Firefighters laud entry system

Knox Boxes, found at about 400 Columbia buildings, hold keys and plans
Wednesday, March 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:46 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

An emergency entry system is being praised for its role in allowing firefighters to extinguish a three-alarm fire at the USDA Research Center on the MU campus late Monday.

Fire officials are crediting the system with helping them contain the fire on South Providence Road, which prevented further damage to the center and surrounding buildings.

No one was injured, and original damage estimates are more than $100,000.

The system, which allows emergency personnel to enter a locked building in the absence of a tenant, provided firefighters with interior maps and detailed information about the contents of the facility.

Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said the map and safety instructions found in the lock box helped firefighters develop a strategy.

“We were able to get a better determination of the layout of the building by the maps that they provided,” he said. “We were able to get a grip on what chemicals were or were not stored in the building and exactly where they were stored at.”

Sapp said about 400 buildings in Columbia utilize the Knox Box system. The university installed the system on most campus facilities about 15 years ago.

According to Larry Edwards, director of facilities management for MU, when firefighters arrive at a locked building, they contact the dispatch office, which sends a signal to release a key from the Knox Box in their truck. Inside this box is a key to the 6-inch-by-6-inch Knox Box attached to the building. When that box is unlocked, a key to the building allows fire personnel to enter. It is nearly impossible for someone to break into the boxes. Sapp said they are so named because they are as “secure as Fort Knox.”

While the boxes usually contain a single key, Sapp added that most labs and research centers on campus provide safety data sheets as well.

“It helps protect us by allowing us to exercise to the side of caution when we figure out that there’s something in there that is potentially an immediate threat to life or health,” he said. He also said that when no threat is determined, it allows firefighters to be more aggressive in their firefighting tactics.

The first alarm at the USDA Research Center sounded just before 11 p.m. Monday, and the fire kept crews busy until early Tuesday morning. The blaze solicited eight engines, two ladders, a heavy rescue squad, the Air Truck, a medic unit and numerous staff cars before it was determined to be under control at about 2 a.m. Firefighters remained at the scene for about 7 1/2 hours.

Off-duty personnel were called in and volunteers from the Boone Country Fire Protection District assisted in making sure there was enough coverage for other emergencies in Columbia.

The University Research Reactor, which is near the research center, was not affected by the fire.

The cause of the blaze is yet to be determined and is currently under investigation, Sapp said.

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