An underwriter can develop a conceptual design for a particular solution, but the competence for an accurate review of the full design or shop submittal package is held only by a fire protection engineer. Fire protection engineers are the only experts within the fire safety industry who can manage the entire fire protection design process. Unless a fire protection engineer is involved, a major error can go undetected.

The Undetected Design Flaw

A client of Harrington Group constructed a new raw materials warehouse attached to an existing factory.  The warehouse was designed to accommodate high rack storage, which presented a high fire risk.  The factory was considered to be a highly protected risk (HPR), and the client’s property insurance underwriter for this factory specialized in HPR properties.

The existing water supply equipment was inadequate to handle the severe fire risk presented by the new warehouse addition.  The risk required a new fire pump and tank large enough to provide 300,000 gallons of water for fire sprinklers and fire department hose streams.

A decision was made by the client to build that tank as an underground concrete box with a structurally reinforced concrete roof to allow car parking on top.  The sprinkler contractor developed the full design, and prepared the shop submittal package for the new fire pump and tank.  The shop submittal package was delivered to the client’s insurance underwriter for review and approval.

The underwriter’s loss control consultant performed a review of the contractor’s shop submittal package and approved it with no comments, but the client did not entirely trust this review.  We were then asked by the client to expedite a second review and approval process for the new fire pump and water supply tank, and provide quality assurance oversight.  Time was of the essence because the contractor had already begun construction.

Upon review of the tank and fire pump design drawings, I discovered a major design flaw in the tank that would prevent the fire pump from using one-third of the water.  In other words, the pump would be unable to draw out the last 100,000 gallons from the tank.  I raised the red flag immediately and provided a design sketch showing the problem and the solution, just in time for the contractor to incorporate this solution into the tank construction process.  The cost of the new tank was $200,000.  My work prevented one-third of this cost from being wasted – or about $67,000.

How To Ensure Competency

Unfortunately, underwriters are not designers.  They create conceptual specifications but lack the training and experience necessary to assess the quality of a full design or shop submittal package.   The loss control engineers that work for insurance underwriters never develop the design competence necessary to perform an accurate review of a full design or a shop submittal package because their employers do not enable this competence to be developed. If a full design solution or shop submittal package contains a serious error, a client’s inability to receive an accurate review by the underwriter poses a safety risk to both the client and the insurance underwriter.

In order to overcome the chance of an oversight, clients must be able to recognize incompetency and ask for help.  To perform, or supervise, such high level work, a fire protection engineer should have at least 10 years of design work experience.  At that point, a fire protection engineer is an expert in developing full detailed designs and performing accurate reviews of shop submittal packages.  It is an FPE’s responsibility to manage the entire fire safety process from beginning to end.  The process includes evaluating the risk, communicating with Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s), designing several solutions, choosing the optimal solution, and creating the full design for implementation.  Business owners should not have to worry about adequate fire protection within their facilities.  Hiring an expert fire protection engineer from the outset will lead to the implementation of optimal and accurate fire protection solutions that will decreases the fire risk and utilize capital dollars effectively.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.