New Systems Protect Control Room Employees

Feedback from operators in the field has significantly improved fire detection and suppression systems used in petrochemical control rooms.

Editor's note: Fire at a petrochemical facility can cause catastrophic damage. (An example is the Oct. 6, 2005, fire and explosion triggered when a trailer being towed by a forklift driver snagged and broke off a valve at a Formosa Plastics Corp. olefins production unit in Point Comfort, Texas; the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's report is online here .) Fortunately, large process facilities have better systems in place today than they used to for detecting and suppressing fires, alerting workers, and protecting personnel, says Kate Houghton, director of marketing for fire protection at Kidde Fire Systems (, which provides several types of clean agent fire suppression systems for the oil and gas industry worldwide.

Houghton discussed improvements in fire protection technology and the state of fire safety in the petrochemical industry during a May 30, 2007, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

The systems you've described are for occupied spaces, or spaces intended to be occupied, correct?

Kate Houghton: Predominately, yes, but we also have systems for unoccupied spaces and for open hazardous areas. We supply CO2 systems for local applications, for hazards that are out in the open.

Our primary concern is occupied spaces. If CO2 systems are for non-occupied spaces, what's being used these days for the occupied spaces?

Houghton: There are a couple of different options. It depends on particular buying factors at any one point in time. We have three clean agent systems: FM-200, 3M™ Novec™ 1230 fire protection fluid, and Argonite. [They have] similar characteristics in terms of clean agents: They're people-safe, they leave no residue after a discharge, they're approved by NFPA 2001.

They have different discharge times, they have different environmental characteristics, they have different requirements for floor space, [and] they have different requirements for venting.

So, between the three, the choice will come down to what the individual buying criteria are at a particular facility. If they're short on storage space, they'd lean more toward an FM-200 or a Novec 1230 system. If they have systems that have a little more natural leakage, if you will, they might look at an Argonite system because Argonite is lighter than air and allows for more leakage in the protected space. . . . Novec 1230 has an atmospheric lifetime of only one day, so that's very popular with companies that are very high on environmental responsibility [and] corporate social responsibility.

Are these systems in use all over the world?

Houghton: Yes, they are.

CSB reports and articles I've read recently suggest that much of the equipment being used at petrochemical facilities in the United States is old--40 years old, in some cases. There aren't new refineries being built. Are you retrofitting facilities with these systems?

Houghton: We do a combination of both new builds and retrofits. Certainly, the equipment is designed so you can go into an existing facility and engineer a system to protect [against] an existing hazard. It doesn't have to be installed in a new build.

Is retrofit generally what happens in the States, at least?

Houghton: Yes. As you say, there are not many refineries and facilities being built. So it's much more retrofit or upgrade--for example, replacing an existing halon system.

That's what I was going to ask: what kinds of systems you're replacing. They were halon systems, in general?

Houghton: Yes. Halon, generally. Also a lot of sprinkler-based systems without the additional protection of clean agent fire protection. Minimum code requirement is typically sprinklers in those applications, and a facility operator may have experience with a fire at another location or a fire at a competitor's refinery, and they choose to do more than minimum protection.

This would typically be an air sampling system in combination with a detection system and a clean agent. They may have operated for a number of years with that sprinkler system before making the decision to install a clean agent.

I assume they do learn a lot from industry experience, from competitors' experiences. The industry does take note and takes action based on that?

Houghton: Very much so. And in that environment, the petrochemical environment, there is a lot of publicity. Some of the other industries we work in--banking and what have you--there's less public knowledge of a fire. In petrochemical, there's a lot of publicity; OSHA are very much involved in this kind of event. Definitely, there's a lot of post mortem done after incidents, and there's a lot more information shared between organizations.

One of the other characteristics we see is that risk managers and those kinds of people tend to move around facilities. They'll be at BP one day and they'll be at ExxonMobil next week.

So they can share at least the general outlines of best practices and products they've seen elsewhere. That makes sense.

Houghton: Right.

That kind of interchange, the crossover between competitors in the field, can move safety improvements along faster, I expect. Has it also changed the products you offer?

Houghton: Yes, absolutely. A couple of recent product developments we've done in the past three years; one is a system we call ADS, which is Advanced Delivery System. It's an FM-200-based system, but the hardware is designed to deliver the agent across much longer distances. The second thing that it does: It's a halon retrofit drop-in, so it can use existing halon pipework.

You don't have to change pipework; you could leave that in place [and] change just the cylinders and nozzles. Feedback from the field was that a lot of facilities are looking to upgrade halon but with a minimum disruption. Often, piping is running through concrete or through classified areas; they don't want to be ripping out pipework and disrupting operations. They want something to drop in.

That has to help because their shutdowns must be as brief as they can make them. It's very costly to shut down. You said longer distances; how much longer are they, and what was possible before?

Houghton: We've designed systems that have been in excess of 500 feet--from the cylinders to the hazard area itself is in excess of 500 feet. It gives you a lot of flexibility. The cylinders might be located in multiple areas around the plant. They might be up two floors; they might be three floors below and piped up into the hazard. They may be down in the plant room and piped back into the control room. They just give you flexibility [to place them] where you have floor space.
Typically, control rooms tend to be fairly tight for operating equipment inside, and they don't want to assign floor space to a fire protection system. The cylinders themselves can be wherever is convenient for you.

You're talking about cylinders that contain the clean agent. How large are they?

Houghton: They're designed for the particular hazards. We have eight different cylinder sizes, everything from 10 pounds through to 1,000 pounds.

In your opinion, is the level of fire awareness and fire safety in our petrochemical industry good?

Houghton: Yes. I think because it's an industry that by its very nature is prone to fires, by the nature of what is being processed and what the processes are, the awareness of fire safety, fire risk mitigation, and fire protection are generally pretty good throughout the industry.

I assume the detection systems and notification systems are much more capable now than they were a few years ago. Is that true?

Houghton: Absolutely. There continues to be product development year upon year, in terms of the industry learning from different hazards. There is also a lot more work being done to match the correct fire protection to different hazards so that what people are getting and installing is really suited to them.
It's not a one-size-fits-all. It's why we have different agents, why we have different methods of detection, why we combine methods of detection. We do a lot of high-sensitivity smoke detection in conjunction with regular smoke detection, so you get very early warnings. The operators of the control room will have an alarm very early on, before a suppression system may be discharged, allowing them to investigate.
Definitely, over the past decade, there have been a lot of advances in detection technology, in suppression technology--that feedback loop, again, from the field, has been very important.

Is some of this equipment used on offshore platforms?

Houghton: Yes.

Okay. Do they need different equipment out there? Does it have to be more robust to withstand the environment they're in?

Houghton: Yes. Typically, we incorporate those requirements into our standard equipment, but in addition to our baseline product development and baseline approval testing, for things like salt spray and vibration, we'll design things a little bit more ruggedly. Offshore oil platforms also have the option for intrinsically safe equipment, explosion-proof equipment. It's definitely got land-based application, as well.

Right now, worldwide, these production units are running at full volume all the time. Is that a problem? It seems they have to run at their maximum capacity constantly.

Houghton: That's true of not just petrochemical, but pretty much every application we protect these days. It's all about uptime. It's minimization of downtime. It's key that the fire protection system doesn't impinge on the operation of a banking facility [just as it is with] a petrochemical control room.
Our equipment is designed to be operational 24/7 with minimal maintenance requirements so that it's offline as little as possible throughout the year.

How expensive are these systems?

Houghton: As a rule of thumb, an installed system is typically less than 1 percent of construction cost. Construction costs can be quite high, so it's not pocket change. But in terms of the proportion to what you're protecting, it's generally very small.

It's a good investment to lower the risk of fire, I'm sure. And once the systems are upgraded as you've described, your costs to insure the facility would drop. You'd get some break.

Houghton: That is typically very true, and the reverse is also true: If you don't have additional fire protection, your insurance costs can increase. Insurance companies are not only giving you rebates, but in the event that you choose not to do that, some of them will in fact penalize you for not having additional fire protection.

And, as you say, these are heavily scrutinized sites. So they're getting those kinds of visits constantly.

Houghton: Exactly. The insurance companies are making risk assessment visits on a routine basis to these facilities.

Because of downsizing, not as many people are working in them as there used to be, even though they are working full-out. A lot of the equipment they're trying to install now in control rooms is more automated than it used to be. Is that also true of fire protection equipment?

Houghton: Some of our control panels can be remotely monitored. They will send messages to pagers, they'll send e-mail messages out. You can connect remotely. So we certainly take that into account. We don't rely on the fact that there will always be somebody on site.
We're designing in features to equipment such as our intelligent control panel. It's programmable; you can decide when you want the e-mails set out, you can decide when you want the pager notification. Because there are a lot of facilities that are not manned 24/7 anymore.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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