Risky Business

May 13, 2009
Consolidations, retrofits and other changes, while at first offering cost savings, can create unintended fire hazards.

Too many companies take a knee-jerk approach to survival in tough times, and this can have serious unintended consequences.

For example, the widespread move to consolidate manufacturing and distribution operations is creating potential fire risks that businesses cannot afford to overlook.

Expansions, relocations and facility upgrades are some of the biggest challenges facing fire prevention experts these days because fire codes vary by region, type of material being stored and how that material is stored.

With so many variables involved, facility managers must work proactively with their local municipalities and insurance carriers to accurately determine their fire risk—particularly when processes, material, equipment or the building itself are changed, even slightly.

“When you upgrade a facility or move into an industrial building, the existing sprinkler system may not be classified for the new operations,” says Steve Trommer, vice president of Trommer & Associates, a provider of distribution and manufacturing facility planning services in Akron, Ohio. Trommer also notes that the trend to “build up instead of out” means facilities are getting taller, and water from sprinklers must travel a greater distance to reach the floor.

“People are looking to cut back these days,” he says, “but it could mean the difference between having a business today and not having one tomorrow.”

Anthony M. Ordile, consulting engineer at Loss Control Associates Inc. in Langhorne, Pa., offers another example of cost-control measures that could inadvertently create hazards. Ordile works mostly with third-party logistics firms that store and handle hazardous materials. “Flammable and combustible liquids used to be stored in metal containers,” he says, “and now, they are being stored in plastic containers, which can melt, causing the flammable liquids to escape.” He also points out that larger containers are being used to transport bigger quantities of these liquids, which further increases fire risks.

Driving the point home, Trommer tells of a time when he worked with Pioneer Standard Electronics on an upgrade to its facility in Twinsburg, Ohio. “They had an extensive, two-story carousel system,” he recalls. “I advised them to install an in-carousel sprinkler to protect the product. Then, I suggested we do the same for the remaining one-story carousels.” Because in-carousel sprinklers are costly, managers were reluctant at first but later agreed to install them.

Three years later, a 1,000-watt fixture from a metal halide lamp burst, and the filament fell into the 32-bin carousel, Trommer recalls. Thanks to the sprinkler inside the carousel, the company only lost four bins of product, and no one was hurt.

“The fire was out before the fire department arrived,” says Trommer. “It would have been a complete loss. They would have lost the entire building.”

Changing Dangers

Michael J. De Hamer, senior property specialist with ACE USA Property Engineering, a part of the ACE USA Global Underwriting Group, recommends facility managers consult with their insurance agent or broker any time a change is made to a building’s status. “If a new division is moved into an existing facility, for example, that may change the occupancy,” he says.

Mike Mahady, senior manager and head of plumbing and fire protection engineering for Facility Group, a program management, design and construction firm headquartered in Atlanta, agrees. “Different classes of commodities require different fire protection techniques,” he says.

And that often means changes in sprinkler systems. Though in-carousel (in-rack) sprinklers helped avoid disaster at the Pioneer Standard Electronics facility, many facility managers are reluctant to put sprinklers in racks because they are costly to install and maintain, can be hit by lift trucks during normal operations and limit flexibility to alter storage design in the future.

But older facilities designed with conventional sprinkler systems are unlikely to comply with modern fire codes after their structure, status or internal processes have been changed. For example, Doug Pope, director of distribution planning at Facility Group, says the current maximum height of a building with conventional sprinkler systems is 45 feet. “You cannot exceed 45 feet at the highest point of the facility,” he says. “Heights above that require in-rack sprinklers.”

In the 1980s, early suppression, fast response (ESFR) sprinkler systems were developed as an alternative to in-rack systems. While conventional sprinklers merely control fires until firefighters arrive, ESFR sprinklers actually suppress, or extinguish, them.

But ESFR sprinklers are not a cureall. For starters, they are designed for use in warehouses, not manufacturing facilities or non-storage operations. And these systems typically require two to three times more water than conventional sprinklers, according to Mahady.

In addition, when storage is present in warehouses protected by ESFR sprinklers, a minimum clearance of three feet must be maintained between the top of the storage and the sprinkler deflector, De Hamer explains. “In areas protected by ordinary sprinklers, a minimum clearance of 18 inches must be maintained.”

Making changes to a building is not the only reason to revisit fire prevention strategies. Material handling equipment upgrades and retrofits can also change fire protection requirements. “If a conveyor is wider than four feet, it’s considered an obstruction, and sprinklers must be installed underneath the conveyor,” De Hamer notes.

Partner for Prevention

To help clients sift through complicated, often-changing fire codes, one of ACE USA’s insurance services companies, INAMAR Insurance Underwriting Agency Inc., assists facilities in reviewing proposed changes.

De Hamer also suggests managers invite the local fire department into the facility whenever there is a change to the building or its processes.

Jim Cavalieri, a 20-year veteran of the Henderson, Nev., fire department and retired deputy fire chief, says he specialized in pre-fire planning for manufacturing and distribution facilities in Henderson. “We go through the facility and draw up a plan to ensure we know where everything is located,” he says. “We look at the size of the building, the processes and what is stored to identify potential hazards for first responders.”

A more technologically advanced method of measuring fire risk is the use of thermography scans, which use infrared technology to look for hot spots—temperature variations—in a facility’s electrical systems. They can also serve as predictive maintenance tools that allow electrical problems to be addressed before problems occur.

And, of course, all experts recommend educating employees on a regular basis. Smart pre-emergency planning includes conducting fire drills, staying in touch with the local fire department, developing a written plan of action in case of a fire and, finally, teaching workers to notice potential hazards and bring them to the attention of a supervisor. As Mahady puts it, “bad practice trumps good design anytime.”

NFPA Tests HVLS Fans for Fire Risk

In response to concerns from the insurance industry that highvolume, low-speed (HVLS) fans could obstruct sprinkler spray or increase the rate of fire spread through faninduced airflow, the Fire Protection Research Foundation of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) conducted a research project to explore the interaction between an HVLS fan and early suppression, fast response (ESFR) sprinkler protection of rack and palletized commodity storage.

Results of phase one of the study were released in February. Phase-one research included two tests of HVLS fans in 30-foot-high facilities with Group A plastics stored to a height of 20 feet. HVLS fans were consistently placed between four sprinklers in all tests.

The researchers concluded that HVLS fans did not affect the performance of ESFR sprinklers to a level that would be considered unacceptable. However, the report offered these recommendations:

•The minimum vertical clearance between the fan obstruction and a sprinkler deflector at ceiling level should be three feet, as currently allowed by NFPA 13 for clearance to storage.

•HVLS fans should be installed between four sprinklers.

•Storage arrangement buffers the fan-induced airflow and minimizes its influence on fire spread. As a result, it is assumed that the worstcase placement of the fan relative to ignition in this configuration is directly above the latter.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation is currently planning phase two of the research project, which will include tests in facilities taller than 30 feet.

Solving the Mystery of Dock Seal Fires

It’s relatively common to notice scorch marks and burn holes on dock seals after a truck has been parked at the dock. When truck engines are left running—even for as little as 20 minutes—dock seal head pads start to burn, leading to facility damage or, worse, total destruction of the parked trailer and its contents.

In 1999, Frommelt Products Corp., a division of Milwaukee-based Rite-Hite Corp., started investigating the cause of these mysterious dock fires. Though it appeared that trailer marker lights were to blame, researchers were skeptical since the low-wattage bulbs generate a seemingly insignificant amount of heat.

However, through their research, they discovered that burning occurs when the small heat output of individual marker lights is compressed into the foam pad over a period of time. This creates an insulating effect, which rapidly raises the heat given off by the lights. An ignition source is not needed for burning to begin.

When exposed to a large quantity of oxygen—such as when air is quickly drawn into the dock as a trailer departs—polyurethane foam can combust or “auto-ignite” at temperatures exceeding 800º F. This helped researchers explain why many dock seal fires erupt when the trailer departs.

To help alleviate this problem, the company developed Firefighter heatdissipating technology and incorporated it into its head pads and curtains as well as on the side panels of its Insulator dock sealing system. Three layers of reinforced, heavy-duty metal foil, sandwiched between inner and outer layers of fabrics coated with a vinyl compound, cover a fire-retardant, polyurethane foam block. The triple-layer foil acts as a heat sink, absorbing the heat generated by the marker lights and dissipating it across the surface of the pad instead of allowing heat to build up in a concentrated area.