Worth Our Salt

Posted on by Alex at ABCO

2,000 feet below Lake Erie, ABCO protects safe winter driving.

Two miners and a red bulldozer inside the mine.

Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History

While true for most of us, a few members of ABCO’s team know better: salt is not easy to obtain. Two thousand feet below Lake Erie, they inspect fire protection equipment throughout miles of caverns that belong to a familiar name—Morton Salt. While Morton is best known for filling small ceramic pilgrims on Thanksgiving dinner tables, the salt from this mine isn’t destined to add flavor to mashed potatoes. This is working salt: it’s as tough as the environment it comes from, and as hard as the hands that pull it from the ground. This is road salt.

A dark mine tunnel lit at the end by the lights of a vehicle.

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At 6:00 am Charlie Seigler is riding a double-decker elevator down a mine shaft in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, with 13 miners and one co-worker by his side. Charlie is a special hazards suppression technician for ABCO Fire, and is on his way to service one of the vehicle fire suppression systems in the mine. With him today is another special hazards technician, Gabe Perme. The elevator sways a bit—a normal part of its operation—causing Gabe to quickly glance at the faces of the miners, looking for reassurance that the movement wasn’t cause for alarm.

“It’s an interesting place to work, I’ve never been in any other place like it and probably never will,” says Perme. “I always get a bit nervous on my way down, but the way I figure it, if these seasoned guys are unfazed I know I’m good.”

Perme and Seigler both had to attend a week’s worth of safety training to work down here, and the entire facility is held to rigorous safety standards. That’s part of the reason the team is here today: while most businesses have their portable extinguishers inspected annually, Morton has them inspected monthly. Periodic maintenance of the fire suppression systems is spread out a bit more based on mine safety code requirements, and they also take longer to inspect.

“When the systems are due for maintenance, it takes three of us three weeks to inspect them all,” says Seigler. “When Morton first hired us, we worked with the customer’s schedule to get all fire suppression system maintenance on the same cycle,” he continued, “life is much easier for both ABCO and Morton as a result.”

Rob Meadwell, Underground Maintenance General Foreman at Morton Salt’s Fairport Harbor mine, echoed that sentiment.

“ABCO’s guys are on-point with scheduling and follow-up,” says Meadwell. “They understand the challenges of our business, and the production demands we’re under—especially this time of year. We used to do our own monthly extinguisher inspections, but these guys adhere to the schedule and we never have to worry about it.”

a variety of equipment in a large underground cavern.

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Four and a half minutes after beginning their elevator ride, the technicians and miners exit into the caverns below the lake. Seigler is here today to recharge a dry chemical vehicle system that went off accidentally.

“Everything gets coated in salt down here, and that salt is cleaned off regularly,” says Seigler, “that can cause even the toughest components to corrode, and every once in a while that can result in a false discharge.”

Vehicle fire suppression systems are designed to protect the areas of a vehicle that are most likely to suffer a blaze, such as the engine, hydraulic lines, and occasionally battery compartment. The systems are exposed to constant vibration and environmental hazards, and are ruggedly built to overcome these challenges. Seigler approaches a front-end loader that has been taken out of service, and points to the fire system cylinder mounted atop one of the machine’s fenders. The installation of these systems is half mechanics, half art.

“The system installers have to make the most of the limited space they can work with,” says Seigler. “Sometimes the system tank winds up being exposed just because there’s no place else to put it.”

While Seigler gets to work on the system, Perme begins pacing through the mine stopping to check extinguishers mounted on posts and pieces of equipment. He points out the suppression systems as he passes them.

“That conveyor has a system on it, so does that machine over there,” he says pointing to a squat yellow vehicle. “Except for the small loaders and people movers, pretty much everything has a fire system on it.”

A yellow bulldozer climbing a large mound of blue salt beneath blue skies.

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Up on the surface, more equipment is protected by ABCO. Front-end loaders, industrial equipment, and a handful of flammable storage buildings dot a landscape dominated by mountains of blue-dyed salt. In all, more than 60 industrial fire suppression systems can be found throughout the site, each protecting a vehicle or portion of the facility with dry chemical or carbon dioxide. The mountains of salt drift and change shape throughout the year as the mineral is pulled from the ground or hauled off in dump trucks. Every time the salt moves, the people and machines that move it are protected by ABCO.

“The relationship we’ve developed really works well for both parties,” says Meadwell, referring to the level of service ABCO has brought to Morton Salt over the past several years. “ABCO’s guys bring a positive attitude and professionalism that we really appreciate.”

Once the snow starts to fly and ice coats roadways across much of ABCO’s territory, the salt is loaded into plows to help make winter driving safer. Shimmying in a hopper on the back of a snow plow waiting to melt the glaze off a slick roadway, the salt is moved one last time—and the plow driver likely has an ABCO extinguisher within reach.

For more information about vehicle fire suppression systems or other industrial fire suppression options, contact our offices at 800-875-7200.

Photos by Ricky Rhodes.

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