Fire Systems - From Beginning to Forever

A report by Larry W Owen , CFPS
International Project Director, Dooley Tackaberry, Inc. and Chair of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 750 Standard on Water Mist Fire Protection Systems

You arrive at work and your supervisor comes to your office to tell you that you are the project manager (PM) on a new fire protection project. “Fire protection,” you say. “Oh yes, I remember fire extinguisher training last year, but what did those letters ABC stand for?” It looks like it is time for a refresher course in fire protection systems. To put a fire protection system into place, many facets must be taken into consideration, including:

  • project management
  • technical issues
  • long-term ownership and maintenance considerations
  • commercial issues
  • execution
  • acceptance testing

Project Management
One of the first steps when managing a fire protection project is to define the project’s scope and objectives. All projects need to consider human safety as the first objective. A fire protection system that kills people when it discharges or extinguishes a fire is not acceptable. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a friend or co-worker in a fire system discharge realizes that human safety is the most important component in any fire system. All other project objectives should revolve around human safety.

Before you can work out where you want to go, you need to know where you are now. If the project is in an existing facility, is your current fire protection adequate? What is broken that needs to be fixed? Can the existing infrastructure support the needs of the existing fire systems? What about the needs of the new project? If the project is for a new facility, what standards or codes are driving the need for fire systems? Are there corporate standards that mandate the new fire protection?

It may be that the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) or an enforcing agency has given your firm an ultimatum regarding a hazardous process that needs fire protection in order to meet their codes or standards. Management often sees the need to make the AHJ happy as an investment with a poor return, so the PM is told to keep expenditure as low as possible. However, other corporations see fire safety as a core value that cannot be compromised. In these cases, the cost of the fire protection systems may not be challenged by management. In either case, making the AHJ happy will be one of the objectives of the project.

The corporate insurance carrier might be insisting that fire system improvements be implemented to prevent cancellation of insurance coverage or an increase in premiums. Since insurance carriers have a large influence on the types of fire systems required and the design parameters of the systems, the PM must consider the requirements of the insurance carrier.

Often, projects are driven by the objective of reducing the risk of monetary loss and/or process downtime. Processes that produce thousands or millions in currency revenue in a day can have huge impacts on a company’s income sheet if the process is shut down. It then becomes easy to justify spending one or two days’ revenue to protect a money-making process. Failing to provide a method of mitigating a potential loss can result in criticism for PMs from both within and outside a corporation.

It may be difficult to nail down a detailed scope of work at the beginning of a project. However, a general or global project scope can help to get all the project team members headed in the same direction. It is very typical for a project scope document to be dynamic or a work in progress; as technical and commercial issues are better defined, the scope document can then be revised.

Technical Issues
Before a fire protection philosophy can be developed, it is necessary to define the hazard: what is going to burn? The ABC mentioned above stands for the different classes of fires:

  • class A: ordinary combustibles 
  • class B: flammable liquids or gases 
  • class C: electrical fires 
  • class D: combustible metals
  • class K: kitchen fires.

In addition to the different fire scenarios, you need to consider whether the hazardous material will result in an explosion. If there is a potential gas release, is the gas lighter or heavier than air? Is the gas toxic? You will also need to consider dust as a potential explosive material.

After identifying the hazard, the type of fire system should be selected. Water-based systems – including sprinklers, deluge, water mist and foam – are the most common systems selected to mitigate fire hazards. For special hazard applications, gaseous systems utilising Novec 1230, FM200, FE13, Inergen or carbon dioxide might be selected. Each product has positive and negative features, so studying those features should be a high priority for the PM and project team. Other special hazard systems utilise dry chemicals that are specific to the type of fire – e.g. Purple K for high-hazard class B and C fires – or use both dry chemicals and foam (twin agent systems) in order to get the benefits of both.

All fire protection systems require interlocks to warn personnel, attempt to eliminate the hazardous materials and shut down the processes. Those interlocks typically shut off fuel sources and address the ventilation needs of the area.

During the definition of the hazard, potential obstacles or problems related to the hazard and fire system must be considered. For instance, is the existing water supply large enough for the new fire system? Is the hazard too far from the water source? Are there extreme elevation changes related to the facility requiring the fire system? An example is the water pressure requirement for a marine facility with a land-based process area. The water pressure requirement for the dock might result in water pressures that are higher than desired for the land-based process area. Special considerations such as these must be implemented at the design stage.Packaged Fire System

Long-term Ownership and Maintenance Considerations
A frequently overlooked facet of fire system projects is the long-term cost of ownership related to maintenance and operations. Often, PMs are given their instructions and a budget to provide fire protection systems and tunnel vision then sets in, with a disregard for those who will have to live with the end product. Involving operations personnel during the early design stages of a project can result in huge savings related to maintenance and operations. For instance, an offshore facility or a facility in a remote location needs fire protection products that can be put back into service quickly after an incident. System recharge methods must be addressed and the costs related to the system maintenance should be analysed. There can be huge operational cost differences between the various special hazard systems. Personnel training costs and logistics should also be considered by the PM.

Another issue to keep in mind is the environmental characteristics of the fire protection system. Global environmental statutes prevent the use of some fire systems in particular locations. The project should also consider global trends that might eliminate the use of various products in the future. Some offshore and land-based projects now require zero discharge of products that can harm the environment. It is therefore

necessary to consider the results of a system discharge and system runoff, and the issue of the accumulation of leftover fire system agent after a discharge – will a run-off sump or pond be required?

Commercial Issues
A PM must define or establish a budget: what can the project afford to spend? Some fire protection projects do not provide a quantitative payback, so qualitative cost justification may be required to help establish the budget. If the PM wants to purchase a gold-plated system but only has a cast-iron budget, the project engineers and designers need to know early in the project.

In addition to asking how much can be spent, the PM must also ask, “What can the company afford not to spend?” Often, the project cannot afford not to do something due to the possibility of human injury or having their processes shut down for an extended period of time. No matter how good the insurance coverage is, a fire loss often exceeds the monetary loss recovered by the insurance claim. There are many indirect costs related to a fire incident.

Another commercial issue is tied to the project schedule: when does the project need to be started and completed and when will funding be available? A fast-track schedule can have tremendous impact on the cost of the project. Is there a calendar-based ‘use it or lose it’ budget in place?

What Can the Project Afford Not to Spend? A burned Plant?Execution
How can the project objectives and scope be completed? As PM, do you feel that you can engineer and manage the project with the talent inside the firm, or do you need to go outside the company for help? Fire protection systems are speciality products, so outside help will often be required for developing the project scope, specifications, bid review, design review and acceptance testing.

The PM must also establish a procurement method. Fire systems can be provided by a turnkey contractor, through the general contractor for the project or through the services of a firm providing engineering, equipment and start-up services. Before entering into a contract with a fire system supplier, check his experience and references. See if the contractor has experience on similar projects. Can the supplier provide packaged systems that cut down on field installation costs and eliminate potential quality and performance issues? Is the supplier registered with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)?

Acceptance Testing
The project should also utilise a quality process that includes thorough document reviews, shop inspections, field inspections during and after system fabrication, factory acceptance tests (FATs) and site acceptance tests (SATs). These services can be performed by both in-house and contracted inspectors. The performance of complete factory and site acceptance tests can result in long-term benefits to the owner due to the elimination of substandard system components and assembly.

Being a PM on a fire protection project can be an educational, interesting and exciting experience. It can also provide a conduit to relationships with long-term benefits. So go for it – make decisions for your firm that will result in high-quality, high-performance fire protection systems from the beginning of the project to forever.