PIRG: Collaborative Research
One of the most common observations about the fire protection industry is that, while it’s certainly growing, it remains relatively small. Students often aren’t aware that fire protection engineering is an option until they’re already enrolled in a program, and we constantly hear from fire protection engineers who encounter blank stares when they try to explain what they do for a living.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is constantly making strides to spread awareness and educate the general public about the ins and outs of fire protection, and one way is through the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), a nonprofit affiliate that plans, manages, and communicates industry-related research. As the world of fire protection continues to grow and evolve, it’s crucial for stakeholders to remain at the forefront of those changes and continue asking (and answering) questions. We chatted with some folks involved with the Property Insurance Research Group (PIRG)—a collaboration between the FPRF and members of the property insurance industry—to learn about what they do and why it’s important.
“It provides a place for members of the insurance industry to discuss the issues they face in fire protection,” said FPRF Project Manager and PIRG Administrator Amanda Kimball. “The biggest benefit is that they’re able to pool all their funds and achieve research that’s of interest to all of them rather than individually trying to do the research.”
The group currently consists of eight member companies—with different backgrounds, but similar interests, Kimball noted—who meet on a quarterly basis and pay into a fund specifically for research each year. The objective of the meetings is to support the activities of FPRF. Kimball said PIRG’s chair runs the meetings and together they develop and discuss projects that are in line with FPRF’s missions and policies.
As for the specifics behind what that funding does, Zurich Services Corporation Business Line Director Richard Gallagher weighed in. Zurich Insurance, a worldwide commercial insurance company based in Switzerland with 100 years of service in the U.S., was one of the founding members of the PIRG in 2010. Gallagher said the company participates for three primary reasons.
1. Finding answers to emerging issues
In 2011, for example, the FPRF conducted research on the effect of high-volume low-speed (HVLS) fans on sprinkler operation in storage and manufacturing facilities. No prior literature on the fans’ impact on sprinklers was available, so a total of 10 full-scale fire tests were conducted over the course of six months to inform spacing and installation requirements.
2. Filling a gap in existing knowledge.
NFPA 13, the industry benchmark for design and installation of sprinkler systems, has limited information when it comes to protection criteria for exposed expanded Group A plastics stored on racks. Exposed expanded Group A plastics, like expanded polystyrene (EPS), have a high heat of combustion, a high burning rate, and resist the positive effects of pre-wetting by sprinklers. Sprinklers, therefore, have a very difficult time controlling or suppressing fires in this type of material. The industry lacks information about how to design sprinkler protection to be more effective. So over the course of four years, to fill that information gap, the FPRF conducted a series of tests to develop cost-effective protection criteria for rack storage of exposed expanded Group A plastic commodity when stored in racks.
3. Validating existing knowledge.
“We look at published guidance and conventional wisdom that is there, and it’s perhaps not founded on research,” Gallagher said. “Especially when it costs our customers a lot of expense to comply with that conventional wisdom, we want to make sure it’s valid.”
Right now the Foundation is in the second phase of a multi-part project researching early-suppression fast-response (ESFR) sprinklers and potential obstructions. The discharge patterns of ESFR sprinklers are different from those of standard-spray sprinklers, thus obstructions near the heads may affect distribution differently. NFPA 13 lists six allowed obstructions, and calls for two methods to resolve obstructions that don’t fall into any of those categories: eliminate the obstruction or add sprinklers beneath. According to the FPRF’s project summary, successful tests have been conducted with obstructions that aren’t allowed by NFPA 13 without taking either of those measures. The overall goal of this project is to determine whether those guidelines apply to ESFR sprinklers and to provide information that may inform revisions to requirements found in NFPA 13.
“We want to find out if the money our customers are spending is appropriate, or if those rules can be relaxed,” Gallagher said. “We want to be able to explain why we have customers spend that money.”
Membership is on an annual basis, and is available to anybody who can pay the annual fee. For more information, visit http://www.nfpa.org/research/fire-protection-research-foundation/research-planning/property-insurance-research-group.