The fourth part of this series explored the reasons why common fire-protection solutions for mission-critical facilities fall short of what’s needed. These reasons are related to the uniqueness of the mission-critical industry, the unique risks it presents and the unique expectations. This industry has enabled productivity gains in business that were previously unimaginable, but it has also created the potential for unprecedented economic, political and social upheaval. Despite the high stakes that it introduces, development of fire-protection strategies for the systems that enable it hasn’t necessarily been commensurate. This lag in the advancement of fire-protection design schemes presents a grave risk. It’s setting the stage for loss events whose repercussions can shake corporations to their core. Such possibilities may seem remote, but even a cursory review of the major reported fires in mission-critical facilities in the last 10 years bears it out.
Few observers are aware that most of the major reported fires in the mission-critical industry became major because of the low-performing fire-protection schemes in these facilities. Some assume such schemes indicate a lack of code compliance or engineering review of the design, but that assumption is based on a faulty notion of code requirements. The fire-protection objectives of the building codes focus on getting individuals safely out of buildings and preventing building fires from affecting neighboring structures; they’re not about protecting business interests. Where the code requires suppression systems, there’s a third objective: keeping a fire from burning a building down. This objective is mainly for supporting the first two, and the goal was to limit a fire to a given fire area by controlling it—not necessarily extinguishing it. Of course, proper design of suppression systems requires sound engineering and standard practices. But all of this effort is to achieve an objective that, though it may suffice for ordinary facilities, will fall short for mission-critical facilities.
Despite the major progress these three fire-protection objectives represent in history and the enormous benefit that they’ve afforded to industry and society, they still can only accomplish so much. The disastrous effects that smoke, let alone a fire, can have on mission-critical facilities call for something much more to adequately protect them. Fire-protection schemes that simply meet code (or go a measure beyond it) and follow standard engineering practices should hardly be a source of confidence to the owners and customers of these facilities. Yet such schemes are the usual recommendation for these facilities, and marketing literature often boasts about them. Providing truly adequate protection for the high-stakes operations and corporate interests of mission-critical facilities must come from more than code compliance and sound engineering.
This limitation isn’t necessarily an indictment of the code or the associated engineering, it’s rather a recognition of the complex nature of facility protection. The complexity is due to many factors; among them is that the diversity of these facilities defies a simple set of requirements. Moreover, attempting to adequately protect the operations of any one facility isn’t necessarily straightforward. It involves evaluating the process design, operational risks and performance expectations, which will vary for each business and even site. No sensible outsider would propose that some predetermined amount of protection is adequate for a given business, let alone an entire industry. Only a minimum can be proposed, and that minimum is based on an assumed hazard level, which can vary from business to business even in the same industry. Even if some brilliant code requirements were developed for commercial facilities, there would be a virulent outcry against them as being burdensome, excessive and too complex. It’s akin to dictating how much security individuals should have at their residence; such an ill-conceived approach would obviously be doomed to fail for a host of reasons. Ultimately, then, only a business owner can decide what degree of protection, beyond the code objectives and minimum requirements, is right. Protection of any kind is an investment, and as with all investments, the investor (i.e., owner or tenant) must be persuaded that it’s a good one.
Adequate mission-critical protection can only be accomplished by owners who are persuaded that it’s a sound investment that’s in the best interests of their business. This situation presents a conundrum for consultants, though. Who would want to advise clients to go beyond standard approaches and practices? It’s a risky proposition for any engineering firm or contractor, as the codes and standard engineering practices are a haven of safety—that is, a firm can’t be held liable if it follows them, no matter the outcome. An even greater concern in going beyond the code is that it usually means higher costs, which would be assailed at every turn during cost-estimating phases and construction. In addition, it would put a firm’s reputation at risk, since deviating from and/or going beyond standard practices is usually dismissed as either hazardous, eccentric or naive. Last, a new approach could drive up costs, cause missed deadlines and sour client relations. Such advice would be considered foolhardy for these and other reasons, but suffice it to say that the pressure for system designers and contractors to maintain the status quo is ever present.
Nonetheless, despite all the risks, some engineers—including the present author—have successfully pursued more-adequate protection schemes on a variety of projects. These solutions aren’t necessarily a specific design scheme but rather a new approach with new objectives that address the real needs and goals of mission-critical facilities. The approach looks to optimize performance rather than only meet code requirements and follow standard practices. It looks to maximize the protection of the owners’ operations and interests, customizing the solution for the space or facility in question. It requires a new method of developing design for these systems—one that departs from the common practices of considering only risk-based, consensus-based, owner-based or project-based solutions (see Part 2 and Part 3 of this series). The first thing you need to equip yourself for such an endeavor is an understanding of the new objectives, the new metrics and the new methods. Grasping these elements is a prerequisite to pursuing the new approach, as they provide the principles and means to develop such designs.
To begin with, we consider the new objectives that guide the approach to mission-critical fire protection to provide commensurate protection schemes for this class of facility. The first is reliability, but this term doesn’t refer to some quantitative value of mean time between failures. Rather, it’s a qualitative term in which numerous aspects of system characteristics are evaluated as a whole. It’s already been applied to nearly every other aspect of mission-critical facility systems, so applying it to mission-critical fire-protection systems with the goal of maximizing it is only logical. The next objective is resiliency of the fire-protection systems—that is, how well they respond or recover from adverse events. These events include mechanical injuries, system malfunction or degradation, and even natural events. Resiliency, which was once an obscure theoretical concept, has since become a commonly used parameter of system fitness. Last and most important of all is continuity—that is, avoiding unscheduled operational downtime.
By their nature, mission-critical operations will strongly affect or even determine the profitability, safety, stability and security of a corporation and all whom it serves. Their protection must therefore be paramount. Those who recognize the role of fire-protection systems in the continuity imperative will see the need to strive to design them accordingly. These three objectives—reliability, resiliency and continuity—are at the heart of what defines mission-critical fire protection, or what can be called high-performance fire protection. The venerable codes and standards, despite all the value that they offer, still generally define the low end of the fire-protection spectrum. Mission-critical fire protection is what defines the high end, and this is its real identity. It’s not merely some fire-protection system(s) in a computer room, but a highly reliable and resilient protection scheme that provides an optimal means of maintaining operational continuity during fires and related events. Although to some this high-end concept of mission-critical fire protection seems idealistic, many desire it for their facility but are uncertain as to how to procure it because there’s no real guide or standard.
Accordingly, new metrics are necessary to assess the quality of a protection scheme. The first to consider in the design process is system performance. Codes mainly tell you how to assemble a protection system but not how to assess its performance in a given operation or facility, and this is the first metric to consider in mission-critical fire protection. The second metric builds on the first: the effectiveness of a protection scheme. It evaluates a combination of the system’s performance level and design as well as the configuration of the spaces in which it resides and the items it’s protecting. Though many factors come into play in assessing this metric, the evaluation must take place primarily in view of the mission continuity objective. This metric brings an edge to the assessment of the fire-protection scheme and helps reveal the true level of protection it offers. The last metric is the value that the protection scheme affords. It’s the relative amount of protection provided for the investment made in the systems. Though this metric is different from the cost of the protection scheme, it’s often assumed to mean the same thing. When properly used, though, it provides important insight into how sensible the investment will be over the life cycle of the fire-protection system or the facility. Together, these metrics provide the true measure of the adequacy of any mission-critical protection system and reveal the weaknesses in a fire-protection scheme as well.
Now, to attain to this new level of high-end fire protection, a new approach is required of the designers. That is, they must look out for the owner’s interest instead of simply providing standard solutions that are unlikely to support the continuity objective. It means switching from a top-down approach to a bottom-up approach, from pull to push. Instead of only asking what’s required for a given project, the designer should assess the planned facility and make a case for true mission-critical fire protection. This new approach involves seeking appropriate custom solutions for a facility that maximize value, rather than accepting design directives regardless of their appropriateness, sense or value. It involves providing the main elements of the design yourself rather than delegating it to the contractor or a design builder. It means focusing on system reliability and resilience rather than playing it safe with standard designs that meet code but will only meet the old objectives, not the new. It’s not about ignoring requirements but rather challenging them appropriately for the project and client.
It’s essentially a whole new way of looking at mission-critical facilities, from merely delivering another set of project documents to developing a custom high-performance-design proposal that maximizes protection from operational disruption. It will take more time at the front end and requires skill and care. It involves an active effort to persuade the project team and the owner of its merits and will no longer be business as usual. This approach stems from what can be called a “mission-critical mindset.” It entails four distinct elements, and each one must be present to bring about this transformation. These elements are a) being fully persuaded of the need for adequate protection, b) knowing how to devise high-performance protection schemes, c) being able to persuade owners to act on them and d) being able to execute the delivery. This mindset and its main accompanying skills are what will characterize the future fire-protection leaders in the world of mission-critical facilities. Unquestionably, the need for it is there, as are the candidate owners and tenants. What remains is for skillful design engineers with this mindset to make it a reality with their clients. It can and has been done, and is taking fire-protection engineering to the next level. It’s the future of the industry and will eventually become its new benchmark.
About the Author
Robert O’Neill, P.E., is a consulting engineer with degrees in chemical engineering and fire protection engineering. He has worked in fire protection engineering for over 25 years with experience in over 350 projects in the areas of insurance, government, consulting and architecture/engineering. His work has included the design, construction and/or review of fire alarm, detection, suppression and extinguishing systems for over 130 mission-critical facilities totaling over five million square feet.