When a Whistle in the Wind is the Sound of Steam: Lessons Learned from a Building Emergency
How do you recall the evening of Friday, October 31, 2008? For most, the evening held some connection with Halloween: that occasion known for flights of fear or pranks of all scales. For the occupants of Building 66, however, that Halloween Friday will be remembered as a trick in the form of a steam release and a lesson learned in the unpredictability of emergencies and the necessity of a business continuity strategy.
At 8:30 pm, condensation-induced water hammer occurred in 200 psi steam piping in the Building 66 sub-basement mechanical room. The hammer forces caused pipe anchors to pull out of the concrete ceiling slab, allowing enough pipe movement for an expansion joint to pull apart.
From the two open pipe ends a significant volume of steam was released into the building. Thirty sprinkler heads fused due to the heat of the steam. Sprinkler water and condensed steam caused significant damage in the building. Subsequent inspection the following morning revealed the failure of a steam trap and damage observation supports the conclusion that the condensation-induced water hammer occurred at that location. Fortunately, no injuries or fatalities occurred and Department of Facilities staff worked ceaselessly over a 24-hour period to maintain essential building services and to ensure re-occupancy the following Monday.
In the following weeks, MIT engaged two independent third-party investigators to address the root cause of the incident and identify any follow-up recommendations. Professor Emeritus Peter Griffith of MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department is considered an authority on heat transfer and thermodynamics and was able to lend his expertise to the assessment of the incident. From these reports, the Department of Facilities identified preventive measures that would mitigate the likelihood and impact of a recurrence.
Several factors mitigated the impact of the steam line rupture. First, the timing of the release, combined with the evening being Halloween, meant the building was minimally occupied and no one was in the direct path of the release. Second, surveillance video revealed that approximately 90 seconds elapsed before steam infiltrated through hallways and doors. Those still in the building and immediately responding to the fire alarm had time to safely evacuate. Some air-handling units remained functional, which mitigated temperature effects. Areas with the most water damage either did not contain water reactive chemicals, or the containers were properly stored under inert atmospheres. Finally, the Facilities Manager and Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) staff surveyed the building within 24 hours of the incident; this was essential to identifying any operations needed to make the building safe for re-occupancy.
The recovery plan for Building 66 is a collaboration engaging the Department of Facilities, the Chemical Engineering Department Facilities Manager, the MIT Insurance Office Claims Adjuster, FM Global (MIT’s property insurance carrier), the EHS Office, and the Security and Emergency Management Office. The Chemical Engineering Department was fortunate in that no laboratory spaces experienced a complete loss of research facilities. Loss consultants who surveyed the extent of equipment and facilities damage applied the following guidelines for estimating individual lab losses:
Efforts to identify and mitigate impacts from a spectrum of man-made and natural hazard scenarios were the focus of a research project funded under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Resistant University (DRU) program. The project, under the supervision of Professor George Apostolakis, who has dual faculty appointments in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division, entailed developing a quantitative framework for identifying and assessing a universe of risks and their impact (or disutility) through a variety of lenses such as human and/or environmental health, infrastructure resilience, intellectual property, and reputation.
The research effort engaged numerous stakeholders representing a cross section of the Institute’s academic, research, and administrative units and generated a dialogue on the following questions and their role in building organizational resilience:
Finally, researchers evaluated interdependencies across campus – for departments, this is where the proverbial rubber hits the road – understanding that the research and education enterprise is a network of building infrastructure, communications, and utilities systems, locally operated and maintained research equipment, administrative services, and the numerous departments which provide or use the service of a core facility that may support hundreds of research collaborations and represents millions of dollars of research investment.
Building organizational resilience is an effort that commands involvement across all departments and cannot be effectively achieved through delegation or outsourcing. The all-hazards assessment framework is a valuable heuristic technique for evaluating low probability-high consequence events alongside higher probability-lower consequence events. Lessons learned from the steam incident and events elsewhere continuously refine the model, enriching its future value as a decision-making tool and model for emergency planning.
Empowering Your Own Organizational Resilience
In the December 2007 MIT Faculty Newsletter, an article on the lessons learned from the December 2006 fire at One Broadway which resulted in an extended outage for several departments, summarized key considerations for emergency planning that are applicable to a whole host of scenarios including the steam incident described earlier. In underscoring the importance of proactive extended outage and emergency planning, academic, research, and administrative departments across the Institute are asked to consider the following: