Raising the Fire Safety Bar

When companies think about fire safety, some think of compliance to fire codes. Many of the advances to fire protection and the codes were derived from the lessons learned during post event investigations after catastrophic or otherwise significant fire losses.

It is clear when looking at National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) statistics that the majority of owners choose not to raise the safety bar. In a report published in 2004 by FEMA, 72 percent of non-residential structures had no smoke alarm present. NFPA statistics from 2005 show similar numbers to those presented by FEMA, with non-home structure fires totaling 130,000 and accounting for 25.4 percent of all fires.

Examining non-residential facilities it is clear that sprinkler systems are the code-required minimum that building owners accept as protection against fire. The reliance on sprinklers as the only active fire protection may be due to the fact that, until video image technology, smoke detection relied on spot type detectors requiring the smoke to travel to the detector. This resulted in smoke transport time delays rendering the detectors ineffective in large volume applications such as warehouses. This poor performance in large volumes along with the low loss of life may explain why detectors are not code mandated in these facilities.

Creating an impact upon an evident problem

Video Image Detection (VID) systems can make a substantial impact on the potential loss associated with warehouse fires while providing the benefits of a video system. Whether it is Video Imaging Smoke Detection (VISD) or Video Image Flame Detection (VIFD) or a combination of the two, VID is the application of artificial intelligence to analyze video images to detect smoke and fire. The main proposition of VID technology is that if one can see fire and smoke, then one can formalize the process similar to what occurs in the human brain. The process is then put in the form of computer software, or more generally, a device that can do the same function as a human observing the space.

VID systems detect the presence of fire and/or smoke within the video images over large distances, providing faster detection times than conventional spot or beam detectors. These systems do not depend on the movement of smoke resulting in the physical presence of combustion products at the location of the sensor so VID systems can work in environments where spot detectors are inefficient or non-applicable such as: warehouses, convention centers and manufacturing and industrial facilities. These systems can also play a dual role providing both fire protection and security for a facility.

If we examine the warehouse fire problem we find that 17 percent of warehouse fires were intentionally set and about 62 percent of fires occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the premises is not staffed or only a minimal number of staff is present, according to a 2003 NFPA Fire Analysis and Research report. Using network video cameras as detectors provides instant situational awareness and security in the form of video to personnel even when the premises is not staffed or short staffed.

With the growing implementation of mass notification it becomes increasingly significant to provide actionable intelligence to those in command during an emergency.

Shortening the time lapse between detection and notification is very important, and can be accomplished with the proper VID equipment, through written emergency procedures and by the effective training of building occupants. VID along with floor plans provides fire department personnel with the fire location and smoke conditions inside the warehouse real time. VID systems will detect very early identifying hot work events, the second leading cause of warehouse fires and other small fires (less than 100kW) over large coverage areas. Being a very early warning detection system VID systems activate when the fire size is small enough to be put out with an extinguisher. Because the technology works on a network the video can be accessed offsite, for example at a corporate headquarters. Also being an IP video system that continuously records video, the reconstruction and cause and origin of the fire can be identified quickly and you can deter theft and arson, the number one cause of warehouse fires.

Warehouse owners are continuing to increase building height and footprint to achieve a desired storage capacity. Although this presents greater risk it is one they are choosing to take because of the day to day cost savings. This is true even when we factor in the cost of the fire protection systems mandated to protect these facilities. Tall warehouses contain more goods per square foot, which in turn increases the potential property loss per floor area in the event of a fire. Property losses resulting from smoke and fire damage to inventory, in many cases, have far surpassed the construction cost of the buildings themselves. With these larger buildings and new challenges, more steps need to be taken to prevent the start and spread of fire before sprinkler activation. If there is a problem with the sprinkler system and extinguishment efforts do not work, the time delay could be disastrous.

James A. Lynch is the manager of Technical Services, axonX LLC, Sparks, Md.

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