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Fighting fire with fire and research helps install appropriate defenses

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With businesses continually innovating, insurers, engineers and risk managers must regularly test new building designs, building contents, and sprinkler systems to see how they react in a fire.

Larger warehouse sizes, increasing overseas operations, introduction of new packaging materials and other advancements also drive fire research, observers say.

"A lot of this focuses on managing change," said Lou Gritzo, Norwood, Mass.-based vp and manager of research for Johnston, R.I.-based Factory Mutual Insurance Co., which does business as FM Global.

Sometimes policyholders and insurers push the limits of existing fire sprinkler technology or challenge established fire protection standards to meet business needs while still paying attention to safety, they say.

Or, risk managers say that fire testing can help them prove to insurance underwriters that their buildings deserve favorable coverage terms and pricing.

Testing might start with computer modeling that simulates a fire, said Tim Heinze, head of Swiss Reinsurance Co.'s Global Asset Protection unit in Avon, Conn.

But finding out how flames in a large warehouse will react when sprinklers kick in requires using real flames in a real warehouse, said Martin Pabich, staff engineer at Underwriters Laboratories Inc.'s fire safety testing facility in Northbrook, Ill.

In one test conducted last year, UL and Swiss Re evaluated the effectiveness of certain sprinklers in tall warehouses with sloped ceilings. Because pitched ceilings direct heat upwards, they can set off more overhead sprinklers than necessary, which can cause unnecessary water damage, said John Frank, senior vp and loss prevention center of excellence leader for Swiss Re in Alpharetta, Ga.

Additionally, the sprinklers that Swiss Re and UL tested didn't meet existing fire protection standards for their use with sloped ceilings.

"We were hoping to push the limits a little bit, but we found out (the standards) are already set correctly," Mr. Frank said.

The sprinklers tested by Swiss Re and UL are valued in flat ceiling warehouses because they eliminate a need for other sprinklers typically placed inside of warehouse storage racks, Mr. Frank said.

The storage rack sprinklers can cause operational headaches for warehouse managers, so eliminating their use in buildings with sloped ceilings could improve customers' operations, Mr. Frank said.

Had researchers been able to safely use the tested sprinklers in sloped-ceiling buildings, it would have helped companies with operations overseas where warehouses with those types of ceilings are more prevalent than in the United States.

To conduct the fire test, UL simulated a large warehouse complete with storage racks at its Northbrook, Ill., facility. Researchers then burned pallet loads of polystyrene cups and captured data such as ceiling temperature and the velocity of gasses released by the fire.

Because similar polystyrene cups have been used in fire testing since the 1970s, ample benchmark data exists on how they burn, UL's Mr. Pabich said.

FM Global also operates a fire technology laboratory on its research campus in West Glocester, R.I., where it also can replicate large warehouse fires.

Fire testing helps determine potential hazards and define protection strategies when, say, customers begin using new materials in their products or packaging, such as recycled fibers, FM Global's Mr. Gritzo said.

Researchers also initiate testing when FM Global engineers notice customers begin shifting their operation methods, such as a trend toward using taller warehouses.

Rodney Marchand, property risk manager for International Paper Co. in Memphis, Tenn., said that over the decades FM Global's research has helped his industry eliminate warehouse fires. Before the 1980s, for example, existing fire protection standards called for using just one type of sprinkler for all warehouses storing rolls of paper regardless of the paper type, Mr. Marchand said.

"We were actually burning down warehouses and didn't know why," Mr. Marchand said.

Then FM Global's research in the early 1980s established that different types of sprinklers were more effective in extinguishing fires, depending on the type of paper being produced.

Different types of paper burn differently, Mr. Marchand said. There are now many types of sprinklers utilized depending on the paper product, he said.

Massive, 70-ton paper rolls represent a high hazard because the production process heats up the paper. If the rolls--which are difficult to wet thoroughly--catch fire, they unwind as they burn and continually feed the conflagration, Mr. Marchand added.

In most situations, researchers can drive the risk of damage from fires down to zero, FM Global's Mr. Gritzo said. But that ultimately may be too expensive.

More often, the goal is to drive risk hazards down to the "right level" by finding cost-effective loss prevention measures that simultaneously protect a customer's financial expenditures while also protecting their properties.

"That is where engineering and business come together," Mr. Gritzo said.

Spending on fire testing impacts insureds' budgets in other ways, said Swiss Re's Mr. Heinze.

Risk managers typically have a set budget they can spend for the entire spectrum of exposures their companies must mitigate, Mr. Heinze said.

Testing can help them find effective alternatives, such as specific types of sprinkler heads that might, for instance, safely eliminate the need for retrofitting an entire building with an elaborate fire suppression system that code enforcement officials or insurers recommend, Mr. Heinze said.

"Why would I just accept the recommendations (and) potentially pump millions of dollars into retrofitting the facility when maybe I have a solution that might cost me a couple of tens of thousands of dollars, and I can reapply (those funds) in another (risk mitigation) area that is going to give me more impact?" Mr. Heinze asked.

Policyholders can also help obtain more desirable insurance pricing and coverage levels by differentiating themselves and showing insurance underwriters that they are "best in class" among their industry, said Bradley R. Wood, senior vp-risk management for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc.

One way to do that is by fire testing innovations that make their buildings safe, Mr. Wood said.