Fire protection Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Not all fires are created equal. Every blaze requires three parts — oxygen, heat and fuel — in an unbroken chain of events.

But the specific elements that create and maintain a fire determine the proper way to fight it.

“Fire extinguishment is based on the removal of key elements of the triangle or interruption of the chain of events of the fire triangle,” says Andy Dolhyj, risk control property specialist at Westfield Insurance. “All forms of fire extinguishers, automatic sprinkler systems, special protection and manual firefighting are based on the principle of removing parts of the fire triangle or disrupting the chain of events to stop the fire.”

Smart Business learned from Dolhyj how commercial property owners can protect themselves from disastrous fires.

Who is responsible for the choice of fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems in a building?

Generally, it is the building owner’s responsibility to install fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems and to also maintain them at the site. Various fire protection contractors, the insurance company and, on occasion, the local fire department can assist in choosing the correct type of equipment for a facility.

What are some of the options?

Extinguishers: These devices have many different contents. Some types of extinguishment forms include: water, inert gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide, HALON and HALON alternatives, dry chemicals, and water-based foam.

Automatic sprinklers: This fire protection is almost exclusively water-based, either with straight water or water-based foam. Engineers use actual live fire tests to design custom sprinkler systems. In these trials, they ignite various occupancies and commodities and adjust the water density to the point where the fire is under control.

How should building owners choose fire suppressants?

This goes back to the point that not all fires are created equal. Fires have distinct properties based on their type, fuel and origin. There is a multitude of fuel sources, and each fuel source causes a different type of fire in terms of heat of ignition, fire spread and BTU output. One type of fire suppression medium does not suitably control all types of fire. Firefighters must apply the correct agent to a fire to remove one of the elements of the fire triangle or disrupt the chain of events.

For instance, water is not the most effective on flammable liquid fires, such as gasoline. And HALON or a HALON alternative is not the best way to control a deep-seated fire, such as one in a storage area for various commodities.

Overall, water does work best in suppressing and controlling many types of fires. This medium tops the charts in terms of penetration and heat absorption. Water also works effectively because of the principle of ‘prewetting.’ This means preventing ignition by cooling down the surrounding objects. On top of these other advantages, water also costs less than other agents. However, as noted above, without the addition of various chemicals, such as foamers, water may not always be the best medium for certain types of fires.

Whom should facility owners consult about their options?

First, they should obtain assistance from a fire professional, such as a fire protection contractor, insurance consultants specializing in fire or the local fire department. These advisers can help determine the best possible fire protection for the current occupancy and storages/commodities and analyze the cost considerations. And, as mentioned previously, water is the cheapest fire suppressant.

What legal requirements should decision-makers keep in mind?

Legal ramifications vary from state to state and community to community. However, in almost all instances, the authority having jurisdiction, usually a fire official or building official of some type, has the final say on approvals of installation and acceptance of fire protection.

How can these decisions affect businesses’ liability?

Again, the rules vary, but inadequate or improper forms of fire protection or extinguishment media give the occupants of a building a false sense of security. Not installing and maintaining the correct suppression systems could actually contribute to the fire and its spread.

What else should business owners know?

Some insurance companies offer client services in which they perform plan reviews prior to the installation of automatic sprinkler systems. They can also offer on-site evaluations of fire protection that include looking over fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. The standards applicable for all extinguishers, sprinkler systems and other forms of fire suppression come from the National Fire Protection Association and Factory Mutual Engineering.

ANDY DOLHYJ, P.E., is the risk control property specialist at Westfield Insurance and a professional engineer specializing in fire and fire protection. Reach him at (602) 910-1808 or andredolhyj@westfieldgrp.com. In business for more than 158 years, Westfield Insurance provides commercial and personal insurance services to customers in 17 states. Represented by leading independent insurance agencies, the product we offer is peace of mind and our promise of protection is supported by a commitment to service excellence. For more information, visit www.westfieldinsurance.com.