I recently had the opportunity to witness two full scale exercises at industrial facilities and participate in fire brigade training at a third. The central theme at all three sites was that the firefighters had the willingness and ability to accomplish the stated objectives. This is not always the case and facility managers, corporate risk managers, and their insurers need to know the reality and their options.

Automatic fixed fire protection is generally the best form of defense but there are several situations where it may be financially impractical and in some specific cases, not the first choice. Existing systems may be inadequate for a wide variety of reasons and the question often asked is whether or not the local fire service can manage the deficiency through manual intervention. Very often the opinions are best estimates of capability without really exploring the true capability of the local fire service.

The first step is relatively simple. Ask the chief if he is willing to attempt a particular type of attack in this given situation. The answer may be “no” due to risk-benefit concerns or resource constraints. Thirty-years ago a chief told me that he would never commit personnel to the roof of an external floating roof tank to fight a seal fire because the risk was simply unacceptable. This was at a time when some firefighters were still trained to attack a seal fire from the roof. Now there are tools to do the job without going on the roof and also without the risk of sinking the roof. These new tools are a response to the next question: “What would reduce the risk to an acceptable level?” The fire service will likely have definite suggestions as to what would reduce the risk for them. In general, I have found these requests to be very reasonable and practical.

Sometimes it is a simple matter of education. For example, firefighters are taught the dangers of lightweight truss roofs and how quickly they can collapse during a fire. I have toured many warehouses where the fire service stated that they would not enter if no life was at risk because of the danger of collapse. After explaining that a criterion for storage sprinkler acceptance was to keep the steel temperature below the failure point, I found that they would be more receptive to entering the building for final extinguishment, if they could be ensured that the sprinklers were properly designed and were in service during a fire. This usually leads to a discussion on how to know if sprinklers are indeed controlling or suppressing a fire and how to operate in such an environment. I cannot recall a case where after such an explanation the fire service was still unwilling to enter.

 Conversely, during preplanning sessions, a facility should be willing to let the fire service know when a hazard that appears to be properly protected might not. A building might be sprinklered but not adequately and in that case loss of control and building collapse might be expected. Similarly, a fire department might have experience or at least training in fighting fires in tanks of refined petroleum products but might not be aware of the boilover potential with crude oil.

If the risk simply cannot be managed to what the fire service considers an acceptable level, some options are:

• Conduct a detailed probabilistic risk assessment with fault and event trees. This can identify more ways to reduce the likelihood that the fire service will be needed and to reduce the impact of losses that do occur,

• Develop business continuity plans to manage the loss of the resource from even a “normal” incident, • Place more reliance on risk transfer,

• Provide protection that will “buy time” for private contract responders to arrive -- such as longer duration water supplies,

• Provide a facility fire bridge.

 Once willingness is established, some kind of proof of ability should be established. This could range from an informal discussion of how a situation might be managed, which would result in a reasonable comfort level, to a full scale exercise. The more technical the risk and the less frequently the task is performed, the more valuable an exercise will be. For example, the fire service in an oil-producing and refining area may be very well versed in bulk storage whereas in a large light-industrial metropolitan area they might not be. Such exercises are a good chance to tests things like stream reach, hose reach, coupling compatibility, vehicle access and the like.

Once willingness and ability are established, continued reevaluation of such willingness and ability is needed, just like the adequacy of any other form of protection needs ongoing reevaluation. Fire service attitude toward risks change, the risks themselves change, leadership changes, and all of these can result in an acceptable situation turning into an unacceptable situation.

The points in this article can only be accomplished by ongoing technical discussions between the facility and the local fire service.

John Frank is Senior Vice President of the XL Catlin’s Property Risk Engineering Loss Prevention Center of Excellence, where he is involved in loss prevention research and loss prevention training. XL Catlin’s Property Risk Engineering team provides property loss prevention consulting and delivers individually tailored solutions to protect and enhance property, production and profit. With approximately 220 engineers and consultants in 18 countries, the team brings clients occupancy specific experience as well as deep knowledge of specific hazards across industries. The XL Catlin insurance companies offer property, casualty, professional, financial lines and specialty insurance products globally.