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The hi-tech fight against fire.

IN A DARK, SILENT warehouse, pallets of boxes are arranged in stacks, piled 50 feet up to the ceiling. Suddenly, a flame flickers from the ground, igniting one of the boxes. The single tongue of fire multiplies into a series of crackling orange flames that leap up the sides of the box, then burst through open space, igniting a box across the aisle. Soon the flames are raging, shooting up the sides of the two columns.

Then, when the blaze seems ready to engulf an adjoining column, a popping sound echoes throughout the warehouse: Above the inferno, water gushes from a sprinkler system. At the rate of 70 gallons per minute, the water pours onto the flames which, seeming to possess a human will, struggle to roar against the incessant bombardment. Alas, the cascading downpour proves to be too much for the conflagration: Within minutes, the fire is under control, having been reduced to a final, snapping finger of flame.

So, thanks to technology, a warehouse of expensive merchandise has been saved - or has it? The columns exposed to the fire numbered only four, with each box full of plastic drinking cups never intended for human lips. And the fire? It was deliberately set by an employee of the warehouse, under the watchful and approving eyes of a team of supervisors and technicians.

For this was no ordinary fire - and no ordinary warehouse. The fire, set as part of a research test, took place at Factory Mutual Research Corp.'s (FMRC) Fire Test Center in West Glocester, Rhode Island. A division of Factory Mutual Engineering and Research, the center has been the scene of more than ]_3,000 blazes set by the company over the last 25 years of its existence in its efforts to develop sprinklers and other loss control systems to combat even the most formidable fires.

"Besides causing between 5,000 and 6,000 deaths every year, fire also costs companies billions of dollars in property damage," says Carl E. Miller, FMRC's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

With over 50 years of property loss control experience, FMRC offers companies a wide range of applied research capabilities, including small, intermediate and large-scale fire testing, standards development, data analysis and product testing and approval procedures. FMRC also evaluates industrial fire protection and other loss prevention materials and equipment. When products pass the test, they receive FMRC's approval ratings; as evidence of its expertise, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regards the FMRC Approvals Program as a national testing laboratory.

"For our tests, we've burned some pretty amazing things - raw chickens, car batteries, alcohol and even bowling balls," says Joe Hankins, manager of FMRC's protection section. In the 1970s, fire tests demonstrated that aerosol cans turn into fiery rockets only seconds after being exposed to flames.

The center also contains an explosion test facility, which allows researchers to study the flammability of particular types of vapors, gases and dust. "The risks posed by dust particles can be very severe in certain businesses such as the chemical, food handling, grain and the pharmaceutical industries," says Mr. Miller. "If certain kinds of dust particles accumulate and are somehow ignited, the result can be a powerful and potentially deadly explosion."

Sprinkler Research

PERHAPS FMRC'S greatest achievement has been its development of state-of-the art sprinkler prototypes that are used extensively by manufacturers of sprinklers. These prototypes include standard, or spray, sprinklers, large-drop sprinklers designed to control storage fires, fast-response sprinklers for use in residential areas and Early Suppression-Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers.

The earliest sprinkler models were developed by New England mill owners to protect their products and facilities. These crude devices consisted of perforated piping systems that released water through a manually turned valve - a great inconvenience, since someone had to be present to turn it on.

Over the next few decades, inventors improved on these primitive models, but the era of the modern sprinkler didn't dawn until 1953, when FMRC developed the first standard spray sprinkler. Unlike earlier models that sprayed between 40 percent to 60 percent of their water upward at the ceiling, the new sprinkler was designed to spray the water downward, directly onto the fire.

"Research at FMRC determined that even fire that is spreading across the ceiling js reduced by spraying the water downward," says Dr. HsiangCheng Kung, manager of the applied mechanics section in FMRCs Protection & Risk Analysis Research Department. ln the early 1970s, FMRC developed the large drop sprinkler. Emitting water through a bigger orifice than the standard spray sprinkler, these models created larger water droplets and were therefore more effective at cornbating fires.

However, during the 1970s, companies began to store high-value products constructed from new synthetic, highly flammable materials in increasingly larger, high-pile stacks; the combination of the new products and storage configurations created conditions that, in some warehouses, made the large-drop sprinklers less effective in fire protection.

As a result. FMRC's staff worked on a new sprinkler prototype. Developed between ]983 and 1988, this new sprinkler, the ESFR, was designed to actually suppress and put out fires. "Unlike earlier sprinkler models that operated by wetting the storage around a fire to prevent its spread, the ESFR sprinkler emits two to three times the amount of water that earlier models did. This large quantity of water falls directly onto the fire, with the capability to actually put it out," says Mr. Hankins.

"The ESFR was designed to be used in high-pile storage areas, and especially among rack storage. With the installation of an ESFR system, there'd be no need to use in-rack sprinklers." The ESFR sprinkler also contains a unique head: "Unlike earlier models, the ESFR sprinkler head contains a glass bulb that bursts when it heats up to 155 degrees Fahrenheit," says Mr. Hankins. "When that bulb bursts, it releases the water." Although ESFR sprinklers may not be cost-effective - or necessary - for certain product storages, companies that store highly valuable products often prefer the ESFR to other sprinkler types.

New Tests

ALTHOUGH THERE ARE currently no plans to develop new types of sprinkler systems, the FMRC Center is now conducting research on using ESFR sprinklers on solid plastics and certain highly hazardous aerosol products. Technicians are also developing computer simulation models which, ultimately, will be used to develop new types of suppression sprinklers. "These simulations will allow us to conduct fire tests without even having to start real fires," declares Paul Croce, manager of FMRCs Protection and Risk Analysis Research Department. "The tests will provide predictions of how fire behaves when exposed to water flows from sprinklers."

Further tests are being conducted on ways to prevent non-thermal fire damage - smoke and corrosion damage resulting from flames - in efforts to control this costly hazard. FMRC has also added a new hydraulics laboratory. This new laboratory, which is much larger than the lab the company previously used, is designed to test fire protection equipment such as sprinkler systems, pressure reducing valves, fire hoses and backflow preventors. With these new capabilities, FMRC and its team of experts will continue the battle against fire hazards throughout the decade and beyond.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Risk Management Society Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Factory Mutual Research Corp.
Author:Christine, Brian
Publication:Risk Management
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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