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Ensuring a specialist approach to fire safety

Author : Robert Head, Specialist Product Business Manager, Hochiki Europe

29 January 2020

In this article Rob Head, Specialist Product Business Manager, for global life safety manufacturer, Hochiki Europe, outlines best practice for duty-holders when addressing life safety in hazardous areas.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

Thankfully, fire safety doesn’t hold a regular spotlight in the news agenda, but when it does, it’s usually under disastrous and more often tragic circumstances. In 2019, one of the most culturally significant cathedrals in the world was devastated by flames. At the time of writing, there is still speculation about the cause of the fire, with some pointing the finger at construction and renovation work taking place on the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral. In March 2019, another fire at a chemical plant in China led to a blast which killed 78 people and injured hundreds of others, making it the worst industrial accident in the country in recent years.

These terrible events serve as a stark reminder of the unparalleled importance of life safety in the current era and how completely devastating an out of control fire can be. With so much electrical equipment, new technology and complex industrial processes engrained in the world around us, the number of sources from which a fire can unintentionally start has never been more varied. This being said, those responsible for safety across this broad spectrum of modern workplaces must recognise and minimise the risks by specifying, installing and maintaining systems that are specifically tailored to them.

A world full of hazards

There are ‘typical’ places in society in which you would expect to find specialist fire safety measures. For example, petrochemical storage plants, gas refineries and offshore oil rigs, seem obvious as areas which require solutions tailored for hazardous environments. However, there are many other settings which should also be of particular concern for risk assessors, duty holders and building owners.

Wood flour mills, for example, can quickly become extremely volatile environments if a source of ignition occurs in the wrong place. This is due to the fact that many flours, when in powdered form and suspended in air, can become highly combustible dusts. A notable case of this is the wood flour mill explosion in 2015 near Macclesfield, Cheshire, which resulted in a fatality.

University laboratories which have chemical storage areas or places where substances can become airborne will also require specialist life safety systems. Warehouses using certain types of battery-powered fork-lift trucks are also deemed hazardous, due to the possibility of an explosive disaster in the case of fire near the batteries. Any areas within commercial buildings which store flammable materials classed as ‘hazardous’ will require specialist ultra-dependable fire safety equipment.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Intrinsically safe

The kinds of devices which need installing in the aforementioned areas must be declared as ‘intrinsically safe’. These devices need to be able to perform adequately during emergencies but also keep the risk of ignition to an absolute minimum. In terms of any life safety systems installed in these areas, such as smoke and heat detectors, manual call points or beacons, these products must be manufactured in such a way that they can operate at very low voltages so that when installed, they are unable produce any kind of spark (or ignition) from an overheated component (in the event of a short circuit) or an electrical power overload.  These products are designed to operate with specialist Zener or Galvanic Isolator barriers which must be used on the fire cabling between the ‘safe zone’ and the ‘hazardous zone’ in order to limit the amount of electrical current travelling into the hazardous environment.

As well as intrinsically safe devices, hazardous area duty holders should consider whether to install ‘explosion proof certified’ products. These devices are usually contained within robust, heavy duty steel-alloy enclosures. This means that should there be a spark within the device this is completely contained within the housing so as not to affect the environment in which it is installed.

Investing in ultra-dependability

Of course, what a life safety device says it does and what it actually does, can be two very different things, which is why third-party certification is so important. Across Europe, intrinsically safe and explosion proof certified products must be declared as such by ATEX (General European Directives for controlling explosive atmospheres). Internationally, the IEC Standards cover the equivalent global standard. Countries in Europe but not in the EU, such as Switzerland, will use IECEx as the accrediting body.

SIL is another important product standard for life safety systems that has been widely adopted by the global oil and gas industry, as well as many others where life safety is a particular 24-hour concern, such as in the healthcare and transport sectors. SIL is an acronym for Safety Integrity Level, and is a classification used to quantify and qualify the requirements for, and performance of Safety Instrumented Systems.

Robert Head, Specialist Product Business Manager, Hochiki Europe
Robert Head, Specialist Product Business Manager, Hochiki Europe

All life safety devices designed to go into SIL applications should be awarded a SIL certification between 1 and 4. This level is judged on the risk of a device failing. If a device is deemed to be SIL 2 capable and is installed alongside other SIL 2 capable equipment, then the likelihood of failure is virtually non-existent. Most SIL applications would call for SIL 2 capability of any life safety equipment.

Unlike a standard fire alarm system, on a SIL system, there are individual SIL approvals for each element installed on an application, but there is also an overall system approval rating once installed. The rating of the entire application will depend on the lowest rating SIL device within the system.

Ideally suited

With so many complex areas of industry being developed to bring about new technologies across the world, those responsible for designing and maintaining these spaces must remain focused on life safety. By installing certified solutions which have been proven to be ultra-dependable and especially designed to minimise risks in hazardous environments, disasters can be stopped before they ever happen.

About the author:

Robert Head is Specialist Product Business Manager at Hochiki Europe spearheading the company’s strategy on specialist products and their applications.  Since joining Hochiki in 2004, Robert has gained a wealth of product knowledge and sales experience through his roles in Technical Support, Overseas Sales and his three year secondment as Assistant Managing Director at Hochiki’s Middle East office in Dubai.

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