Flammability and responsibility
To design a suitable fire protection system, it is necessary to measure the existing risk. First, it is important to remember the fire triangle. It is required to have a minimum of three elements that contribute to the development of a fire. These elements are the following: source of ignition, oxygen, and fuel. Although these three elements are essential for the development of a fire, they must also be on adequate proportions for the fire to remain. Here the flammability limits are introduced, these mark the oxygen/fuel ratio necessary to maintain the fire. This means that not all mixture of air and fuel will trigger a fire. For example, when filling a car’s gas tank, the contact of gasoline with air does not generate a flammable mixture. This article aims to show the responsibility that comes with the implementation of basic fire engineering concepts.
All fire incidents can be simplified into a failure of controlling the fire triangle, one example is the Mont Blanc tunnel. The Mont Blanc tunnel connects France with Italy through the Alps. In 1949, these two countries signed an agreement to build and operate the tunnel together. At the time of construction, this was three times longer than any other existing road tunnel. In 1999, a flour and margarine transport truck entered through the French end, after a few kilometers the driver noticed the fire that was developing in the cargo. The driver of the vehicle tried to fight the fire, but he was forced to retreat by the flames. The ventilation system in the tunnel dispersed the smoke faster than expected, which caused the engines of the vehicles to stop due to lack of oxygen, this included fire trucks. Finally, the fire lasted 53 hours, reached temperatures of 1000 ° C and left a count of 39 people killed. The acceptability criteria for the transport of margarine within a tunnel was its low risk of ignition. However, once the margarine catches fire it releases a large amount of smoke that can burn for several hours.
There is an ethical background in everything related to fire safety. Despite handling a prescriptive code, where the rules are explicit, and the engineer’s work is to follow those rules, an engineering criterion is important when applying the codes. In the example of the Mont Blanc tunnel, the high ignition point of the margarine generated a low hazard rating. However, when contextualizing the danger in the tunnel, the risk is very high due to the poor ventilation, and the hazard of smoke generation from the margarine. In other words, for a fire engineer it is insufficient to say ‘I followed the rules’. It is the engineer’s responsibility to know the limitations of the codes, and, therefore, to properly discern in their implementation. Since, prescribed standards do not contemplate all possible scenarios, the codes should not be applied blindly. it is mandatory to have a critical thinking regarding the prescriptive standards.
On the other hand, the pressure to implement prescribed numbers without any engineering background is exacerbated by the economic pressure of customers. In most cases, customers ask for the cheapest, but not for the safest design. Therefore, again this responsibility lies in the engineer, who must find the safest solution under the lowest budget. However, there is limited regulation for consultancy companies. This allows people with insufficient experience and little knowledge to enter the market and compete with lower costs. Therefore, it is the client’s responsibility to evaluate their supplier and verify that the company that is offering the service has the experience and knowledge to develop the project that is requested. In the case of Colombia, there is no professional registration for fire engineers, in this case, the service provider must be able to show their experience with similar projects to validate their knowledge.
In conclusion, the fire triangle is a key concept for fire engineers. However, this knowledge should be applied with caution when performing a risk assessment, because the interaction between the different physical-chemical phenomena can generate a non-contemplated risk. Similarly, the responsibility begins with the design engineer, who must critically apply the prescriptive codes that adapt to the present situation. Nevertheless, this responsibility is also extrapolated to the client, who must ensure that the company providing the service, both design and installation, have the necessary experience for the project. In a nutshell, if the client demands, the companies prepare and acquire the necessary knowledge to design and install fire protection systems. In addition, a self-regulation of the profession can be given.
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- Gardiner, Mark. A deadly Blaze in the Alps Made a Biker a Hero and Tunnels Safer for All. The New York Times. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/business/mont-blanc-tunnel-fire-anniversary-rescue.html
- Buda-Ortins, Krystyna. Auto-ignition of Cooking Oils. University of Maryland. Department of Fire Protection Engineering. 2010.
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