Within traditional commercial and industrial firefighting systems, engineers have primarily focused on permanent installation designs rather than entertaining alternative or supplemental mobile firefighting systems. Permanent installation design is typically better understood, supported, and supplied throughout the fire protection engineering and manufacturing community.

However, mobile firefighting systems provide unique solutions and advantages compared to their permanent installation cousins such as flexible deployment, simpler servicing, improved economy, and much higher performance availability. The combination of both systems is frequently the most strategic solution for the facility operator.

Limitations of fixed installation systems

Permanent installation (fixed) systems include everything from sprinklers, foam systems, primary watermain pumps, and the plethora of piping in between. A large refinery complex will need to address various hazard mitigation and control problems that span both hardware and personnel needs. In the event standard hazard mitigation safety procedures and equipment have failed, the facility immediately initiates a hazard control operation.

Passive fixed systems automatically engage the hazard through an array of sensors, mechanical triggers, and control algorithms. A properly designed system with adequate hazard coverage, preplanning, preventative maintenance, and testing will successfully terminate the hazard, while firefighting personnel respond and ensure no further hazards develop. This conceptual approach relies on hardware and personnel all operating as planned….

Combining permanent and mobile apparatus

According to plan” would never have any failures or fires, but history has a different script. In the worst-case petrochemical scenario, fixed systems fail to extinguish a hazard putting the entire response on human and mobile hardware resources. This would include but is not limited to firetrucks, mobile high-flow pumping systems, large mobile monitors, foam proportioning units, and large diameter layflat hose. This type of response escalates into a larger scale operation, sometimes involving agencies beyond the facility operator itself. Although a low probability event, the risk to life and property is significantly substantial. Fixed systems may be rendered inoperable due to the loss of electrical power or actual physical damage

Reducing fire-related expenditureMore typical than the worst-case scenario, facilities experience both maintenance-related system downtimes and natural phenomena damage such as extreme weather and seismic events. In this case, fixed systems may be rendered inoperable due to the loss of electrical power or actual physical damage.

In any of these situations, mobile fire apparatus may fill the gap requirements of the facility as their flexible storage and deployment would protect them from everything but the worst natural disasters. Their further benefit is that a smaller set of mobile apparatus resources may be used to protect a larger amount of infrastructure, especially while in use in a mutual-aid program between facilities and communities.

According to the NFPA’s report “Total Cost of Fire in the United States”, fire-related damages and expenditures from 1980 to 2014 have risen from roughly $200B (adjusted for inflation to 2014) to nearly $330B. The greatest expenditure is in fire safety costs in building construction, amounting to $57.4B. Although the overall losses per year as a ratio to protection expenditures has dropped by roughly 70% over the past 30 years, petrochemical facility losses have continued to rise over the same time.

, facilities experience both maintenance-related system downtimes and natural phenomena damage such as extreme weather and seismic events
In the worst-case petrochemical scenario, fixed systems fail to extinguish a hazard 

Petrochemical facility challenges

According to the NFPA, refineries or natural gas plants had reported an average of 228 fires or explosions per year through the 1990s. Furthering this data with Marsh’s “100 Largest Losses, 25th edition”, refinery losses have continually expanded throughout the last two decades with 11 of the top 20 largest losses of the past 40 years happening during or after the year 2000. Two primary drivers of this trend are the advanced age of petrochemical facilities and their staggering complexity.

As oil margins fall, upstream operational businesses are detrimentally affected by reduced investment in everything to new equipment, maintenance and passive safety systems. There is an observable correlation between a major oil price drop followed by upstream facility fire losses. Even with reduced investment and oil throughput growth rates, US refinery utilisation at the end 2017 was at 96.7%, the highest since 2005 (Marsh, The Impact of the Price of Oil). The short story is that systems and personnel are being asked to do more with less with each passing year.

Cost-effective mobile apparatus systems 

Mobile fire apparatus is generally more cost-effective to procure when using standardised designs and application methodology. They can access open water sources by either drafting (when in close proximity to the water) or using floating source pumps (for variable level or difficult access water sources). Mobile fire apparatus is generally more cost-effective to procure when using standardized designs and application methodology

With this open water access, they can provide significantly more water (upwards of 10,000 GPM or more per system if necessary) than any typical fixed fire pumping solution. Moreover, as their primary benefit, they are easy to move and deploy. This benefit allows them to be utilised at the point of hazard as needed while being easily accessible for service.

While fixed systems are installed at “every known” hazard and must be continually maintained to operate effectively, mobile systems may be used sitewide or across facilities. This flexibility reduces overall capital expenditure requirements and establishes a valuable primary and secondary firefighting system depending on the hazard and facility resources.

Combining fixed and mobile systems

Permanent installation fire suppression systems are a mainstay of modern day firefighting. They provide immediate passive response with little human intervention. However, as facility utilisation is pushed to maximum capacity while fixed systems continually age out without adequate replacement or maintenance, mobile systems will need to both fill the response gap and provide a final wall to total loss incidents.

The reality is that both fixed and mobile systems need to work together to provide the safest possible operation. Service and training requirements need to also be maintained to manage an adequate, or even better, exemplary response to hazard control incidents.

Managing major facility uptime requires continuous oversight and to drive hazard mitigation standards throughout the organisation, including executive management. A safe, reliable and fully-functional plant is also a profitable and cost-effective plant much like a healthy worker is a better worker. Protect your people and property and you will protecting your company’s future.

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