Coalition for Responsible Fire Protection aims to increase environmental awareness in the fire industry

Published:  08 June, 2012

The US-based Coalition for Responsible Fire Protection continues to make inroads since its inception around a year ago: a European chapter is planned and some tangible projects promise to define what being ‘green’ will mean in practice for the fire industry.

Tom Gilmore, a board member and a founding  member of the Coalition, is quite clear that the fire industry can no longer ignore the green issue. As he puts it, the ‘light bulbs are going on’, as more green companies and governments write green performance into their purchasing requirements. ‘And the first companies to the finish line to stand up and say, “We are green contractors and our practices are green”, will start getting that business.’

He points towards some compelling evidence such as the voluntary decision by members of the Business Round Table – formed of 126 major corporations – to adopt sustainable business practices within their organisations. ‘They alone generate 6 trillion dollars of revenue per year, representing a third of the US stock market. Seeing that kind of pressure, and then looking at the fire protection industry, we really have done very little to start to accommodate that.’

In addition, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system that is used for the design, construction and operation of green buildings, is now being used to certify $20 billion of construction every year in the US and 30 further countries.  These builders are looking for better solutions to minimise environmental impact.

When Tom Gilmore last spoke with Industrial Fire Journal just under a year ago the Coalition was wrestling with a thorny issue: how do you define ‘responsible’ when talking about fire protection and protection of the environment? Is this actually possible?

‘I think we’ve got a good handle on it now, with the starting point that being responsible means we provide the appropriate level of fire protection – we won’t compromise on that, full stop. But once you have that level of fire protection, then the question is to do everything we can to minimise the impact on the environment. And over the past year we have come to realise there is an incredible amount that can be done without taking any drastic steps such as changing products or technologies.’

Making a difference

Research carried out by the Coalition in the last few months has revealed that shifting business practices in the fire industry rather than changing products is much more likely to have a beneficial environmental impact, he says. And the single thing that would have the biggest effect would be for companies to become much more active in life-cycle management of fire systems including perhaps the reclamation of fire suppressing agents. Reclamation does go on, admits Tom, but at a small scale and almost exclusively in the aftermarket, rather than for using reclaimed agents for reuse ‘as new’. ‘So everything that comes out of a factory is new, with new agents in it, and if you think about it there is no need for that when we are talking about dried chemical agents, for example. There is one company in the USA that reprocesses dry chemical agent and then puts it back into new equipment. They reprocess it to make sure it meets the original specification, and they use it from there in new equipment.’

The same could apply to steel cylinders, whose lifetime typically exceeds that of a fire system. ‘Obviously you would have to hydrostatically test it, blast it and repaint it to the original spec, as well as provide the exact same warranty as new equipment. But for high pressure steel cylinders there’s just no reason why it can’t be done.’

Changing business practices like these will not happen quickly but interestingly in Tom’s opinion a significant additional driver will simply be the fact that the world is becoming resource stressed – which will push up the cost of raw materials. ‘This is being driven by the rapid development of third world countries. If you look at China, it is predicted to consume half of the world’s iron ore production every year by 2020. So if the value of the recyclable materials is going to go up substantially, then people will reclaim not because it’s good for the environment but because it makes good business sense. A new cylinder for instance might cost $1,400 compared to a perfectly good reclaimed one at $700.’

Resource stress is already being experienced with what Tom describes as ‘tremendous swings’ in the raw materials’ supply chain. Shortages of fluorspar in the last two years have been causing prices of HFCs and other fluorine-based products to rise sharply, and in some instances the materials have simply been unavailable: ‘I think the light bulb went on for everybody then – these are chemicals and they don’t wear out. It is a material that needs to be cleaned – as it’s going to pick up some oils, particulate matter and moisture – but the technology is there to reprocess it.’

What the Coalition is not going to do, highlights Tom, is to take a prescriptive attitude and draw a line in the sand dividing green business practices from non-green business practices. ‘The approach we will take is that best practice at the time will define what is green or responsible. We want the pressure to be there for companies to innovate and continually improve.’

As an analogy, Tom points at cell phone R&D: ‘If cell phone development had been undertaken along the same lines as much fire suppression development, which is prescriptive, there would have been a standard written 50 years ago: and we would still be carrying cell phones the size of a box using pushbuttons and weighting five pounds, because that is what that standard would have said. But cell phones were developed according to market pressure to compete and that is what we want “responsible fire protection” to mean.’

And there is no doubt that the market for green products is expanding, and Tom points out the interesting research carried out by advertising consultancy TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. In their latest report TerraChoice measured green product offerings in major North American stores and found that between 2009 and 2010 alone, the number mushroomed by 73%.

Projects

As part of the Coalition’s aim to produce the first fire industry-accepted ‘green’ standards some work is being carried out in producing a guide to green contracting in fire protection. The project, says Tom, came about as the result of the US government under the Obama administration issuing an executive order that all government buildings should give preference to green products and green contracting services. And considering that the US government is the biggest property owner in the world, the industry has had to sit up and take notice. Factors that will be taken into consideration include having a written green policy, records keeping, measuring the baseline with a view to improve continually, as well as looking at fleet management to reduce the carbon footprint.

Another project still under development is a guide to calculating the lifecycle impacts of clean agent fire suppression systems, to be published around 2013. The timeframes for these guides are fairly long, accepts Tom, due to the public consultation process which is recommended by groups such as the American National Standards Institute and the World Rescue Institute: ‘Their guides insist that a high level of public scrutiny is applied in order for the standards to be accepted.’

The Coalition is keen to include as many industry stakeholders as possible in its activities and Tom points at the chemical industry as a good example of a self-regulating sector that is doing a fantastic job – ‘and a better one that if the government had tried to regulate them.’

A European Coalition?

With around 17 members in the US and around five European companies also wishing to join, the Coalition will this year be launching an equivalent non-profit organisation in Europe. ‘My best description for it will be that we will be cousins – in Europe they would share the same motivations and beliefs, as well as drive to communicate best practice.’ Aside from practical implications of trying to run a global organisation from a single country, Tom emphasises that it makes sense for Europeans to create something appropriate for Europe, because the issues are slightly different and the laws for non-profit work are slightly different.

For more information about the Coalition for Responsible Fire Protection, visit www.responsiblefireprotection.org.

  • Operation Florian

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