It has been a while since I blogged, so I have a backload of stuff to cover. This one is a reflection on the future (if one can reflect on what is coming). As Bob Dylan sang in 1964:
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a book entitled “Future Shock” where he argued that society was undergoing an enormous structural change with an accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from shattering stress and disorientation, or as he identified it “future shocked.” Just like any other industry, business, or profession, I would argue that the fire protection community is undergoing its own version of future shock, and that we are in the biggest state of change we have ever seen.
If you have followed my blogs, I have spoken about some of these changes, but let’s pause a moment and look at what has happened recently or is about to happen. We, the fire protection industry, are designing buildings, systems and the related fire protection systems for a green environment that we don’t fully understand and in some cases, we are playing catch up.
• Energy storage systems are becoming the norm as we shift to clean energy, but as of today (11/11/2019), we don’t know what the most effective method is to extinguish a lithium ion battery fire once it hits thermal runaway.
• We are seeing mass timber facilities being proposed that alter common beliefs about the hazards of combustible materials on high-rise buildings and long-standing fire protection schemes. After the Chicago Fire, we saw buildings shift to brick or other noncombustible elements because of a concern regarding mass conflagrations. Now, high rise buildings are being constructed with wood and the codes are playing catch up.
• We are dealing with building facade issues as we see fires starting on the inside, and sometimes outside of the facility and creating spectacular looking fires that sometimes result in fatalities, such as Grenfell but that always result in extensive property damage. Although many of these recent fires can be traced back to lack of proper application of the prevailing codes (and highlight the importance of the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem), it begs the question “Have some of our design and installation provisions become overly complex to manage these issues?”
• As cars change, we are seeing a fundamental shift from “there has never been a garage fire that has involved more than one car” to multiple floor involvement in a garage. The NFPA Sprinkler System Discharge committee proposed removing automobile parking from an Ordinary Hazard Group 2 occupancy and did not recommend where to place it in the first draft. Related work on this problem is being vetted through the Fire Protection Research Foundation — with the plan being to provide better awareness and guidance related to this evolving hazard.
• Flammable gases are being used for the coolant in freezers and refrigerators due to the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons-CFCs.
It is not only the impact of a green environment that is forcing the industry to change, but look at some of the other issues that we are dealing with.
• Concerns have arisen that cardboard boxes have changed, as the box is being given some increase in waterproofing so that it can be left on your front porch. This increased waterproofing changes the way the cardboard behaves in a fire such that the NFPA Sprinkler Committee has proposed classifying cardboard cartons as encapsulated. (This is significant and will be discussed in a later blog).
• Testing shows that the survivability time from a fire in your house has significantly dropped due to changes in furnishings.
• The industry is concerned about firefighters maintaining communication during an incident, so there is a big push for Distributed Antennae Systems and Bi-Directional Amplification and other methods to improve in building radio communication.
• POTS are either gone or about to be gone, and we are now transferring signals via radio or the internet.
• School shootings have forced us to consider life safety from a new point of view. (NFPA 3000)
• Environmentally friendly foams are being developed and tested given the apparent push to phase out the use of AFFF and FFFP concentrates.
• A new antifreeze has been introduced to address the increased combustibility/flammability of previous generation antifreeze concentrates that were used in sprinkler systems.
• Sprinkler orifices keep getting larger (k34).
• Smart sprinklers are being introduced.
• FM is developing criteria for ESFR sprinklers in the rack.
• Robots and other forms of building automation are taking over the warehouse workforce. Chet Schirmer (one of the original innovators in the fire protection field and ex chair of the NFPA 13 committee) used to talk about the greatest smoke detector in the building environment being the human nose, and now we are replacing warehouse workers with robots and machines.
• NFPA is looking at smart exit signs to create a better response when egress is necessary.
• Elevators continue to be pushed for use as another component to aid in the evacuation of high rise buildings (this or course is over 5 years old).
• Train fires, involving transportation of crude oil by rail, are being looked at with a recognition that we need some method to extinguish and limit the environmental impact of a non-controlled fire.
All of these issues have either happened in the last 5 years or are evolving now. It is our responsibility to stay current and understand these changes. In my opinion there is a change coming that we are severely underestimating. This change promises to revolutionize the industry, and will force many of us to reconsider our positions on certain long-held safety-related provisions and philosophies. I have told my coworkers that I believe in the next 5 years the design of sprinkler systems will be completely done by the computer with minimal input from a human. By working with BIM, the “designer” will load the building drawings received from the architect via a file uploaded from the cloud, type in the edition of the standard to be used, place any restrictions on equipment (i.e. Schedule 40 pipe for 2” and smaller), input the water supply and the system will be laid out, pipe sizes provided, cut lengths shown, pipe listed all while clearing obstructions. Think about this question: what will you be doing in the next 5 years because I truly believe that much of the design work that relies on human intervention will be gone. Just like my sticky backs, mylar blueprints, hand calculations, and tee square, this field will change.
I have 40 years’ experience in this field and the changes we are seeing now are unprecedented. I went to BrainyQuote (www.brainyquote.com) and looked for a quote about the future and found this one by Walt Disney that summarizes what I am feeling:
Put the blue stuff on the red stuff!
As always, I welcome your comments: email@example.com
Jerry Schultz, P.E.