Beyond Putting out a Fire

The advent of clean agents changed our thinking to where we could save lives, buildings, and the contents.

WHEN a fire breaks out, the immediate need to evacuate, contain, and suppress overshadows any thought about future contingency planning. The goal is to get out alive and put the fire out. Tomorrow will bring its own set of problems, or so the thinking goes.

Water, sand, and dirt have been nature's default fire suppressants for as long as people have been putting out fires. But with the advent of the electronic age, it became clear that fire suppression techniques needed to evolve and take into consideration the valuable electronics and data stored in facilities worldwide, providing a way to put the fire out without damaging the contents inside.

As the evolution of fire suppression technology progressed, more insight has been gained into the larger implications of a fire. It turns out facilities aren't the only casualties of a fire; in fact, the environment also takes a heavy toll during these disasters. Which means fire protection is not only asset protection, but environmental protection, as well.

When Water Won't Do
As the electronic revolution swept across North America, it quickly became apparent the reliance on computers was so critical that the loss of even one machine could be crippling to a business. It also became obvious computers would need to be protected in the event of a fire.

The age-old predicament of putting out fires was made even more difficult with the addition of technology protection. When the solution of fire protection and asset protection did emerge, the term "clean agent" evolved to describe a type of fire suppression agent that had the capability to extinguish a fire but would not harm the contents of the room where it was located. As such, it was "clean"--meaning that after it was discharged, it would not leave any messy residue that would require an extended cleanup process. It also would not damage paper, electronics, or furniture. Because the system generally actuated much faster than a sprinkler system, it would put out the fire threat even before the sprinkler system would have been expected to discharge.

Libraries and museums jumped on the bandwagon because the clean agent could protect priceless books, artwork, and artifacts without fear of water damage. In a perfect world, the structure itself would be protected by a sprinkler system, but the clean agent suppression system could be used to protect critical assets within a building.

Leaping into the winner's circle in the 1960s to claim the title of the world's most ideal clean agent was an efficient product with a curious name: halon. A brand of halon called Halon 1301 was designed to be used in engineered (total flooding) systems to protect special hazards, while Halon 1211 (bromochlorodifluoromethane: CF2BrCl) was earmarked for placement in fire extinguishers. It was used widely in military applications, as well as in data processing and telecommunications situations, and also in the aforementioned cultural facilities.

Clean and Safe Fire Protection
Until 1986, everything in the clean agent sector seemed to be going smoothly. At that time, the United States Environmental Protection Agency identified halon as being a contributor to the depletion of the ozone layer. Suddenly, the focus shifted dramatically from protecting special hazards to protecting our atmosphere for future generations.

The verdict on halon was uncompromising. Halon phase-outs began in 1987, and by 1993 it could no longer be manufactured. (It should be noted that existing halon systems may continue to be operated in the United States, and recycled halon is still available for recharge. But, as of December 31, 2003, all halon systems in Europe were required to be removed from service.) With the demise of halon, the search for suitable halon "alternatives" began in earnest and continues today. The National Fire Protection Association and the EPA continued to look for a halon replacement through the Significant New Alternatives Policy program, commonly known as SNAP. SNAP requires the EPA to ensure that agents intended to replace halon are acceptable from both a life safety and an environmental viewpoint. Today, products have been approved by SNAP, and none of the agents presents any ozone depletion potential.

While these agents have been in place for more than a decade, the search for alternatives has continued in research labs and testing facilities. New products must prove they are environmentally friendly, safe for minimum human occupancy per guidelines established by NFPA in 2001, and, of course, able to put out fires.

One such fire suppression system, launched in 2003 by a 3M partnership with Tyco Fire & Security, uses a fire protection fluid that looks similar to water but in fact dries 50 times faster than water. Upon discharge, the agent becomes a gas and works as a total flooding agent. The system will sense changes in a room that could eventually result in a fire hazard. Upon sensing these elements, the system will provide warnings and then discharge in just 10 seconds, putting out the "fire" even before it has reached the flame stage. While it's being deployed, the agent will do its work quickly and efficiently, without obscuring one's vision or damaging objects or equipment in the room being protected. The system has zero ozone depletion potential and contains a Global Warming Potential of 1, which is the same as naturally occurring carbon dioxide. In addition, it has an atmospheric lifetime of five days compared to 65 years for halon. Computer installations, medical facilities, telecommunications centers, military assets, libraries, cultural institutions, and boats are all being protected by this system today.

Answering Critical Needs
In the end, the goal has always been to put out the fire with the intention of saving the occupants as well as the building. Lost belongings became an afterthought because of the importance of first protecting lives and structures. The advent of clean agents changed that mode of thinking to where we could indeed save lives, buildings, and the contents.

From the Stone Age through the present, communities around the world must contend with fire disaster planning and recovery. What has changed is the rapidly growing array of different fire challenges, along with the critical need to protect our environment. Clean agents provide the answers to many fire protection challenges, protecting life, property, and the environment. The days of the water bucket are over. It has been replaced by technology that safeguards people, businesses, and our environment.

This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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