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Taking off

05 March 2019

Tony Hanley tells FSM about his career to date, the challenges his business faces and his hopes for the future of the industry.

Could you tell us a little bit about your career and how you became involved with FirePro UK?

My career started after gaining qualifications at South East London technical college in electronic servicing. In the late 70s I was employed as a humble service engineer working on fire alarm systems that would in today's terms be deemed prehistoric. BS5839 was creating waves in terms of technology progression, but the manufacturer I worked for at that time didn't seem to get the pins on the back of the smoke detector correctly aligned with the base which meant that lots of them were popping out at odd times and in some cases landing on people's heads.

All joking aside, the industry was developing and halon gas suppression systems were coming into their own as communications and technology was rapidly moving.

A year or so later, I was approached by a certain gentleman to join his rapidly growing fire suppression business as a commissioning engineer. I cut my teeth working on some extremely large fixed Halon suppression systems that took me all over the UK and Europe

Sometime later whilst working on a project in London, the same gentleman paid me a visit to tell me that he thought I would make a good fire system salesman and suggested that I report to the office on the Monday morning to undergo some very intense sales training.

The intensity of this training lasted less than an hour before I was plonked into a room with three other willing souls, told to pick the Yellow Pages local to me, and start making phone calls to Electrical Contractors offering branded (Gent and Tann Synchronome) fire alarm equipment, with free system design thrown in to the bargain.

Fire detection, alarm & suppression systems were very much a “black art” so with my engineering knowledge, it didn’t take too long for my sales manager to suggest that we start a business together. So, with no business plan, no cash flow forecast and just ourselves, Titan fire alarm services Limited was born.

The euphoria of being my own boss didn’t take too long to realise that we were somewhat lacking in skills such as people management, marketing, accountancy and all the facets required to make a successful business. I then slowly but surely started plugging the gaps to gain the requisite theory with establishments such as the OU, Institute of Directors, and Cranfield University.

The more I learnt the more I realised the business was unsustainable and things had to change. My partner was 15 years older than me and being in my mid thirties, I was keen to acquire his shareholding, which happened very amicably, in fact, he stayed in the business for a further three years.

The business was growing rapidly. Titan always punched above its weight, which for a while is good, but it's also good to understand business limitations, which we ignored, and the business was significantly over trading, 

Around that time, I had also thrown my hat in the ring for a voluntary board position with the FIA and landed the post, and for my sins, ended up chairing finance for the next six years.

I never wanted to Titan to be just another fire alarm company, and was always seeking how to differentiate the offering, which I found at Intersec in Dubai in 2010. FirePro were exhibiting their condensed aerosol fire suppression product, and we had discussions about taking up product distribution.

I could see that there was a very strong future for the product, and despite approvals for UK and Europe being somewhat light, we managed to invite clients to visit the manufacturer in Limassol Cyprus, to review the product for projects in the UK. Around 2011 Titan commenced the installation of the product which gave us a platform to learn all about it.

After many painful contracting episodes, that somehow, Titan survived, I gradually withdrew the business from this exposure and risk, to focus on totally committed customer service with end users and the like. 

Titan developed a strong service base with repeat sticky clients, which became the attraction for an acquirer in 2016. 

That was my opportunity to take on a completely new challenge which was to introduce condensed aerosol technology as a legitimate alternative and accepted part of the UK fire suppression market by forming FirePro UK Ltd.

For those that are unfamiliar with FirePro UK can you tell us more about the business?

Firepro is a fire suppression product which is manufactured in Limassol, Cyprus. It holds numerous approvals for various markets and is sold in 86 countries worldwide. 

We are appointed by the manufacturer as the Master Distributor for the UK & Ireland. 

Sometime ago the FIA issued a statement adopting 3rdparty certification, and that it expected the membership to achieve the same. I whole heartedly supported this move and emulated the same, by stating that we would only supply the FirePro product to fire systems specialists with BAFE SP203 or LPS 1014. After all the technology is only as good as the hands that are involved in its design, installation, commissioning, handover and maintenance. 

Some three years on, we have a network of around 40 independent, trained distributors for land offshore and marine applications

We also supply and support a range of complementary specialist fire system products

What is your vision for the future of the business?

The vision is to support a network of thriving specialist fire installers with a trusted range of high quality, efficient, reliable and cost-effective fire system products.

In your opinion, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the fire safety sector today?

The biggest challenge facing the fire safety sector today, is the definition and understanding between fire sprinklers versus localised active fire detection and suppression, and the market knowing the difference.

There is definitely a rising tide of media comment deeming sprinklers as a must have, one size fits all, fire protection solution. I agree that in some cases they are definitely an essential, however at a massive capital cost.

The market (in my opinion) needs educating in terms of understanding  what is actually possible to prevent small fires becoming out of control fires, coupled with the recognition and acceptance that localised measures are rarely mandatory, and therefore despite not being in a budget are still a very worthwhile investment to minimise disruption and maintain business continuity.

Besides condensed aerosol technology there is also localised fire suppression gasses, cooker hood suppression and local misting systems, all of which have their place in the armoury that is active fire protection, especially where there are no budgets for entire sprinkler systems.

Do you foresee any major changes in the fire sector over the next five years?

I hope more regulation for fire systems companies and fire systems engineers. 

The gas industry has had a regulated, mandatory Gas Safe scheme for installers for some time now. It’s a poor show on behalf of Government not introducing similar mandatory schemes for the active fire systems industry.

Having been a part of the FIA now for 13 years, the pioneering changes (adoption of 3rdparty certification schemes, and the new Awarding Organisation recognised qualifications for engineers), these steps to improve the industry have been entirely voluntary, entirely off of its own back, with limited finance, and meagre resources.

There was some hope that the Hackitt report would be the golden opportunity to move this all forward with active support, however I remain to be convinced.  

Is there any new technology in the pipeline?

Yes, FirePro has recently achieved ATEX certification, making it the only condensed aerosol fire suppression solution suitable for this classification. 

Do you have a favourite project?

Yes, we feature it in a case study on our website at www.fireprouk.com. It tells the story of two fires within a hospital sterilisation machine. The first fire caused considerable smoke and water damage, let alone loss of patient care services as a result of the loss, not forgetting clean up and redecoration costs, and the cost of the replacement machine. 

Seven months after the replacement machine going back in service, a repeat identical fire event occurred. It was rapidly detected, FirePro fire suppression was instantly deployed, and various shut downs occurred in tandem, meaning when Fire & Rescue Services arrived there was no fire to extinguish. The internal damage was localised and the machine was repaired, the FirePro re-deployed, and put back into service in a matter of weeks.

This exemplifies the point I made above, in so much as the client was not obliged to install FirePro following the first fire, however the investment of less than £7k saved a significantly higher sum that was incurred in the first fire event,

What's the biggest challenge that your business faces?

We operate in a very conservative risk averse, “why should I change”, market. 

The challenge previously was to demonstrate to the market that without the LPCB product certification that FirePro was a reliable product. The LPCB certification was achieved in early 2017, which has certainly helped move things forward for us.

Looking forward, our biggest challenge will be keeping pace with demand as the product gains more widespread recognition and acceptance, which is destined to happen as there are so many distinct advantages and applications over what has been done traditionally.

To mention just a few distinct and unique product advantages – 

  • FirePro is wall or ceiling mounted. There are no cylinders or pipework required. 

  • FirePro discharges at low pressure meaning there is no need for over pressure vents.

  • FirePro’s modularity lends itself to protecting small local risks to room flood applications 

  • FirePro has an independently certified operating lifespan of 15 years.

What do you think sets FirePro apart from its competitors?

Some of competing product suppliers also design and install the product as well. 

There is also the question of design and installation competency, as, as far as I am aware, some competitors are happy selling the product without adequate training, relying on sending just an O & M manual with the product.

We do not install the product. We supply FirePro to 3rdparty certificated installers, that have undergone our training, for which we offer full technical support.

We also regularly arrange for our installers to take their respective clients out to Limassol in Cyprus to meet the manufacturer, and evaluate the quality and product for themselves.

You are doing live lectures and a demonstration vehicle at the Fire Safety Event at NEC, Birmingham on 9-11 April. Can you tell us more about this and why people should come along and see FirePro at the event?

I really want to bang the drum for the FIAs competency qualifications and demonstrate through evidence that fires in small spaces may be rapidly detected and extinguished and all the basic engineering things that a properly engineered system can do.

Tony Hanley is managing director of Firepro UK Ltd. For more information, visit www.fireprouk.com