The Many Faces of Fire Protection

By Thomas P. Hammerberg | Dec 15, 2003




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There are many types of financial institutions and numerous possible ways to protect these facilities against the threat of fire. There are banks and credit unions, as well as data centers that process the transactions and credit card purchases with large computer room facilities. There are also ATMs in varied and sometimes remote locations. Often, they have special protection requirements, so pre-planning and education is the best way to approach this market.

According to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Building Construction and Safety Code, NFPA 5000, a bank or credit union would fall under the Business Occupancy classification. A business occupancy only requires a fire alarm system if it is two or more stories in height above the level of exit discharge, the occupancy is subject to 50 or more occupants above or below the level of exit discharge or the occupancy is subject to 300 or more total occupants, although many bank owners typically install smoke detectors.

Sprinklers are not required, but given recent events such as a high-rise building fire and subsequent deaths in Chicago, they may be under closer scrutiny as a mandate in retrofit applications in the near future. NFPA 5000 only requires fire extinguishers and a standpipe system if a building is four or more stories high or has four or more basement levels. Robert Brown, SET and engineering department manager for Beckwith Electronics Engineering in San Antonio, Texas, said some of their banking clients exceed minimum requirements and install smoke detectors, and even strobe lights in some cases, not only in the bank, but in the vaults. Some also add heat detectors in vaults as a security measure to detect excessive heat cause by attempted intrusion. The International Building Code has similar requirements for business occupancies.

What about ATMs? Although there is no code requirement for protection of the automated teller machine, one possible solution suggests using a line-type gaseous extinguishing agent system called Fire-Trace. The system uses a flexible pipe (made of special polymers) that acts as a thermal detector. When the fire is detected, the pipe softens and breaks at its hottest point, discharging the agent directly over the flames and extinguishing the fire in a few seconds. The pipe is continuously pressurized between 10 and 18 bar and bursts when reaching the specified thermal value (between 80 and 110 C).

Diligence with data centers

Without a doubt, data centers are the most protected. According to Ron Shapiro, an electrical engineer with EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc., an engineering/architectural firm based in New York City and with offices nationwide, system reliability for data centers is crucial. “Fire alarms are used in data centers primarily as a way to support the protection and reliability of the data equipment, HVAC systems and power distribution operations,” said Shapiro. “The air-conditioning and power are two critical areas of concern and a properly designed fire alarm system inadvertently supports these two concerns. Without proper power, and enough cooling, these computer systems will not continue to operate.”

According to Tom Antal, principal associate with Michaud Cooley Erickson, an engineering firm in Minneapolis, their preferred approach to protecting data centers is a three-step process. “We propose three lines of defense,” Antal said. “The first is to use an air sampling system that is set quite sensitive. These systems are very reliable and almost always indicate a real problem, not a false signal. This is used as an early warning and will initiate a supervisory signal for manual response. The second line of defense is to activate a clean agent system actuated by cross-zoned smoke detectors in the protected area. These detectors activate an alarm signal. If that does not take care of the problem, we go to the third line of defense, a double interlock pre-action sprinkler system interfaced with heat detectors.”

What to do

There are a number of requirements for protection of data centers in the codes. NFPA 75, Standard for Protection of Information Technology Equipment, is the new name for the publication which addresses protecting computer/data processing facilities. This standard applies to the equipment rooms, not the entire building. There are many alternatives available. For example, if the information technology equipment room is in a fully sprinklered building, it must also be sprinklered. However, if it is located in a non-sprinklered building, you have a choice of either having a sprinkler system or a gaseous clean agent system in the equipment room. In addition, you must provide some type of extinguishing system under the raised computer floor. Here, the options include sprinklers, carbon dioxide or other clean agent extinguishing systems.

Fire detection and extinguishing systems should be selected only after a complete evaluation of the risks or exposures of the facility. The amount of protection provided should be related to the building construction and contents, equipment construction, business interruption and other security needs. Automatic smoke detection systems are required on the ceiling in the equipment room, below the raised floors containing cables and above the suspended ceiling and below the raised floors where those spaces are used to distribute air to other parts of the building. Interlock and shutdown device power is to be supervised by the fire alarm system, and alarm and trouble signals from the fire alarm system are to be annunciated in a constantly attended area.

In addition, NFPA 75 states that where there is a critical need to protect data in process, reduce equipment damage, and facilitate return to service, consideration is to be given to the use of a gaseous agent inside equipment units or total flooding systems in sprinklered or non-sprinklered information technology equipment areas. These gaseous agent systems are activated by the operation of smoke detectors in the area and will also shut down the air handling system when actuated.

Whenever changes are made to the information technology equipment area, for example, altering the size, installation of new partitions, modification of the air-handling systems, or new information technology equipment layout, the potential impact on existing fire detection and extinguishing systems must be evaluated and changed where necessary. This is a major issue for installers and service personnel—the constant need to re-evaluate and change-out equipment to keep up with current technology.

Designers of fire protection systems in mission critical facilities such as data centers typically provide total coverage throughout the building. As described in NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code, this includes detectors on the ceiling, above the ceiling and below floors. Either addressable analog smoke detectors or air sampling detection systems may be used. According to Ron Shapiro, air sampling detection systems such as VESDA or Ana-Laser are used in the information technology equipment areas, as well as air-sampling ports installed on the return air grilles of the computer room air handling systems. The greatest challenge with installed smoke detectors in these rooms is the very high air flow.

Many of these systems are used to activate either a pre-action sprinkler system or a gaseous clean agent system, such as FM-200 or Inergen. Typically, air-sampling systems are not used to activate the suppression systems. Double interlock pre-action systems seem to be the suppression system of choice. This provides an added safeguard to protect against inadvertent activation.

NFPA 72 requires smoke detectors to have their area of coverage reduced where there are more than approximately eight air changes per hour. Shapiro said that a major design consideration is whether or not having additional detectors actually improves detection, or if they will even work with such high airflow.

Why is there such high airflow? Think about how much power is being used for these computer systems. The airflow is based on the wattage per square foot of equipment on the raised floor. The height of the raised floor is based on the amount of airflow that is needed for the equipment. This is not only an original design consideration, but an ongoing concern with the potential for reconfiguration of equipment in the detection area.

A daily challenge

Servicing fire alarm systems in data centers is certainly a challenge. “The individual responsible for the fire and security systems in the financial institution needs to understand that coordination between the fire alarm contractor is essential to ensure EPO or Emergency Power Off,” said Tom Antal. Loss of business is extremely costly. Therefore, many safeguards are built into the system, such as supervisory signals for disconnects and simulation of operation of extinguishing systems.

Brian Johnson, a foreman for Ron Jones Electric Inc. in Elgin, Ill., has installed and maintains equipment in a major data center in Illinois. Johnson commented: “By far the greatest difficulties of working in a data center environment is the reluctance by the owners to test, or put into a shutdown risk, any part of the EPO system and, obtaining the many levels of approval required for testing such a system.”

NFPA 75 requires training of the designated information technology equipment area personnel. They must be continually and thoroughly trained in the functioning of the alarm system, desired response to alarm conditions, location of all emergency equipment and tools and use of all available extinguishing equipment.

Safely and reliably protecting our nation’s financial institutions doesn’t come by chance, but by knowing that the challenge can be handled with appropriate knowledge, planning and teamwork.

HAMMERBERG is president, education for the Automatic Fire Alarm Association and is responsible for the association's education programs. He is on the NFPA 72 Technical Committee for Inspection, Testing and Maintenance and is the editor of the 2002 NFPA 72 Handbook for the chapter on Inspection, Testing and Maintenance. He can be reached at [email protected].


About The Author

HAMMERBERG, SET, CFPS, is an independent fire alarm presenter and consultant in The Villages, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected]





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