Industrial fire systems: Defining the key players
Ensuring the safety of industrial facilities and the people within them is a responsibility shared by many – both inside and outside the plant. From fire protection and process instrumentation engineers to health and safety officers, everyone plays a unique, connected role in protecting the plant and its employees.
Today, plant needs are evolving and the technologies in fire protection are more sophisticated to support those needs. As new technologies are introduced there may not be as clear delineation of responsibilities between each key player as there was in the past. Sometimes there may even be an overlap in responsibilities as title structures vary from plant to plant. For example, in one facility, one person might oversee multiple aspects of the industrial fire system while other facilities may have a designated person for each.
Understanding the fundamental tasks of the key parties involved with industrial fire systems will better prepare plant operators who are looking for support in building a new facility or upgrading an existing one.
The who’s who
While duties may overlap as titles vary from plant to plant, the responsibilities outlined under each role are integral to designing an effective industrial fire system. These roles can vary if they are internal or external to the organization.
Process safety engineer – Process instrumentation is a critical part of any industrial industry because it allows real-time measurement and control of variables such as levels, flow, pressure, temperature, pH and humidity within a production area. Process safety engineers assess mechanical processes and find ways to make them more efficient and deliver better quality product. With the right instrumentation, process plants can run effectively, economically and safely through the integration of alarm signals.
Mechanical engineer – Perhaps one of the broadest discipline in engineering, mechanical engineers are involved with designing machines that control the generation, distribution and use of energy in processing materials and fluids. From an industrial fire perspective, this could mean any mechanical device that contributes to protecting the plant and equipment and its occupants such as fire suppression.
Electrical engineer – This group is accountable for the specification and design of power generation, control, alarm and communication systems and equipment that require electricity. Alarm and communication systems are particularly critical in an industrial fire system. When designing both systems, electrical engineers should have a strong understanding in the interrelationship of the various systems as well as installation, back-up power and notification requirements.
Fire protection engineer – Responsible for protecting occupants and their environment from destructive fire, fire protection engineers understand the characteristics of fire including how it can spread, can anticipate the behavior of materials during a fire, and is familiar with how it can be detected, controlled or extinguished. Fire protection engineers design systems that – taken individually – could be considered mechanical (fire sprinklers) or electrical (fire alarm).
Automation engineering – designs, programs and tests the machinery in the process and would understand the equipment interaction to ensure the process maintains the highest levels to uptime. Their understanding of the interworking of the equipment and the safety devices.
Health and safety officer – In this role, a health and safety expert is responsible for developing and establishing procedures to ensure the safety of plant employees such as evacuation plans. Their expertise is also helpful when identifying specifications prior to the design process as they can provide valuable insight into space usage and component placement to help avoid high foot traffic areas. Depending on the size of the plant, the health and safety expert can be fully dedicated to the role or a designated individual within the facility.
A key takeaway from having these roles outlined is the clear connectivity they share. A decision by an expert in one discipline can quickly impact another colleague’s scope. Integrating multiple disciplines into the design and testing phase can help plant operators identify gaps or efficiencies that do not diminish fire safety to occupants. For example, gas and flame detection might the responsibility of process engineering while the fire alarm and suppression is under the mechanical team. Both are part of the safety system and correct interoperability between them is critical.
As with any new technology plant operators should assemble a designated team of experts as soon as they decide to proceed with a new investment or upgrade to the safety system incorporating the fire and gas detection with suppression. Here are several tips when working with experts from multiple disciplines.
As mentioned, it is beneficial to involve each expert in an industrial fire system design at the earliest stages of planning, generally at the feasibility or concept design stage. Involving an expert from each discipline at this stage means greater system flexibility, innovation in design (e.g., construction, materials), equal or better fire safety, and maximization of the cost benefit.
Upgrades to existing systems may seem to have a reduced design flexibility at this stage, leading to resistance to change or add new technology. By including team members from other disciplines, the benefits can be reviewed and determined the short term and long-term impacts.
Given the occasional overlap in duties, outlining the responsibilities of each expert involved will help to avoid confusion. A design review and approval structure may also prove helpful to streamline processes. For example, the mechanical and process instrumentation engineers should work closely together to ensure mechanical devices such as the releasing or deluge are as efficient as possible. The design should then be shared with the electrical engineer and health and safety officer given their tailored expertise to account for any additional considerations beyond the mechanical scope.
A fire protection engineer can review the overall operation of the system and play an active role in every step of the process as he or she can speak to the merits of the mechanical and engineering system design with fire protection requirements and best practices and principles in mind.
Tap into expert knowledge
Each team member is likely familiar with the latest codes and technologies in their own discipline. A great practice is to have meetings where experts share the latest trends and insights ensures the plant is installing a best-in-class industrial fire system.
Use the benefits of third-party testing agencies, such as FM and UL, they thoroughly test systems ensuring regulatory compliance. Then the system can be configured to best suit operators’ needs.
These actions will ensure seamless collaboration within the team, allow more time and focus spent on delivering a system that ensures the plant and employees are well protected, reduces false alarms, maintenance and overall complexity.
Traditionally, industrial fire systems featured components that functioned independently from each other. Plants are gradually moving toward an integrated system that combines fire detection, gas detection and suppression systems all into one panel. An integrated system has the critical logic already installed, resulting in simplified plant operations and maintenance while reducing space and reducing false alarms.
With the three functions in one controller, it enables the distributed control system (DCS) to have one connection and assess the data to determine the appropriate response that monitored is by control room. This programming becomes much simpler for the operator and installer.
An added responsibility for industrial fire experts will be to learn how to leverage all the data made possible by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to help plant operators respond quickly and precisely to events. As industrial fire system designs continue to evolve, collaboration between all disciplines – process, mechanical, electrical, fire protection, automation engineering, and health and safety – will play an integral role in supporting plant operators to meet production demand while ensuring the safety of the facility and employees.