Building an Intelligent Fire-fighting System



Perhaps the most frustrating problem in developing a new warehouse or upgrading an existing facility is the development of the fire fighting network. When it comes to fire fighting you have lots of interested (interfering?) parties – each with their own opinion.  These include:


·         The risk consultant

·         The insurance company covering the risk

·         Automatic Sprinkler Inspection Bureau

·         SABS / SANS 0400 (National Building Regulations)

·         The local fire chief

·         Foreign standards (eg National Fire Protection Association (NFPA - from USA or European standards (European Fire Classification – EN 13501).

·         FM Global (international body that many international companies use as their advisor / standards body

·         The fire consultant

·         The logistics consultant

·         The fire / sprinkler / suppression equipment supplier

·         The smoke / fire detection people

·         The local town council authorities

·         The internal corporate risk consultant (local & international)

·         The National Occupational Safety & Health act (OSH act)

·         The architect / engineers / professional engineers

·         The builders / developers

·         The operations people (the users)


With all these influencing factors can one possibly optimise the risk and the design of the fire suppression system?


Ideal Strategy


Logically, if one has a fairly complex environment – you would employ a risk consultant who would:


·         Examine the overall risk profile (including fire risk, labour risk, exchange rate risk,  IT risk, telephone risk, fuel price risk, electrical supply risk, opposition risk, etc)

·         Pull together all the local & international influences & make global standard recommendations (what is the best standard to which you must conform)

·         Set up a risk management strategy


This strategy is usually set up with the senior management of the company and the insurers.


Once these strategic issues have been addressed one can move on to the design of the technical solution for the fire system.  It is vital that the strategic stuff is clarified before looking at the technical solutions – as this will ensure that the solution is compatible with the business needs.


The technical solution for the fire systems - if simple - can be handed to the equipment suppliers (example: sprinkler supplier) who can make the necessary recommendations – and install accordingly.  Typically this includes a bunch of sprinklers, extinguishers & alarms – in the right quantity and installed in the right place.


However if the facility and the operations are more complex, one needs to hire appropriate fire consultants to optimise the technical systems.  Their scope should include:


·         Comparing different standards

·         Comparing different solutions

·         Integrating solutions with operations

·         Integrating automatic suppression with detection systems

·         Developing a comprehensive technical solution

·         Laying out prevention strategies

·         Laying out extinguishing strategies

·         Determining people strategies


The value of the fire consultant is that he should examine options and various solutions to optimise operations and help find the solution that meets the risk objectives as well finding a cost effective answer to the business needs.


The fire consultant then issues enquiry documents and the infrastructure people then quote on the solution developed.  This may include:

·         Water storage, backup & supply network

·         Suppression systems

·         Detection equipment & alarms

·         Hand held equipment

·         Ventilation / smoke handling systems

·         Communications systems

·         Backup strategies

·         Training & education programmes


The consultant may also facilitate plan approvals, insurance approvals & inspection approvals.


Clearly the quality of the options and solution recommended by the consultant is highly dependent on his competence.  A good consultant will carefully evaluate the business issues and integrate the solution with operational needs, while a less competent consultant will only focus on obeying the rules.


What you Don’t Want


The worst case scenario is when the consultant arrives at your door and starts laying out the local rules (quotes you page ## from SABS 0400) and simply generates a design based on some standard.   In that case you may as well employ an equipment seller to do the job (consultant adds no value).


Clearly some companies see the sprinklers as a grudge purchase and the only reason for the consultant is to get quick municipal plan approval.  You then need somebody who can get away with the cheapest solution & simply meet the standards.  However, these are the organisations that have no real risk management strategies & want the cheapest solution – regardless of the downstream ramifications.


Typically these are the organisations where you will read about a fire that destroyed their facilities a few months / years later. 


Ideal Solution


Clearly the aim of the exercise is to optimise the process – not simply obey the rules.  For example the fire consultant should be analysing:


·         How to couple the design into the overall risk strategy 

·         How the options available will meet business objectives

·         Which option give the best operational benefits

·         Which option gives the most flexibility for the long term

·         Which rules are most appropriate (SANS0400, NFPA, EN13501)

·         Are there alternatives (eg: ESFR roof sprinklers vs in rack sprinklers)

·         Which option gives least risk

·         What  option is the easiest to maintain

·         Etc, etc




Finding an intelligent and effective fire solution is not easy.  Besides the interference of a multitude of people in the process, the industry is full of people who operate in an environment where they believe that following rules is the only component of a good design.


Furthermore, most companies see fire protection in terms of an evil necessity – foisted on them by an evil money grabbing industry – and any purchase is done under duress.  They thus are not interested in an optimisation process – only in getting the minimum infrastructure installed at least cost.


However, the ramifications of getting it wrong can be horrific.  An out of control fire can destroy your business and people may be injured or killed.  So when you next need to install a fire system you need to do consider your options carefully.


Contributed by Martin Bailey, Managing Director, Industrial Logistics Systems