. Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on November 1, 2012.

Peak Performance
Expanding the technical basis for inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements

NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012 

Testing and maintenance may not represent the sexy side of the fire protection business, but the performance of systems as they age in place is a crucial element in meeting fire safety design objectives.

 

FROM THE ARCHIVES 

September - October 2012
Why advances in firefighter safety can also affect the overall fire problem

July - August 2012
How far the Foundation has come in helping NFPA confront emerging issues

May - June 2012
The ongoing research effort behind the codes and standards process 

March - April 2012
Assessing electrical safety hazards in emerging energy-saving technologies

January - February 2012
A project reveals new-product entry barriers in residential construction

November - December 2011
Understanding the hazards posed by lithium ion battery storage

Many NFPA fire protection system standards contain requirements for periodic inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM). These requirements are coming under more scrutiny as they add to the life-cycle cost of fire protection systems and, in the case of water-based systems, as the resources consumed in the process become ever more precious.

Last year, the Fire Protection Reseach Foundation conducted a study of fire pump reliability that explored the types of data from inspection records that are important for improving the basis of ITM requirements, and it proposed a framework to collect that data in a systematic way. But there are other important considerations in using a risk-based approach: What is the consequence of failure, for example, of one system component in terms of the threshold for acceptable performance of the system as a whole?

In the past year, four different NFPA technical committees asked the Foundation to conduct studies to enhance the technical basis of the ITM requirements in their documents. Although the issues are different for each document, the fundamentals of a risk/reliability-based approach to determining desirable ITM frequency are the same. Accordingly, we have begun a project with California Polytechnic State University to develop guidance for technical committees to determine ITM frequency for a given fire protection system or equipment based on risk/reliability concepts. 

In July, we held a workshop that brought together 30 representatives from key NFPA technical committees whose documents contain ITM requirements. Each group, ranging from passive fire protection systems to detection and suppression systems, reviewed the historical basis of the requirements in its document, and tried to identify the data needs and resources that might be available to help inform a more technically based approach that would take into account both the likelihood of failure and the consequences of that failure.

Several groups identified human behavior — the ability of the individual executing the ITM program — and the quality of ITM as key variables in the equation. The concept of “do no harm” during the inspection process was also discussed. The group organized around NFPA 4, Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing, had a special challenge, since this document seeks to develop requirements for a “system of systems,” each of which has its own existing requirements and unique failure modes.

Using the results of the workshop, along with other resources including the SFPE Engineering Guide to Fire Risk Assessment and information from industries, such as the nuclear industry, that have come to grips with this problem, Cal Poly is developing a generic template/checklist technical committees can use as they approach the issue. The guide will describe the reliability principles to be applied, the types of data sources and associated limitations, and the types of “failure” criteria, and it will provide a framework/methodology that can be tailored to the committee’s needs.

As the fire pump project demonstrated, data are an important issue, but there are means of structuring the collection of that data so that it can be used in a risk/reliability approach. Just as important is a full understanding of the relationship between components in the system and the impact of failure of any one element. The Foundation’s guide, which will be available in early 2013, won’t provide all the answers, but we hope it can provide a structure for technical committee dialogue on the issues.


Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.