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Thu 15 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Playing with fire

Can the most up-to-date fire protection systems really guard warehouse operators from the threat of fire?

Playing with fire
Recent figures indicate that the global market for active fire protection is currently worth around US$5 billion annually and set to grow by around 5% in the next couple of years.
Playing with fire
Warehouse operators have suffered from damage worth millions of dollars from recent fires in the Middle East.

Can the most up-to-date fire protection systems really guard warehouse operators from the threat of fire?

To the untrained eye, the latest in fire protection technology is something straight out of a science fiction novel. Take the latest highly-sensitive, laser-based VESDA detector for example. This aspirating smoke detection system can intelligently detect a warehouse fire at the very earliest stage, triggering four programmable alarms. Each alarm has a threshold set by the warehouse operator enabling a measured staged response to any threat - from a suspicious investigation to the highest-level involving the activation of sprinklers and emergency services. Unlike other many of its counterparts, this device is planted at ground level, and not the ceiling - very handy for a warehouse whose ceilings are so high that by the time smoke reaches there, the fire has spread out of control.

VESDA is just one example of the many new fire detection and protection technologies available to warehouse operators desperate to protect their wares from damage. With the increase in warehouse fires being a continued cause of consternation for the Middle East, could these technologically advanced systems provide the solution to the problem?

Craig Nixon, business development manager at Tyco Fire and Security UAE, believes so. As a leading fire protection and detection company in the region, and agent for VESDA, Tyco is well-versed in protecting large buildings such as warehouses from fire. "Each company has to look at the risks presented in its warehouse to select the most appropriate system," advises Nixon. "There is not one fix-it-all system for everything." As warehouses, particularly in the Middle East, grow larger in size and volume, many of the previously used fire detection systems are now rendered largely ineffective. "Some of the new advances in detection technologies have been really targeted to bigger facilities with higher and larger open areas," Nixon agrees. "As the height of these facilities increase, detection becomes more difficult and normal point type detection will struggle to detect."

Of course, it inevitably helps if fire protection needs are considered right at the beginning of the warehouse design process. Sadly however, it is much more often an afterthought once the warehouse has been built and the mechanical and electrical work has been done. "It is always easier to put systems in during the construction phase rather than do the work retrospectively," emphasises Nixon. "Warehouse operators need to look at weight loading, water demands and those aspects which will potentially affect the structure itself during the design stage. When looking at racking systems within the storage facility for example, you need to take your fire systems into consideration during the design process of the warehouse."

It is not only active fire protection systems which should feature highly on the action list at the design stage. Passive fire protection solutions can help minimise the damage of a warehouse fire, particularly in places like industrial zones where many buildings are located in close vicinity of each other.

Passive fire protection means taking structural considerations to hand when designing a fire-proof warehouse. This can be the key to reducing the odds of a fire occurring and to minimise damage through containment. "There is definitely not enough attention placed on the importance of passive fire protection," argues Mark Lavender, sales and marketing director for Promat Fire Protection. "A lot of attention is focused on active systems like alarms and fire extinguishers but an integrated approach with both active and passive systems working together to protect an asset would be more successful."

Global company Promat specialises in passive fire protection solutions for the structure of buildings like warehouses, including fire compartments and barriers, sprays and paints, firestopping, fire rated partitions and ceilings as well as the protection of structural steelwork. As warehouses usually contain large undivided areas, the use of such methods, particularly fire walls or barriers, is extremely effective in avoiding the spread of fire, heat and smoke.

Furthermore, the real benefit of passive fire protection lies in maintaining the structure of building in the event of fire and preventing collapse. "Maintaining compartmentation can stop the spreading of a fire from warehouse to warehouse, as we have typically witnessed in heavy built-up locations like industrial zones," says Lavender, pointing to the case of Dubai Industrial City which fell victim to one of the biggest fires to hit the region two years ago. Starting as an explosion in a fireworks warehouse, the fire spiralled out of control and engulfed more than 80 neighbouring warehouses in its wake.

With scenarios like this, it is not surprising that fire protection specialists like Lavender and Nixon often feel frustrated with companies in the region who complain about the cost of fire protection systems. "Afterall, how expensive is the total loss of your business?" Lavender points out. "The cost of passive fire protection systems are minimal in the overall construction cost and are only a minor expenses in comparison." Nixon also agrees that whilst some warehouse operators in the region clearly do take fire protection very seriously, others can be reluctant to invest the capital required to get the best system for their facility. "Some companies simply don't want to spend money on fire protection and will do the minimum required." he says.

Despite their concerns however, both companies remain optimistic that the Middle East is slowly cottoning on to the benefits of fire protection systems in line with its global neighbours. Recent figures indicate that the global market for active fire protection is currently worth around US$5 billion annually and set to grow by around 5% in the next couple of years. But is the technology enough to convince the region's warehouse operators?
As operator of several warehouses in the region, Bernard Dias, operations manager for RHS Logistics, believes that most forward looking companies do consider fire protection as an investment and not a cost. "The cost of not having the right type of investment in fire protection systems could be disastrous for the business," he admits. The company uses a highly sophisticated laser system for both fire detection and prevention to protect its warehouses. Additionally, an in-rack sprinkler system and an overall sprinkler system in the shipping marshalling zone are on hand, should they be deemed necessary.

Whilst Dias believes that automatic fire suppression systems with standby fire protection stations are imperative, other fire safety measures can be equally important without relying on the latest technology for implementation. In many instances, for example, a fire can be discovered by a worker prior to the activation of a fire detection system, and this can be invaluable in providing early warning to the other building occupants and to the local and public emergency services. Having all staff trained on fire prevention procedures and use of basic fire fighting equipment is relatively cost-free and essential as part of a complete and balanced fire protection plan.

Guidelines from bodies such as the US-headquartered National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also advocate a balanced approach to fire protection which does not solely rely upon technology. Kathleen Almand, executive director at the NFPA's Fire Protection Research Foundation, places the involvement of emergency response services at the top of the list. "Engaging the local emergency response team early in the design process of the fire protection system will ensure that it is designed with their capabilities in mind," she says. Regular training of teams in the operation of the fire protection systems during a fire event is also essential.

The Foundation conducts research in the major NFPA standards areas, including sprinkler protection, fire alarm and signalling, hazardous materials protection, electrical safety, and fire fighter health and safety. "The major premise is that as today's warehouses are getting larger in volume and contain more plastic based contents, it is increasingly difficult for emergency responders to play their traditional role in final extinguishment of fire," explains Almand. "Typical fire protection systems (both suppression and detection) used for warehouses in the past needs to be reconsidered as contents and sizes change."

Indeed, the new fire protection technologies and approaches developed in the last ten years are clearly a better fit for today's warehouse. Many of the new systems are based on lessons learnt from real warehouse fire investigations and the shortcomings of earlier systems, meaning better performance and cost-savings in the long-term for warehouses. "Fire protection is a means to mitigate the risk associated with the loss of warehouse contents," Almand advises "There is a unique design solution for each warehouse - a competent fire engineer can provide the optimum solution for every company."

At Al-Futtaim Logistics, all warehouses are being equipped with fire protection systems such as fire hose reels, fire extinguishers, early suppression fast response (ESFR) sprinkler systems, fire detection and alarm systems. Refusing to compromise on health, safety and environmental standards, the company invests substantial amounts into ensuring that it's warehouses are fire proof to the maximum extent possible. "We have reduced our risks by implementing the appropriate fire prevention and protection control measures and also the facilities covered by the insurance," says Tom Nauwelaerts, head of logistics at Al-Futtaim Logistics. "The implications of a fire would be very serious for all involved parties, both financially and operationally."

As well as ensuring the highest level of active and passive fire fighting equipment, the company prioritises periodical maintenance and checking, employee awareness and the applying of strict proactive fire safety measures. "If the commercial goods stored in our warehouses become unavailable for sales, then we are causing a lot of consequential losses to our customers," explains Nauwelaerts. "Getting those goods on the shelf again on short notice would be a very expensive supply operation for our customers, and nothing can make up for the poor resulting customer experience."

Nauwelaerts believes that there have been lot of improvements with regards to the fire protection systems and regulations in the region over the previous years.

"The authorities like EHS Department in JAFZA (Dubai) and the municipalities are providing guidelines and recommendations to enhance the quality of fire protection and fire safety on a regular basis," he says. "Other major efforts are also being done on fire prevention measures and making people aware of the potential risks that are around."

As well as Dubai, other authorities have shown their willingness to clamp down on warehouse fire safety regulation. Neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, for example, is implementing an International Fire Code, based on the International Code Council standards in the United States, requiring all new buildings and extensions to have emergency exits, working alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinklers systems.

With local authorities attempting to drive forward the need for adequate fire protection in response to the recent number of warehouse fires, companies are clearly catching up to the idea. In reality however, as many companies find out to their own detriment, thinking you can get away with the most basic fire protection is a dangerously false economy. "Are they doing it just to meet minimum requirements or to get the best system for the facilities that they are protecting?" questions Tyco's Nixon. "When you have warehouse facilities with hundreds of millions of dollars of goods in there, to spend a modest sum to protect that facility clearly makes good business sense."

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