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Fires (14)

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:58

This is Not a Test

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River Oaks Bank Fire Forces Implementation of
Untested Disaster Recvovery Plan

Thursday, June 6, 1991, was a normal banking day at the River Oaks Bank in Houston, Texas, until 7:30 that evening when fire alarms sounded.

The shrieking alarms forced employees from the building and company officials into a disaster recovery mode — even though the company’s disaster recovery and business continuity plan wasn’t fully operational at the time and had never been tested.

“We had just converted to our current system (IBM AS-400) in November, 1990,” explained John Q. Kershner, senior vice president of River Oaks Bank. “We were scheduled to do a test of our disaster recovery facility in July. Instead, we got to do our test early — in a live mode.”

The fire at the 14-floor facility began on the eighth floor where remodeling of offices had been taking place.
According to Kershner, fumes from varnish which had been used on wood paneling in the offices accumulated and ignited.

The three-alarm blaze that followed sent smoke billowing from the building and forced the construction and clean-up crews and the company’s data processing staff to leave the building immediately.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:55

Planning Speeds Banks Recovery From Fire

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As fire ripped through the heart of Bank of the Sierra early Oct. 2, bank officials enacted a disaster plan to keep the five-branch independent up and running. The 1 a.m. blaze gutted the bank’s corporate offices, destroying its mainframe computer and central data bank containing customer account information.

But because of past banking disasters going back to 1982, when a blaze toppled a large Minneapolis bank, Bank of the Sierra had a formula to follow. “Even as we stood and watched it burn, we mapped out who we had to call and what we had to do,” said Jim Holly, bank president.

The bank’s disaster contingency plan, crafted by a Minnesota-based company, promptly came into play. “Some things we would have done intuitively, but the plan compressed the time it took to do them,” Holly said. In the last year, department heads had become familiar enough with the 150-page document that they could quickly identify key people, critical tasks and required equipment.

Joel Arel, certified disaster recovery planner and president of Minnesota-based Arel Technologies Inc., flew in to meet with bank officials Oct. 3. “Our disaster contingency plan worked because people had already thought the event through,” Arel said. This is the first time one of Arel’s 750 clients has suffered a major fire. “It’s a rare occurrence, sure, but it’s also an absolute reality," Arel said.

Arel is the first to say that contingency plans are only as good as the people who set them in motion. Bank of the Sierra officer Dave Mello agrees. “Everyone pulled together and pitched in. People worked around the clock,” he said.

Using backup data nine hours after the blaze began, tellers stood at branch windows at opening time, 10 a.m., ready to transact business as if nothing had happened, as if the blaze had just blown smoke.
Behind the scenes, however, department heads scrambled to resolve a crisis. “The daily transactions weren’t a problem. The problem was in the back room,” said Gilbert Small, bank vice president and CEO. “The challenge was to process the work once we received it over the counter.” Cash deposits, loan payments, interest accruals, all the data channeled daily through Bank of the Sierra’s computer center before the fire would have to be rerouted in the aftermath of what fire officials called the worst fire in city history.

Bank of the Sierra, with assets of $160 million, is the largest independent bank in Tulare County with 18,000 deposit accounts and 10,000 loan accounts. Before the fire, all five branches were connected to the bank’s computer center by telephone lines. The computer center processed between 25,000 and 40,000 individual entries a day.

In the two weeks before the fire, customers had flocked to the bank to refinance loans because of low interest rates, adding to the mounting pressure on the bank to remain current in its accounts.

Bank of the Sierra contracts with Bank Up, a data processing hot site. By 7 a.m., Oct. 2, six hours after the fire started, the San Ramon-based company was ready to receive by courier Bank of the Sierra’s boxed up daily entries.

Meanwhile, a Denver company, Data Assurance, provided Bank of the Sierra with a mainframe computer. Entries posted in San Ramon were downloaded in Denver, printed and flown back to Porterville daily.
Six days after the fire, the bank had caught up. Postings were current by all accounts--and right on schedule according to the bank’s disaster plan.

By Small’s thinking, without the plan, the back room recovery might have taken another week still. “And for the bank and some of our customers, that could have been a critical week,” he said.

In the five days after the fire, bank employees and a file restoration team sifted through the rubble and were able to salvage key documents. Important account histories stored in $3,000 fireproof file cabinets lined with volcanic material were saved. Water-damaged files were freeze-dried and shipped to a file restoration center in Heyward.
By Oct. 28, a Virginia company was completing restoration of the last of key computer tapes damaged in the blaze. On the computer tapes were over-the-counter deposit transactions made the day of the fire. The deposits were being processed when fire erupted and ripped through the computer center.

In all, between 800 and 1,000 deposit transactions were still unaccounted for, more than two weeks after the fire. “As you begin to reach a final assessment, gaps begin to crop up,” Holly said.

While waiting for tape restoration work to be completed, bank officials worked with customers to reconstruct the deposit transactions. In the meantime, the bank simply paid all checks on good faith, a policy Holly wasn’t eager to release in the weeks after the fire.

Contracts with Bank Up and Data Assurance evolved out of contingency planning last year.

For banks, disaster contingency plans are mandated by federal regulators. Small said banks became more vulnerable to fire during the rise of the computer age because information was centralized and confined. “If the confined area is struck, more information is struck,” Small said.

Disaster contingency became a focal issue in banking after a Thanksgiving Day 1982 blaze that destroyed headquarters for Northwest National Bank in Minneapolis, Minn., what Arel calls the worst bank fire in history.

Reprinted with permission from The Porterville Recorder, Porterville, Calif. Mark Phillips is the newspapers’ business editor.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #1.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:53

The First Interstate Bank Fire

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At 10:30 p.m. the night of May 4, 1988, Los Angeles’ worst high-rise fire swept through the 62 story downtown headquarters of First Interstate Bank destroying floors 12 through 16. In addition to this severe damage that destroyed five floors, smoke and water damage on the remaining floors meant that the entire building had to be closed indefinitely.

Senior management and bank security were notifed and in motion by 11 p.m. One member of the Business Resumpiton Planning (BRP) staff was having dinner in a restaurant just one-and-a-half miles from the building, and was alerted to the fire by the fact that the restaurant patrons kept looking out the window. When he saw the fire, he called BRP management, and then proceeded to the burning building for an eyewitness report. He reported on the phone at 11 p.m. that it looked as if the entire building was going to burn. By midnight, bank security, senior management and the BRP staff were in place in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located in the First Interstate Operations Center just seven blocks from the burning building. By 1 a.m., the height of the fire, representatives from the critical operational areas were either represented in the EOC or were notified by phone. As floor after floor burned, covered in graphic detail on television and monitored from the EOC, the planning for business recovery was well underway.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:49

Testing Pays Off For Penn Mutual

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The basic premise of disaster recovery is that a tested plan is the only way to recover. Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company recovered from the fire because, one, they had tested their plan many times prior to the fire, and two, they executed their disaster recovery plan with expertise and precision.


The alarm was pulled shortly after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30, 1989, when smoke was discovered in the records room on the ninth floor. The fire raced through the ninth floor of Penn Mutual's 530 Walnut Street building in downtown Philadelphia, destroying thousands of documents. At times the temperature hit 2,000 degrees and fire spread quickly among the room's largely paper contents. By early Wednesday morning, it had escalated to a 9 1/2 alarm fire and eventually as many as 500 firefighters were required at the scene. The fire had displaced about 1,500 employees from various companies in the building. Arson is suspected and a reward has been offered.


We interviewed Paul Trainor, Vice President of Information Systems, about the fire and recovery. The fire was on the ninth floor which is two floors above the data center. The fire had started in the Penn Mutual records center and continued to burn for two days.

The firefighters were pouring 12 million gallons of water on the fire, and this flowed down to the data center destroying the ceiling tiles and causing severe water damage to the computer equipment. The plastic sheets used to cover the equipment were ineffective due to the enormous amounts of water.

At approximately 9 p.m., Mr. Trainor decided they could not continue and declared a disaster to SunGard Recovery Services. (SunGard Recovery Services provides alternate data processing facilities and services in the event of a computer disaster). Penn Mutual's backup tapes arrived at SunGard's Philadelphia Recovery Center at 1 a.m. and at about 9 a.m. the data was restored and by 11:55 a.m. Wednesday morning, they had every application up and running with the exception of two minor internal tacking systems, which were brought up within two hours.

Due to the complexities of partial backups, Penn Mutual had changed their philosophy from partial backups and defining critical applications, to performing full backups.

Their goal was to restore the system and begin operation at the recovery site within 24 hours. As a result of the testing they had done previously, and with the help of SunGard's skilled professionals, they were able to recover the operating environment and key applications within 13 hours.


Nearly two years ago, Penn Mutual moved most of its business staff out of the Philadelphia location to a suburban site 20 miles away. They had to establish communications to those offices. The company uses a T1 circuit and dial backup alternatives to communicate with nationwide agency offices in a recovery mode. The communications equipment at SunGard were able to handle all of Penn Mutual's communication needs. They used SunGard's SunNet II modems locally and sent others to the outlying branches.


Mr. Trainor stated they had regularly tested their recovery capability and had just completed a test two weeks prior to the fire. The test also familiarized Penn Mutual with SunGard's facilities and personnel. He also commented, "If it hadn't been for our vigorous testing program, we would have had an extended outage. There's no question of that!"


The effect of the fire on the other parts of the company was minimal. Ninety eight percent of the administrative and customer relation functions and personnel were at other locations.


The command center set up at SunGard was the single point of contact for the outside world. All calls came through command center personnel and could be handled in an orderly manner. Questions were handled about the fire, the data processing center and how long operations would be down. The command center was a place to implement the recovery plan.


It was apparent to Penn Mutual that the outage was going to be long term and that they needed to start the transition to SunGard's cold site. A major problem, according to Mr. Trainor, was that he had to acquire a complete data center in a relatively short period of time. They had to find and acquire 170 gigabytes of DASD. Short-term leasing is very expensive. Mr. Trainor said, "The first couple of days you are in total shock. Then you realize that you have to populate your cold site. The main question at that point was which vendors could deliver on time and which ones could not. In general, the larger equipment suppliers all did an exquisite job and some of the smaller ones did not."


A key issue that must be addressed when reconstructing your DP environment is determining the insurance settlement. If your equipment is not totally destroyed by fire, you might not get full settlement for the equipment, but yet you still have to acquire equipment for the cold site.


There have been many important issues mentioned in this article. Penn Mutual stresses that the major reasons for their successful recovery were: (1) preparing a disaster recovery plan (2) subscribing to SunGard (3) testing, testing and more testing.

Thanks to Penn Mutual's efforts and their comprehensive, thoroughly tested recovery plan implemented by Penn Mutual, in conjunction with SunGard's professional staff, they recovered successfully from what could have been a devastating disaster.


This article was written by Richard Arnold, editor-in-chief, Disaster Recovery Journal.

This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 4.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:47

When The Smoke Clears

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February 1, 1988, a relatively quiet Monday morning, marked the beginning of the second semester of classes at Ferguson Middle School.

Overcast skies and cool temperatures surrounded the three campus buildings known as the West Building, East Building, and the Annex.

Between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., the office noticed some difficulty with the intercom system. Calls between office and classrooms were difficult and “call in” lights came on without intent. Custodians were notified and asked to check into the problem. About 9:45 a.m., two students from our A/V Lab, located in the West Building, came into the office indicating that they smelled smoke in the hallway. An Assistant Principal immediately left his office and headed to the West Building. At 9:50 a.m., the bell rang for students to be dismissed to their third hour class. A teacher in the hallway opposite the A/V room saw smoke in the ceiling around a fluorescent light fixture. As her students came into class, she noticed the amount of smoke was increasing. She, unsuccessfully, attempted to call the office. Realizing that the intercom was out of order and smoke was increasing, she began telling students to calmly exit the building. The Assistant Principal on the scene attempted to notify the office of the smoke as did several teachers. At approximately 9:55 a.m., the room-to-room intercom system was completely inoperable. Again, alerted to the situation by students sent by teachers, the secretary made an “all call” announcement asking students to exit the West Building immediately.

At this time, the “all call” system of the intercom was still functional. Responding to the first teacher who noticed smoke and the “all call” students and teachers exited the building as quietly and calmly as possible. All students were out of the building by 9:57 a.m. thanks to efficient teacher-to-teacher communication. At 9:58 a.m. the secretary placed a call to the Ferguson Fire Department and notified the Superintendent’s Office of the fire. The fireman arrived on the scene at approximately 10:03 a.m.

While the smoke continued to increase, all students from the West Building were directed to move into the East Building gymnasium. One administrator and the Fire Chief went through the West Building checking rest rooms and all classrooms to make sure that no students remained. At approximately 10:08 a.m. the halls of the West Building were smoke-filled and all students had been safely evacuated into the East Building gym. From 10:10 a.m. to 11:05 a.m. the fireman tore holes in the attic and roof and walked the halls trying to locate the source of the fire. Their attempts were unsuccessful. At approximately 11:10 a.m., the heat had grown to such an enormous temperature in the attic that the entire roof exploded into flames. Numerous fire trucks, news media vans, and interested community members assembled to view the eigtht alarm blaze.

Even before busses were called to dismiss school, many of the bus drivers (who had completed their routes and were on their way home) heard the news announcements regarding the fire at Ferguson Middle School. Realizing the need for transportation, enough drivers returned to the bus depot to help transport students home. By 11:30 a.m. busses had arrived and all students left Ferguson Middle School not knowing when they would return. From 11:30 a.m., teachers, parents and students from the community stood in amazement watching the tremendous devastation occurring to a beloved school. A seventh grader perched himself on his bicycle seat and looked sadly at the smoking debris. “At first everybody joked around - “oh boy, no school,” he said. “But deep down inside, I think they felt something. I went home and cried.” People lingered trying to absorb the loss personally and to the community. The loss was personal, since many of those present represented second or third generations who have attended Ferguson Middle School.

Watching the building burn, I imagined one crisis after another developing. What do we do first? How do I regain order? What questions will the media want to know and how will I answer? How will we continue this school year? How can I keep the staff together? As I watched the roof crumble in blackened debris, I could also see the spirits of teachers and other staff tumble and fall. Perhaps an opportunity to make a positive impact existed somewhere in this nightmarish event. Communications appeared to be the probable key to success or failure during this tragedy.

We were trained in what to do in a fire situation if we were occupying the building. We knew how to get out of the building. We didn't think about the devastating aftermath. The success of the recovery was due to the unselfish participation of students, parents and the community. A contingency plan would have reduced our anguish considerably and helped direct the efforts of everyone.

Written by Daryl K. Hall, Principal, Ferguson-Florissant School District.

This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 34.

On Saturday, February 21, 1991 at approximately 8:30 p.m., what is being called the worst fire-disaster in the nation’s history took place in Philadelphia at One Meridian Plaza, a 37-story office building.

Meridian Bank, a multi-bank financial holding company with assets of roughly $11.9 billion, leased six floors at the Plaza, as well as the ground and concourse levels. At that particular location, Meridian’s business primarily involved adminstrative and credit functions (commercial loan files and trust accounts). Because Meridian had implemented a corporate-wide disaster recovery plan in 1989 and followed up with testing, the company was well prepared to respond to the emergency and had vital business functions up and running within two business days.

Meridian’s first complete test of the plan was in December of 1990. The scenario was a simulated fire in a 150,000 square foot building with approximately 200 people. The test involved the business resumption team, who essentially followed the documented procedures detailed in their manual. Part of the procedure included contacting various vendors to see if they could respond with a certain minimum of requirements that were documented.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:22

Between East and West

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Fire. It can happen anywhere at anytime, but when it breaks out in a 275-year-old library, there is a special sense of urgency.

That feeling was dramatically heightened when fire broke out in the USSR Academy of Sciences Library in Leningrad in February of 1988. The BAN, as the library is known in Russia, houses more than four million books and archival documents, some of them dating back to the time of Peter the Great.

The contents of the BAN, a sprawling, centuries-old structure, are recognized internationally as one of modern civilization’s treasures.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:21

The History of the Automatic Sprinkler

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The forerunner of the automatic sprinkler first appears in the United States when New England mill owners develop crude, perforated pipe systems to protect their facilities. Although the pipes increase fire protection, they distribute water everywhere (not just on the fire), and the water is delivered by a manually-turned valve requiring someone to be present in order for the system to operate.

Charles E. Buell invents the first sensitive sprinkler (with a fusible element that operates the sprinkler and does not come in contact with the water) that has a deflector to direct the water spray.

Henry S. Parmelee invents the first sprinkler that is used widely by industry. This sprinkler has a brass cap that is soldered over a perforated distributor.

Frederick Grinnell invents a sensitive, metal-disk sprinkler with a toothed deflector that breaks the water into a finer spray.

Grinnell invents the “glass button” sprinkler (closely resembling today’s sprinklers). This sprinkler remains essentially unchanged for several decades.

Lift trucks become common in warehouses, resulting in the ability to store materials at greater heights. Such industrial advances challenge existing sprinklers.

The first standard sprinklers are installed. The standard sprinkler sprays all of its water downward at the fire (old-style sprinklers sprayed 40% to 60% of the water upward at the ceiling). This new type of sprinkler is developed based on research findings that fire spread along the ceiling is actually reduced when all of the water is sprayed downward.

Warehouses continue to grow, making it difficult for standard sprinklers to handle fires in large, rack storage arrangements.

FMRC’s research leads to the development of the large drop sprinkler, designed to control high-challenge storage fires. The 0.64-inch diameter orifice of the large-drop sprinkler produces significantly larger water droplets to more effectively penetrate a fire plume. .

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) sponsors several residential sprinkler research programs. These programs determine that a residential sprinkler must respond quickly, while the fire is in its early stages, to maintain a survivable environment. Also, effective control of a residential fire often depends on a single sprinkler operating. The information acquired from this research guides the sprinkler industry to develop effective residential sprinklers.

FMRC conducts its Early Suppression-Fast Response (ESFR) research program, aimed at developing a sprinkler that will suppress a fire (until this time, sprinklers were designed to control fires). Through the 1980s, warehouses begin filling with products made from flammable synthetic materials, and storage heights continue to increase.

The first ESFR sprinklers are approved by FMRC. These sprinklers suppress severe storage fires that are beyond the protection capabilities of even large-drop sprinklers.

FMRC continues studying the effectiveness of ESFR sprinkler systems in even more challenging applications. FMRC anticipates using computer simulation models as the basis for developing early suppression-type sprinklers for broader applications in less challenging fire situations.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:20

Choosing the Right Automatic Sprinkler

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Automatic sprinklers are a building’s first line of defense against fire. A sprinkler system not only detects a fire, it also automatically transmits an alarm to the local fire department or central station. In the few minutes it takes for the fire department to respond, the sprinkler system already is at work controlling, or in some cases suppressing, the fire. And a sprinkler system is on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.

However, not all sprinklers are the same. The fire challenges in a hotel or office building differ greatly from those in a warehouse containing large quantities of plastics. Therefore, different types of sprinklers have been designed to meet the needs of varied occupancies. (See accompanying sidebar, “The History of the Automatic Sprinkler,” for details on sprinkler development.)

The most common types of automatic sprinklers include the standard sprinkler, large drop sprinkler and Early Suppression Fast Response sprinkler.

Standard sprinklers

Standard sprinklers are, by far, the most widely used type of sprinkler. Their effectiveness is based largely on their ability to pre-wet adjacent materials that the fire has not yet reached, and to cool adjacent areas of the building.

Fire control with the standard sprinkler occurs as the original fuel burns out. Fire spread is slowed because the fire can’t ignite surrounding areas that have been pre-wetted by the sprinklers. Because the fire is confined to one area, only sprinklers above the fire operate.

Standard sprinklers continue to be the mainstay of industrial and commercial fire protection. However, new fire challenges that limit the effectiveness of standard sprinklers have been identified, which have led to design and installation modifications.

For example, one limitation of the standard sprinkler was its response time in offices, hotels, motels, hospitals and other service industry properties with smaller rooms than typically would be found in an industrial facility. A variation of the standard sprinkler, labeled the quick-response (QR) sprinkler, was developed in attempts to maintain a livable environment during a fire long enough for occupants to escape or be rescued.

Because it operates while a fire is still in the early stages of development, the QR sprinkler limits the amounts of smoke and carbon monoxide that are released by the fire. However, from a property protection standpoint, FME&R research shows that QR sprinklers are no more effective than their standard forerunner. Another, very different, fire challenge that pushed the standard sprinkler beyond its limits was rack storage fires. Warehousing practices in the post-World War II years changed significantly. As warehouses increased in size, rack storage heights grew and the combustibility of stored materials worsened. The water from ceiling sprinklers often could not find its way down to the seat of the blaze--especially if the fire started in a lower tier.

One answer was to install additional sprinklers (typically standard sprinklers) within the rack structure at one or more levels. This would allow the in-rack sprinklers to promptly deliver water much closer to the fire. However, this protection scheme has one shortcoming: lack of flexibility. In-rack piping and sprinklers are inconvenient when racks must be moved or rearranged. Higher hazard commodities and an increase in storage height may require re-piping the in-rack system. Thus, although it provides good protection, a standard ceiling and in-rack system requires substantial capital outlay in the initial installation, and potentially costly modifications to deal with storage changes.

In addition, some warehouse owners and managers worry that in-rack sprinklers are more vulnerable to being damaged as products are put into or removed from the racks. They fear that the damaged sprinklers will leak and damage the surrounding storage. However, this is mostly a problem of perception versus reality. Factory Mutual Engineering and Research studies show that there is a low frequency and low average dollar loss from in-rack sprinkler leakage. In fact, the average in-rack sprinkler leakage loss over a recent 10-year period (involving an average of six losses per year) was only $14,967. In comparison, the average loss in storage facilities where sprinkler protection was provided but more sprinklers were needed averaged $1.4 million per year.

Large drop sprinklers

To increase flexibility and maintain effective fire protection, the large drop sprinkler was introduced. The large drop sprinkler is the first sprinkler designed specifically to deal with high-challenge fires. Based on a unique design incorporating a larger orifice (opening for water discharge) and more effective discharge pattern, larger drops of water are able to penetrate the upward blast of strong fire plumes, while providing adequate cooling for the surrounding area.

Backed by a strong water supply, the large drop sprinkler is well-suited to a wide variety of commodities and storage arrangements. It also can be used to protect higher storage than standard sprinklers alone. In many situations, the need for and added cost of in-rack sprinklers are eliminated or at least reduced.

At existing warehouses, standard sprinklers sometimes can be replaced with large drop sprinklers to provide additional protection when changes in commodity or in storage arrangement have resulted in a greater fire hazard. Here, too, in-rack sprinklers either may not be needed, or fewer levels will suffice.

Early Suppression Fast Response sprinklers

To enhance the effectiveness of sprinklers on highly challenging warehouse fires, the Factory Mutual Research Corporation (FMRC) combined the quick response and large drop technologies to develop the Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler.

Using a more heat-sensitive fusible element and a larger orifice than both the standard and large drop sprinklers, an ESFR installed at the ceiling allows rapid discharge of a large quantity of water in a very efficient discharge pattern to suppress, not just control, a fire in its early stages. This occurs before severe fire plume velocity develops and the heat release rate accelerates.

Fewer ESFR heads operate during a fire than standard or large drop heads, but ESFR sprinklers discharge more water. While the water demand may be higher for ESFR sprinklers, the advantage is that ESFR sprinklers extinguish the fire quickly, resulting is less water damage.

Installing an ESFR sprinkler system instead of the combination in-rack and ceiling sprinklers...

  • is easier and costs less in the long run
  • saves the repeated costs and inconvenience associated with removing and re-installing in-rack sprinklers
  • allows for easier material handling within racks
  • permits storage of varying types of products anywhere in the warehouse
  • may make a warehouse more attractive to potential buyers

A note of caution: Recent interest in faster responding automatic sprinklers has resulted in a potentially confusing variety of products that have fast-acting heat-sensitive elements. In considering which sprinkler to purchase, be sure that the product (whether it’s an ESFR, large drop, quick response or standard sprinkler) is approved by a recognized product certification laboratory.

Joseph Hankins is manager of the Protection Section of Factory Mutual Research Corporation’s Standards Division. In this capacity, he is responsible for the development of FMRC’s automatic sprinkler protection guidelines.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.

Monday, 29 October 2007 01:19

A look at the Oakland Fire

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California’s biggest fire in 85 years came when most citizens and some fire officials figured the fire season was over for the year.

On Oct. 20, 1991, the urban section of East Bay Hills of Oakland, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco, was engulfed in flames. The fire was classified as the worst disaster of 1991 and was the largest to occur in California since 1906, when an earthquake induced fires.

The Oakland fire started at approximately 10:58 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20. With the aid of extremely high onshore “Santa Anna” type winds, the initial spark was blown into a full-fledged inferno within minutes as the fire fed on dry grass and trees caused by a five-year drought. For the first fire crews on the scene, it was an unbelievable sight as houses caught fire right before their eyes and they were powerless to do anything about it.

The three Oakland Fire dispatchers on duty were overwhelmed with calls for help and calls reporting the fire. According to many reports, the communication link broke down here. Despite numerous requests from the on-scene firefighters for mutual aid, their requests went unanswered for an unusual amount of time. One observer noted that at 12:30 p.m., about one-and-a-half hours after the fire started, no air support was available. Some believe that even though the fire started out as almost “uncontrollable,” air support could have made a difference. Another area of concern was that Berkeley, the neighbor to the north of Oakland, was not advised of the fire by the Oakland Fire Department, but rather by Berkeley residents reporting that the fire had entered the city.
Over the course of the fire, nearly 400 fire units and 2,000 firefighters were pressed into action, representing departments as far as 200 miles from the fire scene. More than 25 total aircraft were used to fight the fire as it spread to nearly 3,500 acres.

The fire was considered under control by Wednesday, Oct. 23. In its aftermath lay barren, burned land which once housed single family homes and apartment complexes. Of the more than 10,000 people residing in the area, half were considered homeless after the fire. One hundred fifty were injured and 25 died.

According to the Red Cross, more than 3,300 houses were destroyed and the estimated damage from the fire alone is between $1.5 and $2 billion. Additional expenses will involve utility related activities, debris removal, fire fighting costs and much more that will be calculated as the residents and the cities involved gather further data.
Fighting the fire was not without its problems. Electric water pumps lost power due to burnt power lines, resulting in the loss of pumping capability to fire hydrants. Dense smoke created problems for aircraft fighting the fire and dry conditions fed the flames faster than fire personnel could douse them.
Once the fire was out, reminders of its fury lingered. Area residents had little more than chimneys and foundations left of their homes. And in San Francisco, nearly 20 miles away, dense smoke darkened the skies, dropping ashes on everything in its wake. For many, it was another reminder that anything can happen at any time, so be prepared!

Ronald R. Sathre, CDRP and CCP, is a security project manager/emergency planning coordinator for ROLM Systems.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.