Fire protection: the ongoing challenge of powering a critical service

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Norm Winn has been working in the fire protection industry for over fifty years. Being an Officer with the Country Fire Authority, and more recently as a consultant to the fire protection industry, there’s not much about fire protection pumps that he doesn’t know. We spoke to Mr Winn about his experience in the industry and gained his insights and thoughts as an end user specifying pumps for clients today.

 

Mr Winn worked for the Country Fire Authority as the Officer in charge of Training, Fire Protection and other departments for over 30 years. Following the Ash Wednesday bushfires he was appointed to the Premier’s Bushfire Reconstruction Task Force; and over the course of his career he has presented papers in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.

In the past 24 years, Mr Winn has been running a consulting business, specialising in building audits, emergency response, training and fire protection. He has been a member of the Fire Protection Association, Australia since 1963. Some years ago Mr Winn was honoured with a Life Membership of the Association. Mr Winn also chairs the Australian Standards Committee FP 17 AS 3745 – Planning for Emergencies in Facilities.

Between all of these roles, Mr Winn has seen a plethora of pumps for fire appliances and system installations develop and evolve over the years.

Specifying pumps

According to Mr Winn, there are several key factors he takes into account when specifying pumps for fire protection – the size of the driver and the capacity of the driver.

“The main requirement is of course to have sufficient capacity to drive and sustain a centrifugal pump and enable a fairly hefty output, whether on a fire appliance or a sprinkler/hydrant system,” said Mr Winn. “Because a lot of the fire appliances were located in fairly reasonable sized townships, that in itself created another add-on to enable us to go across to compression ignition drivers on tankers and variable split pump systems on major appliances, providing either volume or high pressure. Fixed pump installations for sprinkler/hydrant installations have greater demands depending on the risk the installation is protecting.”

The biggest change Mr Winn has seen over his years in the industry is the increase in size of pump sets required to optimise demand for the output design.

“The increase in the size of the pump set today is due to the development of both industrial complexes, hazardous materials installations, high rise buildings and storage facilities. Smaller pump sets required to protect assets such as aged care structures and small hospitals within our communities are the biggest changes I’ve seen in recent years,” he said.

“Maintenance and testing requirements are another major part of ensuring the pumpset installation is ready to respond reliably when required to quell a developing fire.

“Today, the firefighter requires a higher pressure to operate some of the specialist equipment, and there is the requirement to be producing fairly large litreage per second or high pressure for mist/fog demands.

“Generally, to operate satisfactorily the pump sets have to be well above 700kpa.”

According to Mr Winn, the process of specifying a pump system has become increasingly challenging.

“These days I’m having great difficulty with specifying an appropriate pump set because the pump provider buys an engine, and buys a pump. Then they build that onto a bed, which you’re well aware of. But the major issue is being able to confirm that the driver meets Australian Standards or FM approval for installations. A lot of the drivers being brought in from overseas just don’t meet that requirement.”

Of course working in fire protection, another critical requirement is that pumps and pump sets can go from stop to maximum output within ten seconds.

“Of course that’s a high demand requirement,” said Mr Winn. “Adding to those demands, obviously the system needs temperature control, particularly in the diverse climate ranges experienced on our continent. The pump design criteria, types of jacking pumps to be used to maintain pressures and fuel systems have all altered dramatically in the last decade or so.

“For me, the pump itself has to be reliable and its maintenance is absolutely critical. Maintenance is probably one of the main issues that I’m confronted with on a regular basis. Conforming with relative Sections of AS 1851 Routine servicing of fire protection equipment is both critical and a major cost to the community.

“Not complying with maintenance requirements can result in, at times, catastrophic outcomes, endangering life and property. With pumps, it’s not just about design and meeting output capacity, it’s also a matter of regular, ongoing maintenance.”

Evolving technology

One particular area of technology that has evolved and grabbed Mr Winn’s attention is in the area of pump set impellers and casings.

“The pump set impeller and its casings are probably one of the important things,” said Mr Winn. “Obviously it’s the impeller that provides the output and the ability to produce the water delivery that’s required. But it’s the pump casing, I find, that’s one of the most interesting parts of it, the technologies that are being developed now to achieve high output.

“In days gone by, we used to get away with large volume pumps. But now we find that it’s not just volume, it’s high pressure that in itself has resulted in demands for changes to occur. The majority of design change comes from overseas due to higher population bases. That is not to say that there are many skillful, innovative people in Australia who lead the world in pump design.

“We’ve got some pretty smart people in Australia, but because of our lack of manufacturing capability, we’ve lost a lot. As an example, Thompsons Pumps have a wonderful history, their pumps were always simple and very good. Some of the technology that they’ve developed, such as lightweight pump casings, are a really great innovation. To date, I haven’t had or heard of any failings.”

Energy efficiency and solar

Energy efficiency is a subject that most in the pump industry are starting to factor into their products, but for Mr Winn, when specifying pumps for the fire protection industry, it’s almost impossible to specify pumps that are both energy efficient and capable of achieving the outputs the industry requires.

“It’s difficult because we need significant power for output, so that in itself means we’re going to use a lot of fuel, be it electrical or hydrocarbon.”

“Really there’s not a lot that we can do to conserve energy while retaining the outputs that are required. What I’m really looking forward to in the very near future, is the day that we’re able to run  fire pump sets from solar energy. From the electrical point of view, that would be great.”

On that note, Mr Winn doesn’t believe it will be too long before we start to see some solar applications for the pumps that are used in fire protection.

“I don’t think it’s too far away. I’m a solar panel user from way back, I’m a believer in it and Australia is one of the sunniest continents on earth – but we don’t maximise use.

“But the new accumulators and battery systems that are being developed – that is really exciting stuff, and I think that opens the doors for some innovation, to create worthwhile electrical storage capacity so that we’ve got reliability, as well as meeting electrical driver output.”

This development is critical if solar pumps are to be used in fire protection, because, as Mr Winn points out, we have as many, if not more, fires outside of daylight hours.

Specification and maintenance

When specifying pumps, Mr Winn says that while we’re largely tied to the relative Australian standards or other accepted standards – FM Approvals, he does place careful consideration on the high standard of reliable maintenance performance demanded of a maintenance provider.

“The critical issue is to ensure that the maintenance providers really understand the unit that they’re maintaining. A lot of people just think that it’s about the pump; but it’s drivers, it’s housing, it’s the environment it operates within, appreciating at times, the quite warm or very cold temperatures that they operate under.

“Maintenance is critical – but it’s just as essential to have a competent maintenance provider. That’s a real issue.”

When it comes to managing maintenance, for Mr Winn, it all comes back to training of the provider at the coal face.

Mr Winn has considerable experience with the Fire Protection Association, which provides training courses which enable the passing of knowledge between industry veterans and the new players making their way through the ranks.

“We lose a lot when long standing industry members retire. It’s sad; but it’s a fact of life. And it’s not just the pump industry or the fire industry, it’s across the board in the community.

“The best thing that we can do is capture the knowledge and skills before our experts retire and make sure it’s passed through to the next generation. Sometimes it’s the little things, the anecdotes and on-the-job learning – they’re the facts that need to be included in our training courses.”

The future of the industry

Mr Winn believes that the future of the pump industry will largely be influenced by the new and greater demands made for innovative pump design in the fire industry – both fire services and the community at large – commercial, industrial, high rise [apartment / office], hazardous materials and shipping all require specific needs – our challenge in the pump industry is to both forecast and meet our nation’s changing needs.

“I’m of the opinion that with the development of technologies, whether that’s impeller development, actual usage of pump sets or new types of metals with greater tolerances, automation is going to have a major effect.

“We can’t lose site of the fact that we have to be innovative to provide for our future industry and community safety, because a lot of people don’t realise that pumps are what drive our sewerage and water systems, which we can’t live without. But also pumps protect lives and property.

“We’ll have to build on not only the technologies, but longevity into the pump sets.

“It’s an exciting time for the industry, in the next decade or so, as to how we can design and develop pumps that will last for the next 30 to 40 years – the general building life expectancy or ever increasing variations required by fire services to protect fire firefighters and the community they serve.

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