Office workers plug space heaters into power strips under their desks. Hospitals have kitchens that are busier than most restaurants. Hotels have large laundry facilities. Factory workers handle hot materials and use flammable gases during their typical “day at the office.” Thanks to noncombustible building designs and well-trained workers, large fires usually never start. That doesn’t mean, though, that they cannot happen. When they do, they are often disastrous.
A quick Internet search reminds us of some of these incidents. A 1994 factory fire in West Virginia resulted in an $87 million rebuild. In 1997, a plant in Ohio was 80 percent destroyed when a worker using a torch started a fire. A tin mill in Pennsylvania was damaged in a 2000 fire; the plant never recovered and was shut down shortly thereafter. Nine firefighters died in the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston. In 2005, an Indiana steelworker died in a hot strip mill fire that started when a hydraulic leak sprayed onto a gas ‘torpedo’ heater. In May, 2016 a hotel fire in Ohio killed one, injured several, and burned the building to the ground. The list goes on and on. Some, luckily, only destroyed property. Many, though, destroyed lives.
Fire prevention is, of course, the first line of defense. Keeping combustibles away from ignition sources ensures that fires have no place to start. The human element, however, sometimes negates the best efforts at fire prevention and the three elements of the ‘fire triangle’ – fuel, heat and oxygen – come together with expensive (and sometimes deadly) consequences.
In order to keep small fires from growing into large ones, automatic fire protection systems are often installed. Sprinklers systems, CO2 systems, halon and halon replacement systems, and other protection schemes have saved many buildings – and lives.
Installation is only the start. In order to make sure that these systems can do the job they were designed to do, we must properly inspect and maintain them. When times are tough a shortsighted decision is sometimes made to defer such maintenance. These are the times when a fire can least be afforded. These decisions may also put the plant in violation of OSHA standards and state or local codes.
This presentation will serve as a reminder of the vital importance of installing fire protection systems and of properly maintaining them.
Patric E. McCon, CSP, CFPS, CHMM
Sr. Risk Engineering Consultant
The Zurich Services Corporation