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Author(s): Matt Klaus. Published on March 1, 2017.

Managing change for protecting storage and industrial facilities


When protecting a high-hazard space like a warehouse, distribution center, or industrial facility, it is critical that the building’s active fire protection systems are designed to address the specific hazards that are present. NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, goes to great lengths in Chapter 5 to make sure the sprinkler system designer considers all of the potential fuel sources and commodities that are present when making a final determination on the system design approach and ultimately the delivered density for the system. This includes a review of the goods being stored, open processes, fuels, chemicals, flammable liquids, packaging materials, and any other material that could have an impact during a fire.

This hazard assessment happens prior to occupancy and is typically reviewed and approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) as part of the plan review process. This gives everyone, including the owner, engineer/designer, AHJ, and building tenants, a safe and secure feeling the day the building opens. But what happens down the road? Does everyone still feel safe? More importantly, are they safe?

The concept of management of change exists in many facets of life, but it is critically important when it comes to fire safety. It is not uncommon for a building owner or manufacturer to change how they manufacture, store, or even package products. The trick is to make sure that, as these goods and processes change in material, quantity, or location, the systems intended to protect them also change when necessary.

While permits are required in some locations when there is a change in storage approach or stored material, in many locations this is done simply as an operational modification without any formal jurisdictional governance. Some standards, including NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, require owners or their representatives to address system modification when changes in use or process occur, but these standards presuppose that owners are aware of the implications of operational changes to begin with. Many owners are not even aware that NFPA 25 exists unless they have had a fire protection specialist assist them with their ITM program or day-to-day operations.

While management of change is important for all building owners and property managers, it is probably most critical for industrial facilities and warehouses/distribution centers when considering the impacts on automatic sprinkler systems. Simple modifications like choosing to encapsulate pallet loads or switching from a solid piled storage arrangement to a rack storage arrangement can significantly impact the effectiveness of the sprinkler system. Changing the type or quantity of fuel used in a manufacturing or industrial process can also compromise the integrity of water-based fire protection system design.

A simple change that often goes unaddressed is the change of pallet material. Over the last 15 to 20 years, many distributors, manufacturers, and shipping companies have moved away from wooden pallets in favor of plastic pallets. These pallets have longer useful life spans, are usable in all climate conditions, and can be lighter than wood pallets. Many are also 100 percent recyclable. The problem is that switching from wood to plastic pallets requires a commodity classification upgrade in NFPA 13, depending on whether the pallets are reinforced. This change could require a significant increase in the amount of water needed to control a fire, but in many instances the change goes unnoticed.

While there is no magic solution to this issue, general awareness that operational changes can impact the effectiveness of a system is a good start. Even an annual questionnaire to different operations teams can help: In the last 12 months, have we changed any of our shipping or packing materials? In the last 12 months, have we modified our storage or distribution program (shelves, racks, solid piles, pallets, bin boxes, etc.)? In the last 12 months, have we introduced new materials such as plastics, fuels, or flammable liquids into our products or processes?

If any of these questions can be answered with a “yes,” it may be time to evaluate the system. Managing change is important to make sure systems can address the hazard present in a given facility. More important, though, this process gives everyone that safe and secure feeling they had the day they moved into the building.

MATT KLAUS is NFPA technical services lead for fire protection engineering.