Maximum fire protection for the most dangerous places

Issue 4 2023 Fire & Safety, Mining (Industry), Products & Solutions

Africa’s heavy mining and resource processing industries are some of the continent’s leading economic lights. They also present some of its toughest fire safety challenges on the planet.

Coal, oil and gas are extremely flammable. So are many other raw materials when they become airborne as dust. Places where concentrations of these materials can lead to a devastating explosion are regarded a ‘hazardous areas’ and specifically classified as such for fire protection. The latest design guide from Switzerland’s Securiton offers a valuable insight into the advanced methods needed to reliably protect such sites.

In particular, they require detection systems that are both reliable and robust. The detectors will have to work in environments that may be dusty, subject to extreme temperature changes, and may be partly outdoors. They must provide fast, reliable feedback to teams on- and off-site, so that suitable response measures can be implemented from the very first hint of a problem – because a fire in an explosive atmosphere cannot be allowed to get out of control.

What are classified hazardous areas?

Oxygen, heat and fuel are commonly referred to as the fire triangle. When a fire ignites, a fourth element, the chemical reaction, makes up a fire ‘tetrahedron’. In built environments with the presence of flammable gases or vapour, combustible dusts, or volatile fibres in the atmosphere, this tetrahedron can trigger a rapid chain reaction. This means either a huge, uncontrollable blaze, or an explosion when explosive limits are exceeded. Anywhere where this violent reaction can take place is generally deemed a hazardous area by one of two universally accepted methods of classification: the Class/Division/Group system used in North America and based on NEC 500/504 or the Zone/Group system used in Europe based on IEC 60079.

Due to the unique characteristics of fire danger and risk profile in hazardous areas, significant emphasis is placed on eliminating ignition sources and controlling ambient conditions to well below explosive limits. Potential ignition sources include any heated apparatus, or other moving and electrical machinery (including cutting and welding, dryers, furnaces, turbines), hot surfaces and sparks.

Prevention is far better than cure, given that a fire in a hazardous area will have devastating consequences for people, business, and even the wider economy. However, fires in hazardous areas do occasionally occur, and they can be tackled successfully if staff are alert, trained and informed.

Early warning fire detection design

Obviously, some form of Early Warning Fire Detection (EWFD) is desirable to allow staff to react if there is a fire, but even these devices must be rendered safe enough to not produce a spark. One approach to this involves using expensive ‘Atex’ tested equipment, specifically designed for hazardous areas. The other involves designing a system that places most of the equipment at a safe distance, with suitable firewalls between the electronic equipment and any explosive or highly flammable airborne substances. The latter approach is known as ‘intrinsically safe design’.

Safe and effective detection methods

Whatever approach is taken to designing a fit-for-purpose fire detection system for hazardous areas, a variety of advanced methods should be considered. Securiton’s guide outlines the company’s SecuriSmoke, SecuriBeam and SecuriHeat products, covering aspirated smoke detection, high capability beam detectors, and linear heat detection. This allows for a fully flexible design with quantifiable and reliable detection performance.

Advantages include a wide range of models; a central control unit that is remotely installed outside the high hazard zone; and suitable accessories for intrinsically safe system design.

For example, a line-type heat detector that consists of a sealed cable or tube can be run through dusty, dangerous areas. The monitoring unit will be positioned in a safe area where staff have regular, easy access. Maintenance will not generally require access to the danger zone, and the cables or pipe itself will not only be resistant to the harsh environment, but are also suitably earthed and safe in terms of any live components.

A similar approach is possible with aspirating smoke detectors, as only their hollow plastic sampling tubes must run through the monitored zone. Aspirating smoke detectors likely provide the best early warning of a potential problem but will struggle to function effectively outdoors, or in the most polluted environments. For this, beam detectors are ideal, as they can monitor large open areas from positions on the periphery. The best modern beam detectors can monitor for both fire and smoke, and can distinguish the latter from atmospheric dust.

Networked for fast overview

Once a suitable design has been approved and installed, how the information from this array of devices is processed and visualised is critical to the success of a protection system. In a critical emergency, clarity is key: the manager in the response room must have a visual overview of what the detectors are reporting in real time. As far as possible, staff on site should also have a clear, visualised idea of what is going on.

All of the detection devices highlighted above can be networked to an advanced fire alarm system or panel. Increasingly, however, detectors are also offering simple visualisation at a more local level.

Securiton’s SecuriSmoke aspirating smoke detector (ASD) recently embraced the information age with a smartphone-style touchscreen that allows maintenance staff to assess faults and pre-alarms directly. FidesNet offers easy remote visualisation and operation of aspirating smoke detectors, and similar approaches may soon be seen on other devices. In all likelihood, touchscreens will soon become the norm.

Acting on information

The best way to react to an alarm in a dangerous area is by using a staged response. This requires that devices offer several levels of ‘alert’ and alarm, depending on heat levels or smoke concentrations detected. At the lowest level of alert, the desired response is to get a suitable member of staff to the area as quickly as possible, and in the case of a hazardous area, this will have to be very fast but also involve an element of caution. They can directly tackle a small incipient fire if it is merely smouldering, they can raise the alarm and start evacuations if necessary, or they can report that no action is needed so that the system can be re-set.

At the same time as maintenance or security staff go to investigate the initial alert, the system will continue to evaluate the situation and will raise the alert or alarm status accordingly if the smoke level increases. Ultimately, such systems are also able to sound a full alarm, activate suppression systems and automatically call the local fire brigade – but the aim of the staged response is to prevent the need for such drastic measures with successful early intervention.

When it comes to safeguarding critical but dangerous infrastructure and ensuring that heavy, valuable industry is also safe to the local population, fire safety professionals need to use every resource at their disposal. That means sensitive detection, staged alert and alarm levels, clear visualisation, fast information relays and a suitable response should the worst happen.

For more information, contact Securiton +41 58 910 50 50, [email protected],

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