Dr Jim Glocking discusses the publication of the commercial watermist standard, BS 8489, and insurer experience of end-user and installer confusion between requirements for suppression and extinguishing systems.

READERS OF FRM will be aware of our sustained objections to the publication by BSI of the commercial watermist standard, BS 8489. Our challenge is on the grounds that it paves the way for large array, bulb actuated systems, which we believe remain technically unproven, at best might not perform well and at worst might be dangerous. In spite of this, BSI has now published the document and it is clear to us that in the process many of our communications with BSI were not shared with the authorship committee and, perhaps worse, members of the committee were incorrectly told that we had changed our stance and dropped our objections.

So, as with Brexit, in spite of the result we must move on and ask where does this leave RISCAuthority and the guidance we give to insurers? First and foremost, it is vital for us to ascertain who is culpable when a standard turns out to give bad advice that leads to loss. Let’s say hypothetically that a system fails in the future for exactly the reasons FPA presented to BSI on behalf of UK insurers. It would not be unthinkable to envisage that a legal recovery might be sought, but from whom? Is it BSI, the chairman of the committee, the committee members themselves or the companies the members represent? My point is that it can’t be noone – responsibility must rest somewhere, otherwise standards are out of kilter with the rest of the modern world. BSI tells us it can’t be responsible because it holds no technical expertise, but suppose it falls on the committee and its members – did they know this when they opted to volunteer their time for committee work, and do their respective companies know? It has been suggested that responsibility rests with the user!

That’s right, the acknowledged uninformed end-user who has no desire to be an expert in a field unassociated with their core business and whose reason for looking to BSI and its standards is so that they don’t have to become one. ‘In BSI they place their trust’ – that doesn’t sound right or reasonable to me. Clarification is certainly required and it would be scandalous if it had to wait for a test court case. We must not forget, of course, that this is a grievance specific to this standard and is in no way critical of the excellent standards we enjoy that support quality in all other walks of life in the UK.

To assist all users and specifiers, three watermist questionnaires are available openly on the RISCAuthority website and we highly recommend that these are filled out at the time of system design to ensure that fundamental risk focused design concepts are embraced at the earliest opportunity. The three questionnaires cover local application systems, compartment drencher type systems and compartment bulb-actuated systems. In the right places, watermist has a great role to play and is very often the technology of choice, particularly where high temperature risks need protecting locally.

Staying on the subject of active suppression, a recent theme of issues crossing my desk involves failure of local application systems to contain fire to the item of equipment being protected, sometimes progressing to involve the building itself. I have spoken before on the lack of design integration between suppression system and machine by way of interlocks on fuel, heat, conveyancing and ventilation, but these recent issues are more fundamental than this and come down to our understanding and recognition of the differences between the terms ‘suppression’ and ‘extinguishing’ systems. Simply put, if a system is described as an extinguishing system it should put the fire out and no other actions should be required to finish the event. A specifically designed gaseous system might most appropriately fall in to this category.

A suppression system by definition demands that other actions are taken, within the period that suppression is provided, to put the fire out. These additional actions might be the provision of an alarm system that will invoke a local first aid firefighting response or call upon fire and rescue service attendance. If these follow-up actions do not happen, the fire may rekindle, and it can then break out and involve other equipment and ultimately the building itself.

This is exactly what happened in a number of cases we have looked at, in which fires have started out of hours in buildings with no linked alarm system installed. While it sounds so simple, it is clear that suppression systems are being installed without the question ‘what puts out the fire?’ being asked – did the end-user really need an extinguishing system? If a system is installed with an expectation of extinguishment, but a description of suppression, there will be few opportunities to challenge in court losses from poor function.

Dr Jim Glockling is technical director of the FPA and director of RISCAuthority

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