U.S Navy photo

PATUXENT RIVER, Md. – Hiding under just about every desk onboard NAS Patuxent River is the ubiquitous surge protector/power strip and rarely do any of us give it a second thought as we go through our work day, but as a recent office fire onboard NAS Patuxent River served as a reminder, maybe we should.

At 1:49 p.m. Aug. 30, the fire alarm sounded in Building 1668. One of its occupants did a quick search and noticed smoke coming from under an office door. He then alerted other occupants and called the emergency line.

“The call was dispatched at approximately 1:51 and the first fire unit was on location at approximately 1:57,” said Pax River’s Battalion Fire Chief of Prevention JP Caulder. “The room of origin was not occupied that day and hadn’t been for about five days. When units arrived on the scene, the room was fully charged with smoke and heat. The flames had not spread far from the point of origin. The 911 caller witnessed the smoke coming from under the closed door after the alarm had automatically activated.”

Damage from the fire, extinguished within two to three minutes, was moderate.

“The fire was contained to a single room, thanks mostly to the office door being closed,” Caulder explained. “If the door had been open, the fire could have quickly spread throughout the structure and caused much more damage. Some smoke, heat, and water damage also occurred in the fire room and there was minor damage to the adjacent offices. Some damage also comes as part of the overhaul that firefighters complete to ensure the fire has been completely extinguished. That includes pulling down the ceiling and opening walls to check for extension of the fire to prevent it from spreading any further.”

U.S Navy photo

Fire investigation and cause

Heat and flame damage was less at the door and increased toward the back of the room with most of the flame damage located at the back corner of the office by the window, wrote Inspector Matthew Gould in his fire investigation report afterward.

Gould did a quick assessment of the burn patterns in the room then had the fire department start removing items that were not near the point of origin of the fire. Next, he slid out the desk located at the point of origin to determine whether the burn pattern started above or below it.

“Once the desk was away from the wall, it was obvious the fire had started below and to the left of the desk, below the window,” Gould reported. “We found two possible points of ignition. One was the power supply for the computer’s docking station and the other was a power strip.”

Finding no heat damage to any of the internal components of the computer’s power supply, focus turned to the power strip, where damage was found both externally and internally that was consistent with it being the cause of the fire, Gould determined.

Because of damage to the power strip, investigators were unable to find a manufacture date; however, based on the construction type and components they could see, they believed it to be between 8 and 15 years old. No one from the office knew how long it had been there, nor where it came from, and investigators arrived at two working hypotheses:

• As with any electronic device over time, it can become worn and damaged, and because of age, the power strip failed internally. The heat from the failure inside began the combustion process with the plastic casing and eventually spread to the wall and desk around it.

• It is possible that, although the power strip was being properly used at the time of the fire, in the past it could have been damaged being used for something else. Power strips on base often get passed from one place to another. Because of this, it is possible it was misused at another location which caused damage that eventually led to the failure that caused the fire.

Safety advice from the fire department

Personnel can learn the age of the power strip beneath their own desk by checking for an affixed label with the manufacture date printed on it.

“If your building experiences a power surge, your power strip is hot to the touch, or you smell an odor from the power strip, it should be replaced,” said Caulder, who also noted that sometimes the strips are unknowingly misused.

“People mistakenly believe the power strip provides more power than what’s available from the outlet, but they’re typically rated at 15 amps — the same as the wall outlet,” Caulder said. “People sometimes plug in appliances that draw much more amperage than the strip is rated for. NDWINST 11320.10F states the following: ‘Surge protectors may be used for computers, printers, and monitors. Also, a separate unit may be used for copy and fax machines only. Use only protectors approved by nationally recognized testing agencies.’ Always use power strips in accordance with manufacturer recommendations and local policy.”

With many employees still teleworking, it is important to close the doors of vacant offices. Should a fire occur, this is a tremendous aid to isolating and containing fires. And, if the fire alarm should go off in your office building, Caulder urges personnel to leave immediately.

“Close doors as you exit, but do not go further into the building to accomplish this,” he added. “Do not go further into the building to retrieve valuables or car keys. Call the emergency line and report the conditions of the alarm from outside the building.”

To reach the NDW Dispatch Center emergency line, phone 301-342-3911 or 202-433-3333.

“You may dial 9-1-1 as well, but the process takes longer,” Caulder noted. “When you dial 9-1-1, the call will be received by St. Mary’s County Dispatch who will take the call information and then transfer the call to the NDW Dispatch center who then has to take down all the information again. We promote the use of the phone numbers that contact the NDW Dispatch Center first.”