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LONG BEACH - A contract employee working at an airport hangar that holds the police department’s helicopters accidentally triggered the building’s fire system, filling the 100,000-square foot facility with flame retardant foam Thursday morning.
Long Beach Fire Department and Police Department employees working at the facility said the system worked like a charm, filling the cavernous building to the ceiling with high-expanding foam in a matter of moments.
There were many jokes about it being a snow day in Long Beach, but the potential price tag for the mistake is not expected to be a laughing matter.
“The foam itself costs thousands, then there’s the issue of the helicopter (stuck inside), which cost several
Firefighters apply a chemical that causes flame-retardant foam to break down. The material was accidentally released and expanded in an airport hangar that holds the department’s helicopter Thursday morning. Department officials describe the saltwater-based material that was released as caustic but not toxic. (Scott Smeltzer/Staff Photographer)
million dollars when it was new,” one firefighter said.
Long Beach Fire Capt. Jackawa Jackson said the incident began at about 11 a.m. Fire crews located at the airport and at the fire department’s headquarters, situated in the same building as the hangar at 3205 Lakewood Blvd., were on scene instantly, he said.
They first made sure no one was trapped in the building, Jackson said, explaining that the floor-to-ceiling wall of foam would have suffocated any person who may have been caught inside the hangar.
The foam, he explained, expands at a rate of 100 to 1,000 gallons per one gallon of water. The building’s fire system included a 70,000-gallon water tank hooked up to a roughly 100-gallon tank of the high-expanding
foam, Jackson said.
To reduce the volume, firefighters first tried using massive fans to blow the sudsy foam out of the hangar while washing it down with fire hoses.
The combination of the water pressure and the air rushing into the hangar simply made the fluffy stuff spring to life and swirl through the air, looking a lot like a snow blowing machine at a ski resort.
A chemical designed to counteract the expanding foam was finally brought in to dissolve the substance, and fire crews were working to divert the runoff to a catch basin on the grounds of the Long Beach Airport, Jackson said.
“We want to try and make sure that none of the runoff gets into the streets and the storm drains,” he said.
Firefighters said the foam - which is saltwater based - is considered caustic but not toxic.
Jackson said the contract worker from Honeywell Security was a technician who had been working on the timers on the doors to the hangar for the past week, trying to fix a defect.
It was while he was working on the doors Thursday morning that he somehow tripped the fire system, which is clearly marked with warning signs, firefighters said.
It was unknown how the foam would affect the one helicopter that was inside the hangar, although most speculated the chopper will not be operational for quite some time.