Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on July 1, 2016.

Brave New Hazards

As new technologies address the world's problems, they can also raise safety issues


Every day, as engineers and researchers address fire protection challenges, our world often unwittingly creates new hazards, a result of the technologies and alternative methods we develop to improve our quality of life. We have to address these hazards before, not after, a disaster occurs.

In April, the Fire Protection Research Foundation hosted the “Symposium on Fire Protection for a Changing World,” one-day event in Munich, Germany, focused on emerging issues and the fire protection challenges that accompany them. The meeting let us take a hard look at issues where the lessons of history are lacking.

The program included multiple speakers and covered emerging applications, concepts, and methods, and the challenges and hazards they may create. Topics included the economic and environmental impact of fire, intelligent building design for the 21st century, mega structures, tall wood buildings, high-challenge warehouses, big-data applications for fire protection, and more.

While many new ideas have enormous potential for societal gain—and for addressing the accompanying fire protection challenges—the field of electrical energy generation might be the clearest example. The world is hungry for electrical power for its consumer goods and other needs, and we want it with minimal adverse environmental impact. To address that demand, a number of new electrical energy generation and storage solutions have proliferated in recent years, including wind turbines, photovoltaic systems, and energy storage systems.

But emergency responders and fire protection professionals are now asking important questions about the safe design, installation, regulation, maintenance, and long-term operation of these technologies. Whether it’s an internal defect resulting in thermal runaway, an external exposure fire, acts of arson or terrorism, mechanical impact, or electrical surge, we need to know how to handle compromised or damaged equipment under conditions of duress.

This effort has multiple players, including technology providers—it is not enough for them to deliver their innovations and walk away. Maximizing safety requires not just robust design, but also thoughtful installation and commissioning, balanced regulatory oversight, committed end-user maintenance, and responsible end-of-life handling, all supported by credible research. The Foundation has a clear role in this chain, exemplified by our multiple research efforts addressing topics such as lithium-ion batteries.

Balancing the resources necessary to mitigate risk is not always easy. We don’t have bottomless resources to create a perfectly safe world, so we must also determine the risk society is willing to tolerate, such as the severity of an event and likelihood of its occurrence. Decades ago, as a young fire protection engineer working in nuclear power plants, I visited the newly operational Zimmer Power Station in Ohio. Despite construction being 97 percent complete, regulators decided not to grant it a license to generate power because they couldn’t confirm acceptable quality control of the construction process. Facility owners ultimately converted Zimmer to a coal-fired plant. The impact of change late in the game can be monumental, but it’s sometimes necessary depending on the risk.

As technology evolves, society must continue to be vigilant for possible hazards, wise enough to understand the implications of failure, and courageous enough to be proactive stewards in the name of safety.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Photograph: Shutterstock