Fire services – what are ‘special hazards’ and how do you manage them?

Depending on your facility and what’s inside it, occupant safety may not be the only thing at stake in the event of a fire. Robert Westerhout explains special hazard management and how to do it best.

Many believe ‘special hazards’ relate to buildings with high fire loads, or assets that simply require extra protection, but in reality they deal with equipment or processes that are of extremely high value. When talking about special hazards, we aren’t referring to life safety of human occupants, but to additional valuable property or processes. Maybe it’s some highly expensive technical equipment storing sensitive files or even a museum stocked with priceless artefacts. When managing special fire hazards, FMs will need to install something over and above what they’re required to from a safety perspective: a system that will basically extinguish a fire before it does damage

Special hazards and you

For facilities that house sensitive or valuable material, special hazard fire protection ranges from a want to a need. If you have a server, for example, but it’s in a room that’s fire rated all around and there are no other flammables inside it, you could monitor and maintain the server to make sure it’s not going to catch fire. So you may opt not to go for a fire suppression system. But if you’ve got a museum full of delicate items, or an old building, or both, it’s another story. Notre Dame is an example where if a top of the range fire system had been in place, it would have extinguished the fire before it damaged the steeple. Things such as timber construction and old electrical wiring in significant buildings should be justification enough for investing in fire suppression. 

Risk versus reward

The cost of installation and maintenance makes up the widest gap in FMs’ understanding of special hazard management. As an FM, you naturally have your budget at the forefront of repair and maintenance processes. But how’s your knowledge of the bigger picture of what your system’s protecting and what the actual financial impact would be of not maintaining or installing it? That’s the thing with fire. 

Fire protection is a must-have and, for many, special hazard protection is required. Unfortunately, though, many have trouble seeing the value in it because it doesn’t actually generate money. But it’s protecting something that does generate revenue, or something that would cost a lot of money to repair or replace – that’s where special hazards come in.

Every asset is different – each has unique risks, different fire loads and different fire hazards. So, there are going to be differences in what it costs in the event of a fire. Special hazard fire management is a risk versus reward game. It’s asking: what’s the risk of a fire occurring and what’s the potential impact or cost to your business? Then it’s looking at the cost of installation and maintenance and choosing the fire system best suited to ensure the risk is minimised adequately.

The right understanding

A fire engineer can help you understand the ways of fire suppression systems for special hazards, as there are a number of different types. There are always new innovations and tech updates, too.

‘Clean agent’ systems will basically totally flood the room with an agent that suppresses the fire and poses no danger to life. Fire suppression systems have a level of protection where, if you go past a certain concentration, it starts to impact life preservation.

This brings us to CO₂ systems, which totally flood the room with CO₂ (carbon dioxide) and you can imagine the impact that can have for occupant safety. These factors must be taken into account in your plans.

So, once again, getting a fire engineer involved is an important step in wrapping your head around the best systems available, and in understanding the risks and choosing the safest level of protection for your needs. They’ll develop a risk matrix and cost analysis to enhance your knowledge of costs versus risk – so you can make the right call. At the end of the day, it’s about early warning, early detection and early suppression.

Robert Westerhout is the National Service Manager – Fire, at Grosvenor Engineering Group.