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Fuming Over Unplanned Reaction

Mike Halligan, associate director of environmental health and safety at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, knew that the campus fire-safety program had to be reviewed after two fires occurred in wet chemistry laboratories. One fire was caused by an unplanned reaction when two compounds were mixed together in a small beaker. This fire was contained by a fume hood and by the graduate student who used a nearby fire extinguisher to put out the flames. The damage was minimal because the use of the fire extinguisher prevented the fire from spreading to other materials within the fume hood.

The second fire was a different story. A small bench-top fire quickly spread and eventually consumed the entire lab, causing more than $300,000 in damage and the loss of a graduate student’s research notes. Had the student thought to retrieve the fire extinguisher from the hallway after activating the fire-alarm system, damages might have been limited to the bench top.

In reviewing the university’s use of fire extinguishers, Halligan concluded that on a research college campus, there are numerous locations that should have fire extinguishers present and staff should be trained in their proper use. High-hazard areas like the labs are among the spots that should be targeted, as are residence halls where students sleep. “Even in cases where the fire extinguisher cannot completely put out the fire, it can knock down a fire just long enough to provide an exit route out of the space,” says Halligan.

The biggest challenge to the effectiveness of fire extinguishers on campus was their standalone nature, says Halligan. Historically, fire extinguishers at the university were the only part of a fire-safety system not capable of being electronically monitored. Security relied instead on monthly physical inspections to determine pressure, presence, and obstruction to access. But in between such inspections, extinguishers were vulnerable to vandalism, obstruction to access (such as from a bicycle propped in front of the extinguisher), and loss of pressure over time.

To determine whether fire extinguishers on campus could be made more reliable and effective, Halligan began researching systems that could monitor the extinguishers. At first, he found no such product. But six months later, while attending an industry conference on campus safety, Halligan noticed a vendor, Rockland, Massachusetts-based MIJA, Inc., that manufactured a product called EN-Gauge. EN-Gauge monitors portable fire extinguishers and notifies the central command station if a unit loses pressure, is removed from its location, is obstructed, or loses battery power.

EN-Gauge exceeds the National Fire Protection Association physical inspection requirements by testing extinguisher pressure every 15 hours, using sonar to determine whether there is an obstruction to access, and using an electronic tether that disconnects when the extinguisher is removed from its mounting bracket or enclosure. The system provides continuous reassurance of presence and instantly notifies the central control station of a potential life-safety or vandalism situation.

Because the product was brand new and had not been installed elsewhere, Halligan and MIJA reached an agreement. MIJA would fund a beta site at the university to monitor the product in action. In October of 2003, MIJA installed the system in two residence halls to monitor 14 fire extinguishers.

The EN-Gauge system is battery-pow­ered, so the university was able to reduce retrofitting costs. The extinguishers were connected to the fire-safety-system monitor panel in each residence hall; the panels were already connected to the university’s central station. 

Amerex Corporation, the manufacturer of the 10-pound ABC fire extinguishers used in the university’s fire-safety system, joined with MIJA to install the fire extinguishers. The in­stall­ers wired a connection between the monitor module, which is connected to the fire-alarm system, and the EN-Gauge system on each fire extinguisher. The university set up the system to sound only at the central station, not throughout the residence hall. Therefore, the monitor module was set up as a supervisory device; the alarm is reflected on the residence hall panel, showing the location of the extinguisher that set off the alarm (for example “IM50 NE fire extinguisher”), but the buzzer in the residence hall is silenced.

One complicating factor during the installation was that both residence halls in question had all their fire extinguishers mounted into fire extinguisher enclosures, rather than on standard hooks. The installers note that they most likely could have shaved half a day off the two-day installation process were it not for the enclosures. The installers had to remove each enclosure from the wall in order to facilitate running the tether (three conductor cables that connect the EN-Gauge extinguisher gauge to the sensor interface module, or SIM, unit) and putting in the fire-alarm control panel wiring. 

The most challenging part of the installation was running the interconnect wires from the SIMs to the address modules that were being added to the fire-alarm control panel’s signaling line circuit. Each SIM requires its own address on the panel to annunciate separately, and each SIM, therefore, required an addressable module.

In the residence hall applications, the control panels signaling line circuit or loop wiring were there to connect all the smoke detectors to the panel. The installers tapped into the existing loop at the smoke detectors located in the hallway ceilings and added the addressable modules. They then had to run twisted-pair wiring from the addressable module in the ceiling down to the wiring terminal on the SIM in the hall­way walls.

Solid drywall ceilings in some areas, as opposed to suspended ceilings, presented another challenge during the installation. On the upper floor, for example, the installers had to drill into the attic with a five-foot drill bit, place one installer in the attic to hook up the wire to the fire-alarm system, then thread the wire down through the drill hole to another installer to hook it up to the SIM.

Each SIM was given a name on the fire-alarm panel and programmed to provide a general signal to the panel in the case of a missing extinguisher, an off-normal pressure issue within the extinguisher, or a detected obstruction blocking access to the extinguisher. In addition, each SIM is designed to send a different signal from the fire alarm signal if its nine-volt battery reaches a low-voltage point of 7.6 volts. This low battery signal continues to be sent until the battery is replaced.

All the signals received from the SIMs by the control panel cause an alarm at the panel itself and also send a signal, via the panel, to the campus central station. The central station then dispatches university personnel to the residence hall to investigate the incident.

The cost of the system was approx­i­mately $3,080, or $220 per fire extinguisher, including installation, testing, and a new addressable device in the monitoring panel in each of the two residence halls. (If the entire campus were done, it would cost approximately $760,000.) But Halligan says the system could ultimately pay for itself by reducing fire-extinguisher-related vandalism and eliminating the routine physical inspections.

Halligan estimates that the university typically has lost about 25 extinguishers a year from parking terraces, campus buildings, and housing operations. It costs approximately $80 per fire extinguisher to clean up and refill the vandalized units, and according to Halligan, several extinguishers get damaged each year in each residence hall. Since the beta test, no incidents of fire extinguisher vandalism have occurred in the buildings where extinguishers using EN-Gauge are installed.

The savings from replacing monthly physical inspections with electronic monitoring also should be substantial, given the labor costs involved in having staff traverse the campus’s nine-million square feet to inspect its 3,500 fire extin­guishers each month. With this responsibility removed, fire safety staff can use their time to conduct fire prevention training, building audits, and other activities. The EN-Gauge system has saved money in labor costs since it was installed in the two buildings.

The monitored extinguishers also have shown potential as a marketing tool for the university’s housing program; as parents and students inquire into how safe the housing area is, the university can now include monitored extinguishers in their discussion of all of the fire-safety features that are built into the residence halls. This extra protective measure demonstrates to both students and parents the commitment the university has made to reducing the impact fire can have on campus-housing occupants and surrounding facilities.

The university intends to install the system throughout the campus. However, because of costs, Halligan plans to conduct the installation in phases. First, the system will be installed in any new facility. Then, several existing buildings will be retrofitted each year. “We are definitely going to go campuswide with this,” says Halligan. “It is just a matter of when. The comfort zone is priceless—knowing that extinguishers are available and are going to work.”

—By Teresa Anderson, senior editor at Security Management