Putting Out Fires

Managing Sprinkler Impairments

In March 1973, a fire started in a small access panel of a textile manufacturing room. Without properly functioning sprinklers, the fire spread, engulfing a key area of the facility. Ultimately the fire led to irretrievable loss of market share and the manufacturer, Wabasso, and its community never fully recovered.

Yet, automatic sprinklers had been installed throughout the property. All it took for the company to become the dominant story in the local newspaper was the decision to shut a single valve. The temporary closure, related to an expansion project on-site, seemed a reasonable decision. It was a short-term situation that no one saw fit to reconsider or deemed worthy of actively monitoring. After all, what were the chances?

To this day, no one is quite certain what went wrong. But on that particular day, while operators were on a lunch break, something malfunctioned or perhaps an accumulation of textile material in the machine overheated and began to smolder. The closed valve prevented sprinklers from emitting their customary stream of frigid droplets, which could have contained or even extinguished the blaze. Soon, the flames spread, creating a firestorm.

Although firefighters arrived within minutes, they were already too late. It was 24 hours before firefighters finally left the scene. When they did, most of the facility was either in ruins or out of commission.

On the other hand, who has heard of the U.K. factory that was saved by a rented fire pump? The diesel fire pump had been rented to provide cover while a new fire pump was on order. A fire in the factory was controlled by the rented pump, hundreds of jobs were saved and the factory is still in business. This was a "no-news" story and only made the inside pages of the local newspaper.

You would think that if the fire pump failed, there is nothing to be done about it. But following a straightforward procedure and taking some sensible steps meant that when something went wrong, the factory was protected and it's still going strong.

Is there a problem?
US$951 million is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimate of the cost of fires each year in industrial and manufacturing property. Automatic sprinkler systems have been the biggest success story in loss prevention since their invention in the 19th century. Estimates are that 38 million sprinkler heads are installed each year. Property insurer FM Global's loss statistics show that the average fire loss in an unsprinklered building is five times that of a fire in a sprinklered building. Research by the NFPA showed that automatic sprinklers operated in 91 percent of fires large enough to cause actuation. In short, sprinklers work. Mostly.

Why is this not 100 percent? Of the fires in which sprinklers should have operated but didn't, in nearly two-thirds of cases, the sprinkler system was shut off before the fire. And yet, the majority of failures could have been prevented with proper training and impairment procedures.

This means that the rest of the fires reported to the NFPA during the study period were "closed valve" fires, and they can be devastating. An investigation into a fatal 1987 fire in an urban apartment tower block discovered that the main water valve had been closed for months, if not years, before the fire.

What is an impairment?
An isolated fire protection system is termed "impaired." Impairments are either planned (for routine system maintenance) or unplanned (as a cause of sudden component failure or system activation). FM Global's working definition of an impairment is: "A planned or unplanned shutdown of a fire protection system which will impact the operation or reliability of the fire protection system, regardless of the reason for, or the duration of, the shutdown, and of the presence of backup systems such as dual fire pumps."

Fire pumps, sprinkler valves and gaseous protection systems commonly require impairments for servicing or following component failure. But sometimes further consideration can identify other examples of failure, including:

  • Electrical supply to electric fire pump (i.e., power outage).
  • Fire detection system as the activating device for a preaction sprinkler system (e.g., in a data center).
  • Empty suction tank or loss of main water for pump supply or tank refill.

Any impairment creates an unusual fire protection hazard. It is often perceived that impairments are inevitable and there is nothing that can be done. But planning and taking sensible steps can mitigate, or even prevent, an impairment. Managing impairments in a manner similar to other hazardous operations (e.g., electrical lockout, working at heights, hot work or confined space entry) can set the right attitude in facility personnel. It then becomes possible to start to consider the following questions:

Is the impairment necessary?
Some impairments are unavoidable—for example, modifications to a sprinkler system require the system to be drained and isolated. But many can be prevented by considering, 'Is there another way?' Examples include:

  • If a sprinkler system has a small leak, move stock or equipment out of the area, or cover anything beneath with a tarpaulin. Then, leave the sprinkler system live until repairs can be made. (It is rare for a leaking roof to shut down an entire facility, and the same approach can be taken with sprinklers.)
  • If working at ceiling level, manage work in a way that limits the possibility of damaging active sprinklers. If the risk cannot be alleviated, isolate (but do not drain down) the sprinkler system and include in the emergency plans a designated person to reopen the valve. Remember to restore the impairment at the end of shift.
  • Isolate only a section of a looped main, rather than closing down an entire system.

Is the impairment for the shortest duration possible?
Once the need for the impairment is established, good planning can help to ensure that the duration is minimized as much as possible.

For unplanned impairments this can be difficult, but continuous working (evenings/weekends) will help. Other steps can include:

  • Have a stock of spare sprinkler heads to minimize the time taken to replace damaged/operated heads. Aim to have spares of each type of sprinkler head used at the facility, as well as the tools to install them. Your insurance company can advise how many of each type you should have.
  • Commercial fire sprinkler shutoff tools are available to provide temporary plugging of an activated sprinkler head. These can be installed by factory personnel and allow sprinkler protection to be restored until sprinkler contractors can arrive.
  • If a leak or activation cannot be promptly repaired, consider disconnecting the pipe to the affected area, plugging the open end and then restoring protection to the remainder of the facility.

For planned impairments (modifications or maintenance work), it's easier to plan in advance to minimize the duration of the impairment. Depending on the scope of the work, the following points can be included in the method statement/risk assessment to diminish the work impact:

Ensure any new pipework is installed and tested up to the point of connection, and that all tools, equipment and materials are on-site before the sprinkler system is drained down.

For longer-term work, plan to do daily drain-down impairments for the work area. Leave the sprinkler system at the end of each day in a condition allowing protection to be restored overnight.

Consider installing a temporary valve for modification works. This will limit isolations only to the area necessary for the modifications. Secure and inspect any temporary valve according to your facility's existing valve supervision procedures. Remove the valve once it's no longer needed.

How can fire risks be minimized in the meantime?
At the moment a fire protection system is impaired, the facility is unprotected. This can create a serious fire hazard, but good management can mitigate this hazard.

If the impairment is for a fire pump, and a 100 percent duty standby fire pump is available, then this can be considered a "safe" impairment and no special precautions are generally needed. But, if the electrical supply is unreliable and the site may be reliant on an electric fire pump for an extended period, renting a standby generator might be a wise investment.

But if the impairment prevents the operation of the protection system, then additional precautions are required:

  • Schedule the impairment during downtime. For an unplanned impairment, shut down hazardous operations (e.g., those handling ignitable liquid or with a high fire hazard).
  • Prohibit hot work, or other temporary operations that can increase the fire risk for the duration of the impairment.
  • Notify the emergency team, site personnel and local fire brigade. Conducting additional patrols will increase the likelihood of identifying unsafe conditions or the early stages of a fire.
  • Assign someone to start the fire pump manually in cases where the fire pump automatic start has failed. Ensure procedures are in place for prompt notification to this person.

Further steps can be taken to mitigate the impairment caused by the loss of fire pumps:

  • "Backfeed" the sprinkler system from an alternative supply (e.g., public hydrant system). Connecting a hose from a convenient hydrant into the 2-inch (5-cm) drain connection on a sprinkler valve set will provide some water for the sprinklers.
  • Install a fixed 'emergency' connection between the public supply and the fire sprinkler system. This is often best installed in the fire pump room. This is normally closed, but opened in situations when fire pumps are impaired (e.g., pump failure or water tank cleaning).
  • Rent a diesel fire pump if fire pumps are to be out of service for an extended period. This can be appropriate when diesel engines have failed and are off-site for repair, or to cover a gap between ordering and delivery of a new system.
  • Provide temporary water supplies during repairs, cleaning or replacement of water tanks.

How can protection be restored promptly?
Impairments frequently happen during busy periods. Proper procedures will help to ensure that the protection is restored promptly. Many improperly closed valves (ICVs) identified by engineers had been closed in good faith, but without following proper procedures. This meant that the closed valve was simply forgotten.

Most property insurance companies will have a system for managing fire protection impairments, and these are readily made available to their clients along with instructions on when and how they should be notified. The FM Global Red Tag Permit System is available in hard copy and through an online and smartphone Red eTag system.

Keep in mind that contractors, are not based at your facility and may not have the same understanding of your business or procedures. Impairments should be managed by your own staff, not contractors. Don't give them the key—have your personnel do the impairment for them. Make sure that you check any restoration done by the contractor before signing off the impairment as completed.

Notification is a small part of the management process. Use the impairment management procedure regardless of the duration of the impairment (and regardless of the minimum duration before which the insurance company should be notified). A five-minute job is just as likely to result in an improperly closed valve as a five-day job. Use the procedure as a permit to work.

What resources are available?
Talk to your insurance company. FM Global has engineers on hand who can provide advice and assistance to the company's clients. They want to see proper adherence to loss prevention procedures in managing the fire hazards at your facility.

Impairments are inevitable and they present a facility with unusual risks. But, like any other risk to the business or its personnel, proper management of these risks can help minimize their likelihood and impact on the business.

Consider whether the impairment is necessary, or if there is another way. Take appropriate steps to reduce the duration of the impairment. Consider how the fire risks can be minimized during the impairment. Finally, restore protection as soon as possible. If applicable, use FM Global's permit management system regardless of the reason for, or the duration of, the impairment.


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