assess the situation was the right way to go.

I want to thank both the 911 dispatcher and the fire department for taking care of us when we needed them. If ever you wonder why we pay taxes, this is why.

So what went wrong with the grill? I can’t be 100% sure, but let me lay out the most likely scenario. The pressure inside of a propane tank is between 100 and 200 pounds per square inch (psi). When you connect the tank below the grill there is a small circular device in the hose. This is the regulator. Inside the regulator are a plastic diaphragm and a spring. The spring is adjusted such that the outlet pressure from the regulator is approximately 0.4 psi, significantly lower than the pressure inside the tank. Once the pressure is lowered to 0.4 psi by the regulator, the propane gas flows to two or three valves which are controlled by the dials on the front of the grill and then directed to the burners. Along the burners there are many little holes and out of each comes a small flame. The temperature inside of the grill is a function of the temperature of the small flames, the flow rate of propane from the tank to the burners, and the heat loss from the grill to outside air.

Depending on the purity of the propane – it contains some other hydrocarbons such as ethane and butane – and the fuel-to-air ratio, the temperature of each of the little flames can be as high as 1900°F. Even though the flames are very, very hot, since they are small, the heat given off by one of them is limited. When everything is functioning properly, the heat given off from the flames in conjunction with the heat loss from the grill results in a temperature within the grill of approximately 300 to 450°F.

The most likely scenario which resulted in my grill overheating was that after 14 years of reliable service, the regulator in the feed line failed, probably due to a broken plastic diaphragm. Therefore, the pressure of propane being supplied to the burners was much higher than the intended 0.4 psi. As a result, the flow of gas to the burners was much higher, resulting in the dramatic increase in temperature.

At the point I called 911, there were two key risks on my mind: a house fire and an explosion. My grill is on a wooden deck and near to some vinyl siding, so there was a realistic risk that the overheated grill could have started a fire on the deck itself. More than 1,000 home fires a year in the U.S. are started by similar circumstances. There are also occasional reports of propane grill explosions. Although I was concerned about this possibility at the time, my circumstances were not likely to lead to an explosion. The propane tank, supply line, and regulator housing are all made of steel which can easily withstand a temperature of 700 ºF, so there was no reason to expect a leak to develop. Without a leak in the supply line, it is hard to construct a scenario which could lead to an explosion.

The root cause for this safety incident is clear: I operated my grill for 14 years, well past its intended service life. The manufacturer supplied a gas regulator which functioned perfectly for a long time, so I cannot ascribe any blame to them. I have since learned that you should not operate a propane grill for more than 10 years, so I recommend you think about how old yours is and join me at the grill store if it is too old. As I am in the market for a new grill now, please email me at if you have a recommendation. It’s good to be back.

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