Shared Concerns, Shared Solutions
Using research to help insurers address industrial fire safety
NFPA Journal, March/April 2011
Since its founding, NFPA has had strong ties to the insurance industry. NFPA’s shared interest in loss reduction is reflected today in the leadership it provides in the areas of sprinkler protection and other aspects of industrial fire safety. Insurance industry representatives participate in NFPA technical committees — a recent search identified more than 40 insurance organizations with representation — and the North American insurance industry and many of its global counterparts continue to rely on NFPA’s codes and standards as benchmarks for fire protection practices.
The Research Foundation’s connection to the insurance industry has also been strong, primarily through our focus on research related to the protection of storage. In 2008, the emergence of a shared concern related to the performance of sprinklers for the protection of storage in the presence of high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) fans brought a group of insurers together to collaborate on a research program designed to understand the impact of the fans on spray obstruction and fire dynamics. The problem was an urgent one: the energy-conserving features of these fans has resulted in their rapid proliferation in industrial and storage facilities around the country. Like many emerging field issues, individual insurance companies were developing recommendations for use of the fans over sprinklered storage. At the industry’s request, the Foundation implemented a fast-track research project to provide preliminary guidance. By the end of the project, the insurers involved recognized that they shared other field-related issues that could be addressed through this mechanism.
In 2010, the Foundation initiated the Property Insurance Research Group, a group of six major U.S. industrial property insurers that met to create a list of shared concerns and to identify research priorities. Resources were committed to the development of comprehensive guidance on the HVLS fan issue; 10 full-scale fire tests were run on a broad range of storage configurations to provide both guidance for insurance field personnel and recommendations for changes to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. The tests, conducted at FM Global’s research campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island, and at Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, Illinois, also provided a means for field staff to witness first hand fire development and control in storage.
The Property Insurance Research Group met several times during 2010 and identified two additional priorities for 2011: the use of composite plastic intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) for the storage of flammable and combustible liquids and the storage hazard presented by lithium ion batteries. The former is a long-standing problem that the Foundation has addressed with two previous research projects, and insurers are now addressing the protection requirements and limits on the use of non-protected IBCs on the factory floor, a common scenario in today’s industrial facilities. With collaborators from the industrial community, insurers are also addressing the safe use of these containers for liquids with low ignition propensity.
As with HVLS fans, lithium ion batteries present a new hazard in the field with limited guidance on necessary protection. This topic resonates with NFPA’s focus on the fire protection issues surrounding electric vehicles, which are powered by these batteries. Partnerships with the automotive industry continue to develop around issues related to these batteries.
The Property Insurance Research Group is still in its infancy, but in today’s insurance industry reality, where many organizations share concerns and rely on NFPA standards as best practices, it has great promise as a mechanism to collaboratively address those concerns.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.