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Disaster test runs spark solutions for the real thing

FM Global research center

CHEPACHET, Rhode Island — FM Global engineers spend a lot of time lighting things on fire and blowing things up to figure out the best ways to prevent things from catching fire or blowing up.

During a tour of the 1,600-acre FM Global Research Campus, built in 2003, engineers for the Johnston, Rhode Island-based mutual insurer replicated the impact of the 2017 hurricanes — demonstrating the damage that can be caused by projectiles hurling at windows at wind speeds of about 110 miles per hour, as well as protective measures — in its natural hazards laboratory for about 50 people on Sunday.

“We all know that natural disasters are very fierce and very violent, and there’s massive potential for damage,” said Victor Jaworski, manager of brand experience for FM Global based in Johnston. “We can’t choose where a hurricane is going to make landfall. We can’t choose when an earthquake is going to strike. But there is hope. Really there’s a choice in how we decide to plan for and respond to these massive disasters.”

For example, one Houston-based client put up a flood barrier prior to Hurricane Harvey, which kept all its utilities dry during the storm. “And once the water receded and everybody could drive back to work, that building was operational and they could continue to serve their clients and make the revenues that business was designed to do,” Mr. Jaworski said.

FM Global engineers also simulated the impact of an earthquake similar to the 7.1-magnitude quake that killed 370 people in Mexico in 2017.

“Most of the damage from earthquakes don’t happen to the outside of the building, especially as you’re building to a little more modern, higher standards,” he said. “It’s the internal bleeding that really gets you because, unlike flood barriers that keep the flood out and plywood that keeps the wind out, you can’t keep the shake out. And inside your building, things topple and shatter and break. With earthquake, we design some things to move with the earthquake and some things to withstand the movement of the earthquake.” 

FM Global engineers also simulated a combustible dust explosion and an event similar to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in London in 2017.

“It was a tragic fire, but probably the most tragic thing about that fire was that it was completely avoidable,” Mr. Jaworski said. “The management of the building wanted to modernize the building. They wanted to add some insulation factors. What they didn’t know was that the (aluminum composite materials) product they decided to go with would turn this building … into a fire trap.”

For the fire that recently damaged the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, “the very early indications are that it was probably an electrical fault” that started it, said Chris Johnson, an FM Global executive vice president based in Luxembourg.

“It will be very, very hard to prove exactly how it began.” “What frustrates me is why on earth can’t we put some fire protection into these buildings?” he said, referring to such historical sites.



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