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March 2002: Back to Basics

"Back to Basics." It may be cliché, but with respect to property conservation, it could be the difference between a fire being controlled or one that completely destroys a building.

When a fire protection survey is conducted for an industrial facility, recommendations for improvement are broken down into two main categories: Human Element and Physical Protection.

Human Element refers to items such as periodic fire pump tests, water flow alarm tests, checking sprinkler control valves for proper operation, drain tests on sprinkler system risers or poor plant housekeeping. These items, in most cases, do not require a significant expenditure to complete. In some cases, all they require is an hour or two of time per month.

Physical Protection refers to installing sprinkler protection or a fire pump, making improvements in flammable liquid operations or modifying a storage arrangement for better protection. In most cases, these recommendations have a significant cost associated with them and can take some time to complete.

Statistically, well over half of the major fires that occur in industry are due to some form of Human Element deficiency. Think about that. The majority of fires are the result of a deficiency in a Human Element program that may have cost nothing to complete, probably would have required very little personnel time to initiate, and yet resulted in a major loss.

Human Element recommendations are basic to any property conservation program. The strongest sprinkler system with the biggest fire pump is useless if a main valve is shut or the water level in the fire pump tank is to low. Let's take a look at a few basic Human Element programs and explore why they are important.

Sprinkler Control Valves: They should be visually inspected at least monthly. This will help determine if the valve has been tampered with, is it blocked by storage or is there a leak. The valve should be fully closed and re-opened annually. Post indicating and wall post indicating valves should be physically tested at least annually and semi-annually if tampered. Unless a valve is operated periodically, it will be difficult to operate due to lack of lubrication in the gears. It may not close at all. The interior should be inspected every five years to determine the condition of the interior components.

Waterflow Alarms: These should be tested quarterly by flowing from the Inspector's Test Connection. Most alarm signals travel over telephone lines. It is not uncommon to have an interruption to a phone signal either in the plant or in the Central Station. The alarm devices themselves have electro-mechanical relays that can malfunction.

2" Drain Tests: Drain tests are made from the riser and should be done annually. A drain test can flow 200-300 gpm and is a good way to determine if there is an obstruction in the incoming underground supply based on the pressure drop observed.

Smoking: Needless to say, a stray cigarette butt in an area filled with combustible storage or flammable liquids can be devastating. Smoking should not be permitted in an industrial facility. Designated smoking areas should be set up and properly protected.

Electrical Equipment: Faulty electrical equipment is one of the leading causes of industrial fires. Equipment can overheat or generate a spark and easily ignite surrounding combustible storage. Major electrical equipment should be infrared tested at least every three years. In addition, an annual electric preventive maintenance program should also be instituted and include exercising circuit breakers and visually examining switchgear, lighting and power panels, exposed wiring and large junction boxes to verify that they are clean, cool, dry and connections are tight.

Fire Pumps: Fire pumps should be test started weekly and receive a full flow test yearly. Fire pumps are usually installed to supplement a poor water supply and are a critical means of defense against a fire. Unless they are tested as recommended, they may not operate properly and may not be able to meet the water demand necessary to control a fire.

Housekeeping: Housekeeping can address many areas. Examples of poor housekeeping would be dust accumulations in a woodworking facility, storage in the aisles in a rack storage warehouse or combustibles too close to heat producing industrial equipment. These can all cause fires, which may overtax the available ceiling sprinkler system.

An industrial plant that has a satisfactory Human Element program in place is well ahead of the pack with respect to fire prevention. The chances of a fire growing out of control are greatly reduced. For more information, see NPFA 25, The Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water Based Fire Protection Systems and NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm Code. They address most of the above and numerous other areas with respect to property conservation.