Risk management using fire alarm systems

May 2002 Security Services & Risk Management

Although risk cannot be totally eliminated, and there has been no scientific way discovered to measure it, we still must address the issue of fire risk in our facilities.

"The risk of fire, from either natural or man-made causes, can never be completely eliminated." This statement was made in 1980 by W.D. Rowe, then director of the Institute for Risk Analysis at Washington University. Rowe went on to say that, "The objective of control of risk from fires is to reduce the probability and consequences of events leading to and resulting from fires."

Fifteen years later, Dr John Watts of the Firesafety Institute, stated in a presentation to the Vermont Historical Preservation Society, that, "A totally objective or scientific way to measure risk does not exist. We can only estimate it. Risk is always greater than zero and a universally acceptable level of risk does not exist."

If we agree with Dr Watts that, given the passage of a long enough period of time, we will inevitably have a fire in our facility, then what size fire can we expect and how do we detect that fire before it exceeds an unacceptable level as defined by management? Of course, this presumes that management has thought about the risk from fire and has developed a set of fire safety objectives that include life safety, property protection and mission protection.

Unfortunately, many managers who are astute in the areas of business management and finance, are convinced that fires happen to others. When confronted with Dr Watts' prediction, these otherwise capable managers respond with the same cliche, "That is why we have insurance." These same managers never bother to ask the insurance representative what will happen when the fire is so large and uncontrolled that it converts the entire facility to an ash heap. (Answer: You just might go out of business.)

There are five steps to estimate risk:

1. Identify the cause of the risk.

2. Measure the effects of the risk.

3. Determine the exposure to the risk.

4. Define what will result when exposed to the risk.

5. Place a value on the consequences of exposure to the risk.

In fire protection, the cause of the risk usually involves what will initiate a fire and the results of that fire if it grows undetected. If we define the risk from fire as the risk that we intend to reduce, then we can insert a fire alarm system into the equation to determine that system's effectiveness in reducing the risk.

Before the type, complexity and effectiveness of the fire alarm system can be determined, the five steps to estimate risk must be followed. Each stop begins with questions and an evaluation of their answers, by the owner or management and the corporate fire safety director.

Before reviewing the five steps, it should be understood that the results may show a fire alarm system is not all that is necessary to reduce the company's exposure to fire risk. An automatic sprinkler system or some form of special hazard fire suppression system also may be required. The important point is to be thorough. Include all operations and keep the entire facility in mind when making these evaluations.

Identify the cause of the risk

Identifying the potential causes of fire requires a thorough inspection of the facility and a review of the operations conducted at the facility. The following questions are a good starting point:

1. Are there areas where an open flame exists?

2. Are flammable or combustible liquids or volatile gases present in the facility and in what quantities?

3. Are combustible materials stored in the facility?

4. Is the facility kept clean, with all trash and non-essential materials removed daily?

5. Are there operations that if not properly supervised could cause a fire?

6. Is smoking allowed only in certain areas?

7. Are there electrical appliances in an employee break area that could be a source of fire?

Measure the effects of the risk

Once the risks are determined, you must help management understand the effects of each risk exposure you identify on the facility and on both short and long-term operations. Keep in mind that different risk exposures will affect life safety, property losses and the corporate mission in unique ways.

Determine the exposure to the risk

Although a risk may be present, either in your facility or operations, your exposure to each risk may vary. This phase of the analysis will help you begin the process of prioritising which risks will have the most impact. This also is a good time to look outside the confines of your facility for risk exposures from other buildings or operations of other companies that could impact your fire protection goals.

Determine the results of risk exposure

This phase will refine your priorities and help you finalise the priorities of risk exposures as to their 'value impact' to the corporation. From this list you and the corporate executives can analyse each exposure to determine whether action must be taken. You may decide that the risk exposure has little consequence to the overall corporate mission and can be ignored.

Determine costs incurred due to the risk exposure

Once you have developed the list of risk exposures for which you must provide protection, you then can determine the costs of those exposures and the costs of various means to protect the corporation from the risks.

Though the above does not give a detailed treatise on risk analysis, it does supply a simple outline of the thought process used in making decisions regarding fire protection of your corporate facilities. You should be aware that each of your locations will present a different list of risk exposures and these risk exposures can (and will) change over time. This process may seem too complicated when choosing a fire alarm system, but using it or similar process will help you choose the most cost-effective fire alarm system for each of your facilities.

Once you have determined that a fire alarm system is needed, and how it will impact the reduction of the risks identified, you should review and answer the following questions:

1. What type of detection is needed throughout your facility?

2. Are there certain areas that need more rapid detection than other areas?

3. Should you plan for complete coverage or specific area protection?

4. Do all your employees need to be evacuated in a fire alarm condition, or can you partially evacuate or relocate?

5. Do you have an on-site emergency response team or will you be relying only on the public fire department to limit the fire spread?

6. What is the public fire department's response time?

7. What is the availability of water and at what pressure?

8. Will your security team be interfacing with the fire alarm system in a significant way?

9. What is the most reliable method to notify the public fire department serving your facility?

10. Who will be responsible for testing, inspecting and servicing the fire alarm system?

11. Who will be responsible for developing the fire alarm system equipment and installation specifications?

You can apply this analysis and thought process to any of the fire or security protection systems that would help reduce your exposure to a risk.

Published with the kind permission of Security Technology & Design Magazine - www.simon-net.com

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