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Jet fires, pool fires, and other minor industrial thermal events occur daily, and typically the consequences are contained with relative ease. The ubiquity of fire risk has led some facility managers to view thermal hazard protocols as trivial compared to other incidents, such as physical or chemical. Facility managers tend to be more willing to accept the risk and engage with reactive remediations than they might be when facing other threats.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of process safety managers or the agencies responsible for oversight so much as it is a result of the human tendency to underestimate the severity of familiar incidents. But now the aggressive start to Canada’s wildfire season has put the broader impact of “worst-case-scenario” fires into perspective for many. While the country is accustomed to handling wildfires throughout its borders during the summer months, May and June 2023 saw Canada’s infrastructure contending with over 450 separate blazes, burning virtually from coast to coast.
Beyond environmental damage, the fires have greatly impacted the country’s critical infrastructure. In addition to sending plumes of smoke into the U.S. and across seas to Norway, these fires have reduced oil production in Alberta (the country’s leading energy-supplying province) by nearly 4 percent, serving as a stark reminder of what can happen when an unusual scenario becomes reality.
Typically, facilities have approached fire risk management through the lens of inevitability; prioritizing building codes, evacuation planning, sprinklers, and other physical safeguards that can reduce fires’ impacts. While these are critical features, they are designed to mitigate the impact of fires that are already happening. They do nearly nothing to prevent a fire from affecting the facility in the first place, nor do they shed light on what might happen if those reactive guardrails fail.
Emergency response is important, but facility managers looking to uplevel their thermal hazard planning need to treat fires just as they would any other hazard scenario—and recognize that thermal hazards include other types of incidents as well (like blasts and explosions). That means assessing the facility and its operations from all angles to identify all the factors that might contribute to ignition or exacerbate its effects.
Today’s risk professionals employ a variety of techniques to support comprehensive consequence analyses and quantitative risk assessments (QRAs), each designed to evaluate unique factors that contribute to the initiation of man-made thermal incidents. These tools support an understanding of the consequences a facility might expect should an incident (man-made or natural) take place.
Facility managers that want to develop a thermal hazard risk profile for their facilities should explore:
The above are just the first steps on the journey toward better procedures. Using the findings from these and other tests, facility managers can begin to develop plans to address hazards in the space and help to prevent ignition rather than relying on emergency responses after a fire has begun.
Addressing risk is a proactive, ongoing process, and it must take all possibilities into account. Although the consequences of fires are—more often than not—relatively minor, effective risk management hinges on having an answer to the question: what happens when the unusual scenario comes to pass? All too often, the answer in industrial facilities is: “We’re not sure.” That response poses problems for businesses, workers, and the communities they serve.
Fires can and do happen everywhere and that makes them feel both inevitable and familiar—but it should not make them feel less threatening. With the National Fire Protection Association estimating that American fire departments respond to nearly 38,000 fires in industrial manufacturing environments each year, relying on reactive measures alone is a dangerous game of chance. While embracing a proactive approach will not eliminate the risks posed by fires and blasts altogether, it can improve your odds of staying operational and keeping employees safe when a thermal hazard comes to pass.
Nelson Duran is engineering director for ABS Consulting. He has more than 18 years of experience supporting government, private and industrial facilities in the U.S and Singapore, performing advanced non-linear, dynamic and finite element analyses for a variety of problems. Using state-of-the-art finite element codes to analyze structures, structural components, facilities and equipment for a non-linear response when subjected to adverse loading conditions.