This is the first in Pinkerton’s Earth Month (April 2016) series looking at how water affects business security and continuity.

According to a report issued by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, there were more than 900, 000 structural fires reported in 2013, resulting in nearly 22, 000 deaths. While there are many causes of fires and equally as many reasons why people are not saved in time, lack of proper fire suppression systems is among them. In many countries, like the United States, an assumption that water will be readily available if a fire breaks out in a warehouse, office or other facility is common. And likely justified. Businesses that operate in developed nations with relatively easy access to water aren’t typically kept awake at night worrying about a “What if we don’t have water?” fire scenario. But as this post highlights, many other countries, including China, aren’t so fortunate and there are many reasons for that.

Loss of Building Control

Ten years ago, companies expanding internationally in China and India could build whatever and wherever they wanted. Because they owned the property and the buildings, they could ensure that their fire prevention and suppression standards were met, which many times were higher than required by local government. Today, real estate is at a premium after the growth explosion in the early 2000s. Competition for land is fierce and finding existing building space is equally as difficult. Real estate prices, which had been a competitive advantage for these regions in attracting businesses, have risen dramatically, decreasing that advantage. As a result, rental market has grown as companies cannot justify the expense of building, preferring to rent the space they need now instead of building for the future. As renters, they give up a lot of the control of what systems are in place to protect their employees and assets. With rising building and maintenance costs, landlords have been forced to look for as many cost-cutting measures that will make their buildings attractive financially to prospective tenants. One thing that suffers when this happens is fire prevention. While companies are accustomed to high standards in the US or Great Britain, they are not as likely to see those standards matched in China or India as they look for rental property. The problem is that they may not even know what to look for.

Water and NFPA Standards

In 1896 in the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was created. During the past 100+ years, it has grown to become a global, nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. The organization has developed more than 300 codes and standards which many companies strictly adhere to in order to ensure the protection of its employees and facilities. Companies operating in the United States are, mostly, quite familiar with the NFPA standards and how they apply to their businesses. New buildings are usually built to conform to the standards or they risk not being attractive to potential tenants. However, the same cannot be said internationally. In China, for example, local municipalities set the rules regarding fire suppression preparedness and Pinkerton’s experience has been that these rules fall short of the NFPA standards. Landlords looking to cut costs will install locally built systems instead of more expensive options built to NFPA standards. So, the system starts at a disadvantage. Then, installers are used that may not be current with the proper procedures for installing these systems. We encountered a system recently that was from a reputed vendor but the installer put a sprinkler head in a position that was blocked on one side. No one noticed until we got in there.” Other key factors such as pipe strength, proximity to electrical systems, how long the water supply would last in an emergency and a host of other factors are sometimes overlooked, or weakened by low standards, which can cause a big problem in the future. Water is, of course, the key element in any fire suppression system. As noted above, an important factor is how long your water supply would last if a large fire broke out in your facility. Most people don’t realize that sprinklers and other fire suppression devices are there to do just that…suppress the fire, not put it out. The water will run out. However, the goal is giving employees enough time to get out before firefighters can get there to battle the blaze. A generally accepted standard is that a facility should have a 30-minute supply of water to suppress a fire. However, in some countries, there is no standard and the actual time the systems will work is much less, putting people at serious, and unnecessary, risk. But not only is how the system works a major factor but, where the water will come from when needed must also be determined.

Water Sources for Fire Suppression

There are basically two sources of emergency water companies can use for fire suppression: local water and stored water. Local water comes from the municipality in which the facility is located. It’s the water that is used every day during normal circumstances. When a fire occurs, the suppression system uses this water through ceiling-mounted sprinklers, wall hoses and other means. Again, in the Unites States and other developed countries, this would seem like the best option since municipal water is so reliable. However, even in the US, this can present a major problem if there is no backup for situations when water is not readily available. A lack of usable local water could be affected by drought conditions, natural disasters (like last year’s flooding in India), contamination, even terrorism. If this water supply is cut off for any reason, and a company has not planned for this with redundant systems, significant damage and even loss of life can occur. Stored water is an alternative that many companies, especially those with large operations, have in place to ensure water is there when needed. Companies will bring water in via tanker trucks and fill holding tanks so that the water can be stored in reserve until needed. Using NFPA standards, calculations can be made to ensure there is enough water to suppress a major fire for a certain period of time, usually 30 minutes as noted above, for employees to vacate facilities. That water is stored and is solely the use of the company storing it, making it mostly failsafe that the water will be there.

Why Water May Not Be There

Of course, nothing is perfect and generally, human error can make a “reliable” water source less so because of negligence. First, there is evaporation. Mother nature has a way of making water disappear. If there is no system in place to regularly check water levels, the amount of time the suppression system will actually be effective will be reduced. Next, is a lack of testing. We recommend regular stress testing of a fire suppression system so that any weaknesses are determined and can be remedied. And lastly, non-adherence to standards. When we work with companies and assess their systems, we urge them to choose and adopt standards by which their systems can be measured. Generally, we recommend the NFPA standards since they are the most comprehensive. Regardless, if you choose a standard, stick to it. Too many times, we see companies that are trying to save money make decisions that may appear to have no impact, like using non-standard bolts or pipes made from thinner metal. But as the saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” Put a lot of these weak links together and you’ve got a system that won’t work the way it should when needed. Jerry Miao, Pinkerton’s Fire Protection and Prevention Manager in China, has worked in fire prevention for many years. He recommends the following three key things companies can do to improve their fire readiness: 1)  Hire a professional company to conduct loss prevention survey (LPS) and identify the critical deficiencies related to the existing fire protection system. According to the LPS report, the company management team shall prepare the short-term and long-term corrective action plan to protect property and employee. 2)  Hire a qualified maintenance supplier to be responsible for the inspection, testing and maintenance of fire protections system. Make sure all the existing fire protection system are in a good condition. 3)  Comply with the requirements of local laws, regulations, codes and standards. Make sure the company hasn’t any legal issues and has obtained a current fire certificate from local Fire Bureau. Water sustains life. And it is the most abundant resource on the planet. But don’t assume it will be there when you need it. Assess your needs. Implement systems that protect your employees. Plan for contingency scenarios. Have your systems tested by those whose only concern is the integrity of the system, not simply saving money. And stick with your standards. Doing all of this should limit the number of sleepless nights you have worrying about “What if….?”

Published April 18, 2016