Recently, one of my company’s clients incurred a property loss in access of $1.2 million dollars. Before I even began reading the report, my mind had thoughts of a manufacturing plant with a hazardous environment. Perhaps the source was a paint booth or malfunctioning equipment in a metal-working or a plastics plant…. or maybe an auto body shop or woodworking facility? Well, as it turned out, the occupancy was an office (and a fairly new one at that), and the source was a small portable desk fan. The building did have a fire sprinkler system, but due to 14’ ceiling heights, the fire did not get hot enough to engage the sprinklers. The fire department was notified by the alarm company and used very little water to extinguish the fire, which was confined to the cubicle area where the fire originated.
So why $1.2 million dollars? Believe it or not- smoke damage was the reason. The office building in question is very large, with large open areas and limited walls/partitions to prevent the spread of smoke. Though the investigation is still continuing, the building likely meets either current International Building Code (IBC) or one edition earlier, which requires the building to also meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code standards (NFPA 101).
One of the problems with smoke associated with fires in office buildings is that it originates from low-heat fires with smoldering as one of the characteristics. The smoke from these fires is “wet”- in other words leaves sticky residue on surfaces and office contents such as paper (i.e. books, documents) and other porous materials associated with office occupancies. This smoke, combined with heat, fills the pours and warps the material (e.g. paper). Carpet (even treated carpet and fabric-covered partitions are also highly susceptible- even treated carpet/fabric. And of course, smoke spreads vertically, then horizontally- and it does not take much to do damage. Allergies and simple irritation effects on people’s senses are enough to require a complete cleansing of the space- which leads to a lot of replacement of building and content materials since cleaning can be expensive.
Over the past 50 years, modern building architecture/norms unfortunately have gravitated toward large open spaces largely due to the advance in building design/materials and the flexibility that these buildings offer. Of course, these open spaces obviously make it challenging to contain fire, and especially smoke, which is why we have large losses such as the above.
Preventing or mitigating smoke spread can include the following measures:
- Building Codes: Adhere to the latest building codes. Most authorities having jurisdiction (e.g. municipalities) are one or two editions of the building code behind due largely to bureaucracy. Going beyond the required code and adhering to the latest building codes (NFPA 5000 (published by the National Fire Protection Association- https://www.nfpa.org) and IBC 2009 (published by the International Code Council (ICC- https://www.iccsafe.org) is optimal. In addition to these codes, there are recommendations from industry organizations such as The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) (https://www.ashrae.org), Underwriter Laboratories (https://www.ul.com), Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association Inc. (SMACNA)- https://www.smacna.org), and the Insurance Services Organization (https://www.iso.com/). Asking your current insurance company for their recommendations is also recommended.
- Building Sections: When considering the design of a building, it is advantageous to partition the building to limit smoke spread. The partitions do not necessarily have to be solid fire divisions- even a steel-studded wall with 5/8” drywall on each side can not only inhibit smoke, but aid in the spread of a fire and of course the safety of building occupants.
- Smoke/Heat detection: Selecting the appropriate smoke and/or heat detection provides an early warning to building occupants, fire officials, and management of a possible fire and enables the fire department to deal with the fire at it’s incipient stage when it is most controllable- significantly increasing the chance that the fire would be extinguished/controlled before it possibly caused great harm and/or property damage. It goes without saying that such a system would also serve to provide protection to employees/occupants by enabling them to get out of the building as soon as possible.
- Automatic Fire Doors and Fire Dampers: Fire or smoke doors should close automatically when there is a fire. These can be actuated by electronic means magnetic hold-back devices actuated by a fire alarm or by fusible link. The doors should not be propped open.
- Air Handling Systems: HVAC, ventilation, fans, etc. should be designed and installed for each section of the building, so that they do not spread smoke throughout the building. They should have smoke dampers that automatically close and/or redirect smoke outside the building (and not risk redirecting to another section of the building if they fail). Non-combustible filters should be used in all systems (including air conditioning systems).
- Exhaust Fans: Exhaust fans can be a double-edged sword. They can be installed, but only after a fire sprinkler system is actuated, since exhausting heat may delay the sprinkler operation.
- Pressurization Method: This concept is not new, but is being implemented more frequently as computer control and wireless communication technology has advanced. The HVAC system in this method is designed to switch to a “smoke control mode” upon detection of smoke in the fire area, in effect exhausting (and creating negative pressure) in the zone effected by fire and pressurizing the adjacent zones (basically opening supply dampers and closing exhaust dampers in the adjacent areas of the building).
- Preventative Maintenance: This is critical. If equipment/systems noted above are not inspected and maintained regularly, then the risk of failure is high.
- Emergency Evacuation & Response Plan: The “human element” of responding to a fire is not only a life safety concern, but can help mitigate damage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Standard 29CFR1910.38, Emergency Action Plans, requires employers to establish an emergency Fire Prevention Plan and Emergency Action Plan. These plans should be reviewed on a regular interval and employees trained on the plan. Manual pull stations, making sure doors are closed on the way out, flipping switches, egressing the building, having a plan for using fire extinguishers when/where appropriate, and other important activities are part of both life safety and loss mitigation. NOTE: A sample plan evaluation checklist can be found at Westfield’s Risk Control website or can be provided by your local Risk Control consultant.
Ignition Source Prevention
It goes without saying, of course, that preventing a fire in the first place is the first goal. This topic demands a separate blog article, but with reference to the office fire noted above, it is important that two things occur:
- Control of the working environment. Policies should be in place that restrict employees brining in equipment (such as fans, electric heaters, etc.) without proper authorization. First off, equipment that is portable (i.e. plugs in) is not recommended, especially anything that requires significant amperage to operate (e.g. space heaters). The loss noted above was started by a fan- one that does not require significant amperage, however, it was likely placed near combustibles (paper). Therefore it is recommended that a permanent solution be found, such as having a licensed heating & cooling contractor evaluate and modify the building system where needed. Note: simply having a UL rating does not assure that the equipment (e.g. fan) in question is of good quality or wasn’t damaged at some point before it’s use).
- Building & Equipment Preventative Maintenance: As buildings age, the probability of a fire increases. The electrical system and mechanical equipment wears down. Insulation in wiring wears, and cracks may develop. As current runs through wires and connections, the heating and cooling loosens the connections and arcing causes them to heat up. Water/moisture may also find its way to these wiring systems, breaker boxes, etc. Motor bearings wear and begin to heat up, etc. Having a routine inspection and preventative maintenance program is imperative to mitigating ignition sources. Another recommendation that Westfield and many other insurance carriers promote is the regular thermographic imaging (using infrared cameras) of electrical systems and equipment to discover “hot spots” before they turn into fires. Technology, mass production of equipment, and market competition have made hiring a competent contractor to perform this service quite affordable.
In conclusion, a fire- even very small fires- can create a very large loss due to smoke damage. The above measures are just a few that can help save lives and property. Look for more suggestions on related future blogs.....
REF: NFPA 90A, Installation of Air Conditioning and Ventilating Systems.