Fire Testing


My name is Jerry Schultz and I am a fire protection engineer who has worked in this field for over 35 years. In that time I have worked as a sprinkler contractor, with an insurance firm and for the majority of the time as a consultant. Currently, I am the President of a fire protection consulting engineering firm (The Fire Protection International Consortium, Inc. (www.the-fpi.com) with offices in Woodridge, IL, Olympia, WA and Nashville, TN. Over the years, I have developed strong viewpoints on fire protection challenges in the built environment and the various building codes and standards that help us address those challenges. While I have willingly expressed these opinions to various individuals and at various speaking engagements, this blog allows me the opportunity to present those opinions to a broader audience with the goal of generating a healthy discussion and dialogue on the issues.


I plan to speak about subjects that are impacting the industry and discuss the changes that are happening. Some of these discussions will center on what a particular standard requires and address what I consider areas in the protection scheme that could be improved upon and identify areas where the standard has requirements that are not well understood. Interpretation and application of the various rules and regulations isn’t always consistent leading to problems between AHJ’s, designers and contractors and this is another area where I hope to engage the reader. Some of it will address current events and speak of what should be an issue that we have to consider. A wise old fire protection engineer would use the phrase “Where is America burning?” when code requirements were proposed. Well there are places where we are burning and there is a need for changes to the codes. Of equal importance, societal goals, technology and innovation help shape our code requirements in 2016 as well.


This forum gives me the outlet and opportunity to discuss those issues.


With the background provided on the “who I am”, the “what I am hoping to accomplish”, and “the why I am” doing this, let’s deal with my first concern—fire testing.


Fire Testing


In 1997 I was involved with a series of full scale fire tests for two clients. Both clients ran a series of four full scale fire tests with the one client spending $1 million to perform their tests, that equates to $250,000 per test in 1997! I provide this background information to discuss the tests that were run back in the 1970’s and that have become the criteria for storage in NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. In the 70’s, over 100 tests were run to develop the criteria for high piled storage in racks ($250,000 per test x 100 tests = $25 million in 1997 dollars spent if the numbers held). These tests became the criteria written into NFPA 231, Standard for General Storage and 231C, Standard for Rack Storage (obsolete standards that have been incorporated into NFPA 13). Look at Annex C of NFPA 13 and review some of these tests to understand what was done. (If you deal in storage you have to review these original tests to gain complete and full understanding of what the requirements are.)


The individuals running the tests had to optimize, had to make engineering judgments in that they could not test all configurations. Recently some of these tests have been questioned due to additional testing that has been run. This additional testing has shown that some of the original extrapolations and interpretations were incorrect.


The problem with fire testing is that much of it is being done “sub rosa”. While there has always been a reluctance to release all of the details surrounding proprietary data, it requires a combination of faith, analysis and good old engineering judgment to draw conclusions from the information that is made available. Tests are being conducted for private corporations, tests are being conducted by the sprinkler companies and tests are conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF). Out of all these tests, the only ones that the public has complete access to are the Research Foundation tests. As an example, if a private corporation verifying an existing protection scheme or developing a method to protect their storage arrangement conducts their tests in the open (not sub rosa or under attorney client privilege) and a failure occurs, the AHJ’s may require correction of a deficient system immediately. Budgetary concerns impact all decisions and the firm may not have the money to correct the system immediately. Another example is the testing done by the sprinkler companies themselves. The sprinkler company is testing their sprinkler on a certain storage scheme and should a failure occur, they will impact the entire industry and have to explain to people why they should continue to buy sprinklers from them when they have just proven that their sprinkler “doesn’t work”. These may be the reasons for tests being kept confidential.


Keeping the results silent and not sharing failures, limits the available information that one is aware of and does not allow us to learn from the failures. In my opinion, an example of this can be found in the solid shelving criteria that appeared in the 1999 edition of NFPA 13. At that time, major new requirements were added to NFPA 13 for additional in-rack sprinklers when solid shelving exceeded a certain square footage. This new criteria was supposedly based on the original fire tests run in the 70’s. There was no new test data submitted to the committee for consideration.


As I said, it is important for one to review Annex C of NFPA 13 if dealing with storage criteria. Section C.11 summarized the tests that were run on solid shelving and the tester’s statement at that time was:


These tests (the referenced solid shelving tests) did not yield sufficient information to develop a comprehensive protection standard for solid shelf racks. Items such as increased ceiling density, use of bulkheads, other configurations of sprinklers in racks and limitation of shelf length and depth shall be considered.


The statement at that time was basically that they did not know how to properly protect solid shelving and they did not have either time or money to put together an entire test program. Approximately 30 years later, a new committee was able to review these same tests and develop criteria. Was solid shelving an issue during the original test? Yes. Was additional testing done? Not that was submitted to the new committee, but probably. One of the best parts of NFPA is that the majority of committee members are knowledgeable and concerned about safety so I am convinced that several of these committee members had run tests for clients on solid shelving and knew more than the original 1970 individuals. They, however, could not share the test results because of their confidentiality agreements. This limits advancements because we do not have the full committee reviewing failures and considering alternative protection schemes such as those identified in Section C.11—increased ceiling density, use of bulkheads, etc.


The best solution would be to have FPRF conduct all testing out in the eyes of the public and share the results with everyone. This doesn’t seem likely to happen so we have to recognize the limits of the current fire testing process and recognize that the advancements in protection schemes may come slower than we want and we may not see the extrapolations that we need. We may also see the addition of very specific design criteria unique to an individual protection scheme in NFPA 13.


I welcome your comments on this issue--. j.schultz@the-fpi.com


Jerry Schultz, P.E.

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