Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on March 1, 2019.

Tip of the Spear

Old challenges, new challenges, and life on the leading edge of fire protection research

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In our evolving world, fire hazards are in constant flux. New technologies promise incredible opportunity, but can also pose significant danger if they aren’t integrated smartly and safely. In other cases, it’s problematic older approaches that keep safety researchers busy, problems we thought we had already solved. In both cases, we must rise to meet the challenge.

The dramatic proliferation of electrical energy storage systems (ESS) is a perfect example of the push and pull between innovation and the need to better understand the consequences. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal are critical to sustainably satisfying the world’s increasing energy demands. But because of the fickle nature of these natural energy sources, the power generated must often be harnessed when it’s available and stored for later use. Due to this need and cost and efficiency advantages, ESS, most using lithium-ion battery technologies, are now being proposed everywhere, including systems as large as shipping containers, sometimes proposed on upper floors of tall buildings in dense metropolitan areas. When built intelligently, ESS units don’t burn often, but when they do the results can be dramatic.

The research community is now aggressively trying to learn more to tackle ESS fire protection concerns. Researchers face fundamental questions: What are the proper built-in fire protection measures for ESS? What specific tactical approaches should be taken by emergency responders who handle damaged units with stranded electrical energy? The Fire Protection Research Foundation is working to answer these questions and more through full-scale testing with our research partners.

While the emergence of ESS is a great example of why researchers must stay on the ball as old technologies give way to the new, increasingly it’s not just innovation that brings fire protection challenges, but the need to fix or replace past inventions and approaches that have recently been discovered to have unintentional and unacceptable drawbacks. Take, for instance, the refrigeration industry, which in the next few years must comply with a global decree to ban widely used refrigerants—the substances in a freezer, air-conditioning unit, and other applications that circulate and keep things cool. Traditional refrigerants have been found to have a deleterious environmental impact: in this case, substantial greenhouse warming effects. The new refrigerant replacements being developed are all at least partially flammable, leading fire protection professionals to ask key questions about what new safety measures need to be put in place to ensure they are safe for consumers, installers, maintainers, and workers. The Foundation recently funded and published a report analyzing the fire hazard of propane refrigerants in commercial and retail kitchen settings.

What other chemicals or materials developed decades ago will we soon discover need to be replaced? What unforeseen issues will arise from potential replacements? What substances are we developing today that will be found years from now to be toxic or have some other unacceptable quality?

Researchers are diligently working on both ends of that spectrum in a quest to solve existing societal problems or to make our lives easier. As this process plays out, fire protection researchers need to remain vigilant in working to address both new challenges and old to learn how they might impact fire safety, and how to best incorporate them into our evolving world without jeopardizing the safety of the society they were developed to help. ESS and refrigerants are just two of many of the support systems that fit this description. I’m sure we’ll be having similar discussions about yet unknown issues well into the future, and fire protection researchers will be ready to address those, too.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler