As many people have probably all experienced, and perhaps ever more so in today's economy, money for fire protection can be hard to come by. Cost-benefit analyses are taking on more prominent roles. There are some areas where a small expenditure can make a huge difference in incident outcome resulting in a huge benefit to cost ratio.
Unfortunately, the people who are on duty when an incident occurs often lack the authority to authorize these expenditures or are otherwise reluctant to do so. Like everything else addressed in this column, this can be addressed by preplanning; which in this case includes preauthorization of certain expenditures and procedures to obtain rapid approval of larger expenditures.
A fire occurred in the warehouse of a large textile mill on a Friday afternoon. Sprinklers successfully controlled the fire, just as expected. Sprinklers, of course, were not reusable. Neither the local fire department nor the mill had enough replacements on hand.
A local contractor was available but needed to expedite the delivery of the replacement sprinklers and needed to also pay overtime because the job would extend into Friday night. Local maintenance managers were reluctant to authorize the expediting fee and the overtime. By the time their insurance company convinced them to make the extra expenditure, the warehouse with extra sprinklers was closed, the sprinkler foreman had dismissed his crews for the weekend and he could not get a crew together until the next week.
Ultimately the outlets for these heads were plugged, the rest of the system was put back in service and a fire watch was established in the impaired area. Hose streams were still available and extra extinguishers were also deployed. It should be noted that an area impaired after a fire is especially vulnerable to a rekindle.
Look at this with the benefit of hindsight.
First of all, the best solution would have been for the facility to have enough spare sprinklers on hand to replace them immediately. However, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards do not require enough spare sprinklers to replace the number that might be expected to operate in a fire plus extras to prevent cold flow1. This facility only had the minimum required per NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Automatic Sprinkler Systems and NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. NFPA's Automatic Sprinkler System Handbook recommended an increase over the minimum where specialty sprinklers were used.
This facility had been expanded and modified many times, so there were perhaps a dozen different kinds of sprinklers, therefore the facility deemed it impractical to have 20 to 30 (or more) each of a dozen kinds of sprinklers.
The facility could have replaced the sprinklers with a different type; however, the different types available might not have been able to control a fire and might have led to a false sense of security, resulting in even further delay. They could have also replaced sprinklers with the spares they did have. This would have minimized the impaired area. It is not known if this was done or not.
They could have unloaded everything from the impaired area which would eliminate the fuel component of the fire triangle. At a minimum, anything that was burned could have been taken outside to reduce the likelihood of reignition. Before something like this is done, digital photos should be taken of the area for fire investigation purposes. Further, investigators might not want this material removed. It is not known how much was actually removed.
Even if the above actions had been taken, there will always be times when a contractor or parts will be needed on an emergency basis. Had on-duty management been empowered to authorize nominal expediting and overtime fees, sprinkler protection could have been restored a few days earlier.
Specific actions that can be taken include:
- Authorizing overtime and the rental of portable lighting trailers so that workers can repair a broken fire main on Friday night rather than tolerating an impairment over the weekend and getting it fixed on Monday during the day.
- Authorizing expedited shipping so that impaired fire protection can be returned to service more quickly. In one recent case, the cost of overnight shipping of sprinklers was about $40.
- Signing "blanket order" type contracts with private emergency responders so that there is no debate over terms and conditions of a contract in the middle of the incident.
- Establishing agreements with the local fire service to provide standby coverage during system impairments.
- Establishing good working relationships with the local fire service so that they know that if their equipment gets damaged, it will be promptly replaced by the facility it was trying to protect.
- Setting up reciprocal agreements with nearby or intra-company plants to supply spare sprinklers or other parts and supplies. An example could be extra foam to refill foam tanks.
Further discussion on the above actions
Some types of incidents are likely to require prompt response from private agencies. Examples include the cleanup of hazardous material spills and large storage tank fires. A blanket order type contract ensures that the process does not bog down by concern over contract terms and conditions and eliminates the concern of an on duty supervisor that he or she does not have the authority to sign the contract in the middle of the incident.
Virtually every police department allows its officers to work off duty (sometimes with their police cars) at movie theaters, jewelry stores, etc. It may be possible to secure similar agreements with fire departments to employ off duty firefighters and even reserve apparatus on a standby basis during impairments or for other unusual, temporary hazards.
Fire departments have a slow process for getting equipment repaired or replaced and may be understandably reluctant to risk damaging equipment to save the property of others.
A battalion chief in a major urban fire department explained that to get a hose line into position to save an apartment complex from an exposure fire, an engine company had to back down a very narrow road between two traffic bollards, rigid posts arranged in a line to close a road or path to vehicles above a certain width and to separate traffic from pedestrians. There was a risk that the engine would be scratched and some of the crew hesitated to take the risk. The battalion chief ordered it to be done anyway. The apartment complex was saved but the engine did get scratched and dented. The ensuing paperwork to fix it was a huge hassle. Industry could agree to take care of these issues promptly, eliminating any hesitation.
The expenditures described are minimal compared to the potentially hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars at risk. As is the case with most preplanning efforts, a little forethought may avert a major incident.
Feel free to contact this author at John.Frank@xlgroup.com or at (404) 431-2673.
1 For the purposes of this article, cold flow means that a sprinkler fusible element is heated by a fire but does not get hot enough to operate. A qualified sprinkler contractor should examine the heads near those that did activate to determine if the nearby heads should be replaced as well. This is typically one head beyond the ones that operated. If they are not replaced, the weakened link could cause the sprinkler to operate for no apparent reason.
John Frank, P.E., CFPS is with XL GAPS, a leading loss prevention services provider and a member of the XL Capital group.? "XL Insurance" is the global brand used by member insurers of the XL Capital Ltd (NYSE: XL) group of companies. More information about XL Insurance and its products is available at www.xlinsurance.com. XL Capital Ltd, through its operating subsidiaries, is a leading provider of global insurance and reinsurance coverages to industrial, commercial and professional service firms, insurance companies and other enterprises on a worldwide basis. More information about XL Capital Ltd is available at www.xlcapital.com.