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Innovation: That’s What You Need

08 July 2020

Where do we stand with the introduction of new products or innovations to the fire safety market? Are they openly embraced and recognised for their benefits or met with a barrage of naysayers and general scepticism underpinned by comments such as: “It will never work as it doesn’t comply…”? Peter Blandon addresses this issue.

MY CAREER in fire systems engineering began over 35 years ago. Back then, the addressable fire detector had yet to be invented, while aspirating smoke detection systems were just a pipe dream (no pun intended). I’m pleased to say that I’ve lived through the most incredible times where technological development is concerned.

Every day, it seems, technology and innovation solve problems that were previously deemed impossible to tackle. Where fire systems engineering’s concerned, though, are we missing the simple point that technology leads and standards follow? How does the market benefit if we’re forever in catch-up mode, especially so in a post-Grenfell world where technology and innovation (if permitted) can potentially make a difference? It’s a very fine balancing act.

Water sprinklers are used by demand for the protection of many types of buildings. Where the protection of high risk assets is required, and water damage or pollution is to be avoided, pressurised gaseous suppression has been the ‘go to’ solution. In many cases, there simply isn’t a better alternative available so this trend will continue.

My days spent as a project engineer for fire suppression systems were shrouded in the rigidity of process, checks, double and triple checks, from design right through to handover. Rightly so, as agent calculations (primarily Halon) were incredibly complex and finite. 

Today, we have an excellent choice of alternate agents. There’s even more external regulation focused not just on product performance standards, but also relating installer competency. Once again, rightly so. Is the market evolving at the pace innovation seems to be delivering? That’s the $64,000 question.

Product evolution

Where pressurised gas is concerned, we know that product evolution was driven to fill the gap that Halon left behind owing to environmental considerations. Then we witnessed a push towards what were termed ‘drop-in replacement’ agents which, at the time, became extremely popular (mainly out of convenience). However, we later saw the same innovative product suffer either a total ban in use or command rocketing supply prices for replenishment due to imposed limitations caused by environmental considerations.

Today, science and technology has realised fire suppression agents with much improved environmental credentials and, indeed, fire suppression performance that may be delivered locally in-cabinet or by total compartment flood. While the gaseous agent has changed, very little or nothing has evolved in terms of the engineering principles themselves. In some cases, the change in agent technology has created other challenges to be managed, such as operating pressures, housings for increased cylinder quantities and criticality for accurate pressure relief venting. 

We now have a realm of EN and British Standards crafted around these established principles to provide us with the required guidance, thus making the process of checks, double and triple checks from design through to handover absolutely essential.

Innovation and technology  

Having witnessed the changes in suppression technologies over time, I remain a firm believer that every fire suppression product available today, irrespective of its technology, has distinct trade-offs (or strengths and weaknesses) to be taken into account. I also believe that part of this evaluation must now include innovation and technology. 

Colin Chapman, the influential English design engineer, inventor and builder in the automotive industry (and the founder of Lotus cars), is famed for uttering the phrase: “Simplify and add lightness”. A mantra, in fact, by which the modern world is governed.

If the principles of the engineering don’t change, how can this be achieved? I have two answers. First, it’s about what I see as an increase in industry thinking and discussion surrounding outcomes-based fire engineering solutions. By this, I don’t mean giving licence to flout existing standards and regulations. I do mean being able to clearly demonstrate how a pragmatic rationale for an engineered solution using technology that may not have existed when the standard was created is tabled in order to demonstrate how a desired outcome may be delivered with equal or better effectiveness to protect life, assets or property and balanced with improved benefits for environmental, safety and cost-centric considerations.

Second, where the professional fire systems installation industry is concerned, I see a growing desire for process simplification coupled with the demand for benefits in performance, environmental impact, cost and, of course, compliance.

Headline makers

Where are the people and products making the headlines today? Undoubtedly, sprinkler systems continue to prove their worth. Lives are being saved because of their installation. The technology, though, remains fundamentally unchanged since the 19th Century. 

The new kids for localised protection within domestic dwellings are most definitely on the block, all thanks to innovation which is simply astounding. For its part, Plumis has “imagineered” a local water mist solution deploying up-to-the-minute technology, innovation and even the Internet of Things. Traction in the market is driven by outcomes-based thinking coupled with a desire for simplicity and, of course, compliance. 

In 1902, the first MINIMAX soda acid extinguisher was invented and designed with corrosion protection that was achieved by dipping the metal body into a molten lead bath. If this innovation had arrived a century previously, one wonders how many fires could have been fought using this ‘beast’ slap bang in the middle of our nation’s illustrious industrial revolution?  

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with innovation and technology for fire engineering? My answer is this: the Britannia Fire Ltd P50. For those unfamiliar, this is pure design innovation and manufacturing technology that has made the portable fire extinguisher markets wake up from their years of cosiness in a warm bed of, dare I say it, complacency, thinking that there was no need to innovate and that the market would carry on ad infinitum. Time waits for no man.

The infamous ‘space race’ is documented to have occurred from 1955 to 1975. Back in the day, the Soviets created a fire suppression agent for their rockets. The material used was neither water (too heavy) nor a gas stored under pressure (too heavy again). It was, in fact, a solid compound that, when electrically charged, would cause an exothermic reaction changing the solid compound into a potassium-based particulate for extinguishing fire. 

Crude? Yes. Potentially dangerous at that time? Possibly (I wasn’t there). Effective? Yes. Derivatives of this technology were then developed over time by various manufacturers around the world. However, very few adapted to change and virtually none innovated. Thankfully, one did.

Human touch

Do you recall passing your driving test and going out solo for the first time? Scary, eh? We all have to start somewhere, but product innovation, technology, outcomes-based thinking and all of the benefits attached will go flying out of the window unless there’s engineering re-assurance. Learning is one thing. Actually putting it together and making it work correctly is another. Technology is only as good as the hands within which it rests.

Spare a thought for the commissioning engineer thrown in at the deep end and asked to commission their very first fire suppression system. Would this actually happen? When a business is under pressure to perform and skilled resource is short, the: “You did that training course six months ago so you can go” scenario might well be played out. Despite what might be apprehension, is there perhaps an over-confidence that a head full of theory could do the trick?

My role at FirePro UK is to support and deliver assurance to fire systems engineers operating in today’s market. How is this done? The same way that I learned and with the same rigidity of process. My role is not to police or certify, only to chaperone and provide focus on our own basic guidance notes as well as the manufacturer’s O&M requirements that need to be followed.

New client accounts will always remain a challenge to obtain, with objections like: “Why should we change?” and “We’ve always done it this way?” We can advocate the technology, advantages and benefits all day long, but the moment of truth comes when our new client wins their first job and it’s time to put theory into practice. If FirePro’s systems are difficult to install and complex to commission or maintain then, despite the innovation and technology, we too will find ourselves cast aside for a solution that can outshine our offer at every level. The front line practitioners are the ones who strongly influence a decision on whether or not to commit to proceeding further with FirePro UK as a registered installer.

As an engineer myself, I know what it’s like to be stranded on a project at 5.00 pm on a Friday when there are problems and everyone else has gone home. If asked, we will always assist an installer for a second, third or even a fourth project. Besides learning a new skill, my aim is to deliver enhanced skill sets and competency for an engineer in the FirePro UK product, not complacency. 

I may sometimes meet an engineer for his very first FirePro UK project and receive initial scepticism about our process simplicity. It never fails to amaze me how attitudes can change. There may be a sigh of relief at the end of a project, and I might hear words along the lines of: “That was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting” or “Is that it?”. Yes. That was it.

Second dynamic

The human touch has a second dynamic, and that is the Responsible Person or end user. Once again, the technology and innovation for even the very best fire suppression system in the world (irrespective of the agent) when correctly designed, installed, commissioned and handed over becomes absolutely useless if the Responsible Person or end user fails to take the time to manage it correctly  by understanding what it is, why it’s there and how it works.

Periodically servicing a system only proves its fitness for purpose at the time. This is no different to taking a top-of-the-range new car in for its first service and then driving away afterwards not knowing where all the controls are and what the instruments mean. Although we may love the car, its colour, style and incredibly low fuel consumption, can we honestly say that we’ve read the vehicle manual? Or is it still in the glove compartment? 

Peter Blandon is Quality and Technical Manager at FirePro UK. For more information, visit www.fireprouk.com