When I was in the fire brigade, a senior officer, the current editor whom I’m filling in for once remarked to me that the biggest problem we have with fire protection is that we do not keep records of the systems when they work, which is predominately a high proportion of the time. The fire is extinguished, the damage gets cleaned up and the systems reset.
At one time I was involved in facilities management of a very large complex. When a fire occurred, we just simply refilled the extinguishers, reset the detection system or recommissioned the sprinkler systems etc. We did keep a record of how effective the extinguishing system was and there was no database to record these success stories. That may have changed, but I am not aware of it. Fire Services around the world provide reports on the fires they attend, but often the data is too high level to provide the statistical information to expound the mitigation impact, proven effectiveness and reliability, and lives and property saved by fire protection systems. As an aside, another serious impact of this lack of data is on fire research and fire safety engineering, but that’s a story for another day.
The building and infrastructure industries often argue that the cost of building and infrastructure fire protection is prohibitive and should be decreased. This debate always occurs when regulations and standards are overhauled. This is exactly the reason why an effort should be made for this data to be available. It is often the case with any regulatory reform that any inclusions need to be justified with a cost-benefit analysis or similar.
But there is a statistic that does, to a certain degree, reflect the impact of improved fire protection brought about by regulatory change. In many parts of the world the number of fires, damage, lives lost and injuries has been decreasing over the years. This is attributable to not only fire-protection systems but also to better fire-prevention education, firefighting operations and improvements in furnishing and building materials.
There is evidence available now that, with modern furniture materials, a room will flashover in frighteningly less time than it did 30 years ago when more traditional furnishing materials such as wool, timber, horsehair etc. were used. What previously would take a normal sitting room 30 minutes to flashover in the past, can now flashover in 3 to 5 minutes.
We may not have the poor construction methods or ignorance of fire cause and behaviour we had in the past, but we definitely have higher fire loads and combustible materials than previously from the increased use of synthetic materials.
However, this is not a time for complacency for the fire-protection industry! It is critically important that work on innovation is undertaken and encouraged to improve the effectiveness and reliability of fire-protection systems and to address new threats. Equally important is developing new cost-effective, yet still effective and reliable, fire-protection systems to make fire protection more reliable and affordable. This will enable fire protection to be extended to environments that as yet do not have it, such as domestic homes, and negate the argument that it is too costly to include in regulation.
It is pleasing to note that the development and innovation has not stalled but is thriving. A browse through this edition alone provides numerous examples of development and innovation. At the recent AFAC, FPAA, NFPA and Munich trade shows I was astounded at the technical innovation and system development on show.
Another area that complacency must not encroach is in the area of maintenance and installation of fire-protection equipment. The importance of installation and maintenance has been highlighted by the fact that many jurisdictions are now providing more focus, and in many jurisdictions more regulation, to ensure that installation and maintenance is being undertaken and undertaken properly. There have been too many instances of fires, many tragic, that are examples of where fire protection is lacking, poorly installed or poorly maintained. Installation and maintenance of any of fire-safety system, in fact any safety system, must be undertaken with a zealotry approach to ensure that these systems will perform when needed. Lives depend upon it!
Any complacency may be a reflection that the probability of a fire occurring is far less now than it has been in the past. A victim of our own success? Fire regulations and codes nearly always have redundancy factors built in. For example, a building or an infrastructure will have active systems, passive systems, egress provisions and firefighting provisions. So that, in case one system should fail, another system is in place to mitigate the impact of the fire on a structure and the occupants.
But it is important to note that this fire-protection redundancy is not only in place in case a fire-protection system fails but also because the innumerable different possible fire scenarios and the unpredictable nature of fire behaviour means that one fire-protection system cannot deal with all of the possible variations. Hence the reason for providing more than one form of fire protection.
We also need to not be complacent in relation to regulatory reform. As stated earlier, sometimes we are the victim of our own success. With the reduced numbers of fires, damage, injuries and fatalities, arguments are made to reduce the fire protection now provided in the regulations for buildings and infrastructure. But it is those fire-protection systems that have significantly contributed to that reduction.
Hence, we need to collect the data and case studies and record those good news stories!