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safe for them to open one. Shutting the wrong valve or opening
any valve can have dangerous results.
In New York City, steam valve rooms have one valve labeled “Inside Service Valve,” which will shut down the steam
to the building. FDNY firefighters are permitted, if necessary,
to close the Inside Service Valve, but it is usually safer to
leave the closing of the system valves to the utility or responsible building personnel. An important consideration: After
a steam valve is closed, you must follow a specific procedure
before reopening it; failure to do so can result in a burst pipe
and injury or death to whoever is in the vicinity. Any time
a firefighter shuts a valve, you must notify the utility or the
responsible building personnel.
The escaping steam from a ruptured HP steam pipe will
severely burn and even kill people nearby; and firefighters may
not be able to enter the area, even in full PPE, until the area
has cooled. Any venting may have to be done from the exterior
As in the case of a generating station, conditions can change
rapidly, so firefighters should wear full PPE when operating in
the affected area. Even with full gear, if the operation is prolonged, firefighters will have to be rotated frequently, since the
elevated temperatures can rapidly debilitate them.
A ruptured HP steam pipe in a building will present a
communication problem but not as severe as the larger and
higher-pressure pipes in the generating station and in the
street. There will also be a visibility problem in the area of
Just because a building is supplied with HP steam, it does not
mean that what is leaking is at high pressure. It could just be a
leaky radiator and not nearly as hazardous as a ruptured HP pipe.
• Contact the entity responsible for control and repair of the
• Consider requesting the steam utility to respond as an advisor even if it is a private system.
• Locate the origin of the leak, determine the hazard presented, and consult with building personnel to determine what
action you can take to resolve the problem. Is there a valve
that you are permitted to shut? If it is utility-supplied steam,
utility personnel may be able to shut off the steam in the
• Determine who in the building is in danger.
• Evacuate occupants from the danger area.
• Ventilate the affected area.
• Consider that asbestos may be involved and that it is a
• Wear full PPE when entering the affected area.
• Consider the need to decontaminate.
• Consult with responsible utility/building personnel before
closing any valves, and do not open any valves.
• Be aware that when outdoors, steam will cool relatively quickly, so the temperature will drop as you distance
yourself from the leak. Indoors, however, temperatures will
become dangerously elevated quickly.
Because all HP steam emergencies mentioned in this article
are high-hazard/low-frequency incidents, take the following
• Find out if you have HP steam in your response area.
• Preplan your response as follows:
◊ Visit the sites for familiarization.
◊ Learn the potential hazards at each location.
◊ Determine in advance the responsible party to contact at
such emergencies and the help he can offer you.
◊ Decide what actions you can take at these incidents and
what you should not attempt.
• High-hazard/low-frequency incidents require repeat training.
• Have a decontamination plan, and train on it.
You may not have any HP steam in your response area,
but what about the areas to which you respond on mutual
aid? Are there any new building complexes being erected
in your response area? If so, will they be generating their
own electricity, and will they use HP steam? A response to
an HP steam incident is not one that you want to attempt
without prior planning, so make the effort to find out if such a
response might be in your future.
FRANK MONTAGNA retired from the Fire Department of New York
after 43 years; he was a battalion chief for his last 26 years. He taught
courses at John Jay College based on his book Responding to Routine
Emergencies (Fire Engineering Books) and has published more than
40 articles on various aspects of firefighting. He lectures on utility
emergencies and fires and other fire-related topics.