Article Archive
Daves Notes
The Machines Must Talk
Vol 20 No. 4

Three major factors drive the train with regard to detectors and other modern fire prevention technology in industry -- interoperability, expertise and compliance.

With regard to detectors we have technology today that seemed impossible only three or four years earlier. We have exotic devices that can not only detect particular gases, but tell you the percentage of gas present, the density of the gas and the temperature. Much of this new technology is a spin-off from the space program and the Department of Defense. It almost scares me how technological progress can render much of what we consider state-of-the-art obsolete overnight. That's the boon and bane of the our modern world.

However, a detector is only as good as the overall information system that it helps comprise. A computer network is a group of two or more computers connected to each other. The beauty of modern computerized detector technology is that individual detectors can be link together as a fully integrated network to protect plants and refineries. But what happens when these systems are not interoperable. A plant may have detectors as much as 20 years old in place, some more mechanical than electronic. Yet management wants these systems tied together and working from one computer screen. In many cases, human intervention would only hinder the process. Detectors are plugged directly into automatic suppression systems that react in a matter of seconds.

Various detectors approach the challenge from different angles. Catalytic detectors use a small platinum element coated in a particular catalyst. Then electric current is passed through the platinum. Combustible gases that come in contact with the heated surface react, triggering the detector. However, placement is critical with single-point detectors. More than once, dangerous fumes have passed between these devices without triggering an alarm. Enter the infrared open path detectors. A pulsed infrared light is transmitted from a source to a receiver unit. Because hydrocarbons absorb infrared energy at a variety of wavelengths, the receiver is able to measure reduction in intensity as the potential LEL hazard.

Each of these systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Under adverse conditions, a catalytic detector can become a potential ignition source. Open path detectors must have an unobstructed line of sight and perfect alignment to perform. Enter visual flame detection and visual smoke detection. Using closed circuit televison and motion detection software, these systems can pickup potential hazards at the earliest stages from well outside the potential danger area.

Integrating these various detector technologies into one smoothly functioning system is the biggest challenge plant personnel responsible for fire protection may ever face.

One day a hotshot from the head office drops by and informs the plant manager that corporate policy will require the use of detector XYZ in the future. That system is not interoperable with the detectors now in place. Changing the entire detector network at one time is prohibitively expensive. What do you do? Technology provides a solution. First responders today use an interface that facilitates communications between incompatible radio systems. Computer interfaces exist that can have the various plant detectors and other safety technology reading from the same page as well. I have seen these systems demonstrated and they do work.

The dazzling new technology brings other challenges for the fire and emergency services. What is important to realize is the ever increasing role that IT personnel will be taking in fire protection. Maintaining automatic fire protection systems used to mean checking that the sprinkler system has water and that it is at the right pressure. Maybe somebody had to run out to Building X and plug in a new smoke detector once in a while. Today we have sophisticated computer systems that routinely analyze data from detectors on a second-by-second basis. Operating these high tech systems will demand a higher level of computer expertise from emergency responders responsible for upkeep.

Part three of the technology triangle is compliance. Unfortunately, companies usually don't invest in these expensive detection systems or other new technology simply because it means a better night's sleep. The evolution of the American fire service is littered with tragedy that brought about regulatory change, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the New London School, the Coconut Grove night club and the Iroquois Theater to name only a few. Each of these disasters brought about new laws and regulations to keep people safe. The shame is that progress only seems to come at the cost of blood.

Sadly, much of this marvellous new technology in detectors will only find its way into service at the same price. All it takes is someone doing hot work in a vapor cloud area who didn't bother to have the job analyzed for a hot work permit. Only recently a worker brought a gasoline tank truck into a building for maintenance without checking for confined vapors. Within moments of striking an arc with the welder a powerful explosion blew apart the entire structure. Before the blood and pain comes stupidity.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere close to regulating that out of existence. o


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