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Video Smoke Detection- A timely solution to fire in the oil and gas environment

18 June 2009

Ian Moore, the managing director of D-Tec discusses the risks associated with fire in the petrochemical industry.


The results of fire, at sea on production platforms or onshore at oil terminals and storage facilities, has been demonstrated by a number of high profile incidents, resulting in tremendous damage to infrastructure and sadly, in some extreme cases, the large-scale loss of life.

Video Smoke Detection- A timely solution to fire in the oil and gas environment
Video Smoke Detection- A timely solution to fire in the oil and gas environment

This has caused the industry to look at new approaches such as Video Smoke Detection (VSD) to protect key elements of their infrastructure and to ensure the safety of workers by providing an early warning of fire.

Back in 1988, the devastation wrought by the world’s worst offshore oil disaster on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea was a major shock and wake-up call to the sector. In this case a gas leak resulted in blasts on the rig and sparked a major fire which engulfed the structure – then the largest platform in the North Sea - leading to 167 fatalities. This traumatic event demonstrated all too clearly the hazardous nature of the oil and gas environment, and the serious repercussions when problems are not detected early enough and a fire is allowed to take hold.

More recently, on land, in December 2005 we were again reminded of the ever present danger. This time manifested in the biggest blaze seen in the UK since World War II at Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal in Buncefield, near Hemel Hempstead. Prior to the fire the terminal was handling 2.37 million metric tonnes of oil products annually. The problem at Buncefield resulted from the overflowing of unleaded petrol being pumped into a storage tank. A rich fuel and air vapour rapidly formed which spread across the site and set-off a number of major explosions – heard for miles around - and an associated fire. This unprecedented incident took-in 20 storage tanks and caused extensive damage to the site and adjacent business premises and the evacuation of a significant area around the facility.

So what measures can be taken to help minimise the risks in this sort of environment and provide an early warning of fire to protect key assets against the potential for a problem, left unchecked, to escalate into a full scale disaster?

There is one type of technology, based on the intelligent analysis of CCTV images, which is being increasingly deployed to protect these valuable assets. This solution is aptly referred to as Video Smoke Detection (VSD) - a technology pioneered by D-Tec - and is a capability that is now operational in a wide range of sites worldwide.

Specific projects D-Tec have been involved in across the petrochemicals industry include for Norway's Statoil which is using VSD to protect the generator rooms on its North Sea rigs. These assets are essential to the smooth and ongoing operation of the multi-million pound platforms and are particularly challenging installations as they are prone to heavy vibration and atmospheric contamination. Another successful application is the monitoring of a huge on-shore oil terminal connected to the Azeri oil fields in Azerbaijan – in partnership with British Petroleum - on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Looking ahead we are also in discussions to deliver this technology for deployment in unmanned oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The beauty of Video Smoke Detection (VSD) is that it takes detection to the fire rather than waiting for the fire to come to the detector. This approach is ideally suited to the large, extensive, nature of oil terminals and platforms where it is just not possible, practically, to cost effectively place conventional detectors close enough to the area of risk to provide the required level of detection.

In extensive structures or sites covering a large geographic area there is a high reliance, where traditional fire detection solutions are concerned, in smoke overcoming distance before being detected. This can mean, with conventional detectors, that it can be many minutes before an alarm is activated - if at all - making it much more problematic to tackle a blaze as it is likely to have reached a more advanced stage. Given the speed that fires can grow in such as combustible environment this is even more critical for the oil and gas industry.

Thankfully, distance is not a limitation faced by Video Smoke Detection (VSD) as it is able to utilise images from standard CCTV cameras and analyse these, by applying sophisticated algorithms to detect the presence of smoke. By programming the software to look for anticipated motion patterns of smoke over a specified area within a camera image, and looking for pixel changes, VSD has the potential to deliver an exceptionally fast response – typically in seconds. Crucially, once smoke has been detected the system can alert the operator as well as delivering a visual representation of the smoke on the system’s monitor.
Consequently VSD is not reliant on the proximity of smoke to a detector, whether the camera is 10 or 100 metres away from a risk area, VSD will detect smoke in the same amount of time.

Although it is claimed other camera-based systems are able to detect smoke, the reality is that these are really motion detectors or obscuration-change detectors which are unable to differentiate between smoke and other sources of movement and so are prone to false alarms.

In terms of practicality, the CCTV cameras associated with VSD can be fixed in conveniently accessible places, rather than being positioned well out of reach, as is the case with conventional detectors. Additionally CCTV can cover a much larger area so less cameras would normally be required compared to detectors for a given size of oil platform. It may also be possible to take advantage of already installed, security CCTV cameras for some of the monitoring.

VSD's capabilities have been further enhanced by the potential for images and alarms to be distributed, for review, over the network to a number of viewing locations. This is being realised through solutions, such as our own FireVu system, which readily integrate the well-recognised advantages of VSD with IP (Internet Protocol) based functionality.

In practice, this advance means that, for ease of management, it is perfectly possible for a number of geographically dispersed oil rigs to be monitored from the same control room and more to be added should the need arise. This can also be invaluable for unmanned platforms where, should an alarm be activated; the remote operator actually has a visual indication of what is going on. As a consequence an operator can make an informed decision there and then as to whether a firefighting team needs to be sent to the platform. This is in contrast to more conventional systems which just sound an alarm so there is no way of ascertaining the severity of an incident without automatically paying a visit – a costly process. There is also the ability, with this flexible approach to VSD, for changes to configuration, testing and diagnosis to be carried out remotely - removing cost and delay.

Another big leap forward with VSD is the potential, for the first time, to combine smoke and flame detection. This is ideal for more hazardous situations such as those thrown up by the petrochemical industry and is something D-Tec have integrated into the new version of our FireVu system.

A key benefit of the application of an advanced flame detection algorithm – in addition to smoke detection – is that it is now perfectly possible to deliver a layered response, typically alarming on smoke first and then confirming again if fire appears. There is also the potential for the application of this capability in designated areas at night where flame rather than smoke is likely to be the most visible sign of an incident.

So the message to fire and safety professionals concerned with the petrochemical industry is that now is the right time to look again at Video Smoke Detection (VSD) for key projects whether it be an oil refinery on land or a production platform at sea.

Ultimately, the effectiveness and ease of installation of VSD, particularly in the shape of the networkable and dual smoke and flame detection capabilities, makes a compelling case for adopting this technology where conventional approaches are simply not going to provide the early warning necessary to minimise the very real risks associated with fire.


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