“Scare centre” needed to improve offshore fire safety, writes Svein Tønseth, journalist, SINTEF group Head Office

Published:  07 October, 2013

No-one should design offshore platforms without having felt the heat of such giant fires, say Norwegian fire research scientists.

Large flames and black smoke ascend frequently from the outdoor test facilities of SINTEF NBL, the Norwegian Fire Research Laboratory outside Trondheim, Norway.

Inside a 10 m high and 150 m2 offshore module mock-up, the scientists ignite hydrocarbon fires, in the name of science.

SINTEF wants to use this facility to establish a research and course centre. Target group: everyone in charge of fire safety on offshore installations and hydrocarbon based onshore process facilities.

‘We call the planned centre a combined research and scare centre’, says chief scientist Ragnar Wighus at SINTEF NBL.

Through courses, SINTEF NBL aims to reduce the time from the research is done to the time that the results are known in the industry. ‘In addition we want to raise the awareness of the people in the industry concerning the tremendous forces these fires represent,’ says Wighus.

Equivalent to 120 000 electric radiators

The heat released in the largest fire experiments in SINTEF NBL’s mock-up is equivalent to 120 000 electric radiators of 1 kW. These are the largest fires in the world ignited for research purposes. ‘The heat is representative of fires in hydrocarbon process plants, either onshore or offshore. In our scare centre everyone with responsibility for the fire safety in such plants can experience the inferno up close and still be at a safe distance. As we see it, it is important to ensure that the professionals have the necessary respect for the fire scenarios they handle on their desktops,’ explains Mr Wighus.

Stay scared

‘Americans use the term “stay scared” as a motto for people working within the safety professions. Our plan is a result of this philosophy,’ adds Wighus.

But do the requirements stated in the different rules and directions not ensure that the safety level of the process plant is maintained, irrespective of the designers having experienced these fires?

‘Either we are talking about passive fire protection, which means the use of materials for fire protection, or active protection, which means the use of fire extinguishing systems; it is possible to meet the requirements with different solutions. Calculations and analyses may yield results that seemingly comply with the requirements. For instance, NORSOK S001 (The technical safety standard for offshore installations in Norway) distinguishes between fires with three different leakage rates for oil and gas: less than 0.1 kg/sec, between 0.1 and 2.0 kg/sec and larger fires.

‘0.1 kg/sec is equivalent to 4000 1 kW electric radiators. Those who have experienced a fire with such a leakage rate understand that this is a serious fire despite that this is one of the smallest fires the regulations consider.  Therefore I believe that the fire safety of petroleum facilities will increase when those who design the plants have experienced the heat from these fire experiments,’ says Mr Wighus.

An interesting idea

Discipline leader Torleif Husebø of the Petroleum Safety Authority of Norway reckons that the idea of a scare centre is interesting. ‘These fires represent vast amounts of energy, and to witness them from up close is quite different from sitting behind a desk reading temperature curves.’

Scare Center 2

As for whether he agrees with fire researchers that such a centre could improve the fire safety on offshore platforms, Mr Husebø is not completely sure. ‘I think it may contribute to improve the safety to some extent. Anyway, I think it is positive to make publicity around the subject.’

SINTEF NBL is now seeking public and private funding to establish the centre. According to Mr Wighus, Norwegian authorities currently lack focus on increasing the knowledge on fire safety, ‘For example, there is no education on fire safety on Master's degree level in Norway. I find that quite worrying.’

Fire mitigation and protection

According to the chief scientist, the fire research has until now been focused on two types of oil and gas fires; jet fires (fires caused by leakage of pressurized gas from pipes and tanks) and pool fires (oil burning on a horizontal surface).

In the planned centre SINTEF NBL also wants to address additional fire types. This will include spray fires (leakage of pressurized oil from pipes and tanks) and fires where the ignited fluid contains large amounts of water.

The scientists want to examine how much heat is released and how much smoke is produced in these fires, how they can be mitigated, and how people and structures can be protected by means of passive and active fire protection.

Three target groups

The scientists emphasise that there are three target groups for this centre:

·           Personnel working with constructional design of offshore platforms and/or designing fire safety measures for such constructions.

·           Personnel working with risk analysis for offshore platforms and/or onshore petroleum plants.

·           Personnel making decisions concerning constructions and/or safety measures.

For more information, contact Ragnar Wighus, SINTEF NBL, ragnar.wighus@sintef.no.

This article was first published in Brandposten, the magazine of SP Fire Technology, Sweden.

  • Operation Florian

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