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The Necessity of Fire Safety and Fire Sprinkler Systems
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The Necessity of Fire Safety and Fire Sprinkler Systems

By Tom Pedersen | Fire Protection Engineering

Fires are a potential risk to large retail companies. With hundreds of thousands of visitors at their premises every day, life safety is, of course, a primary concern for all responsible retailers, but the risk of property loss and damage to the brand value are also major concerns.

IKEA experienced two major fires in 1970 and 1984, and both cases led to a total loss of large retail stores. Luckily, no persons were injured. As a consequence of these fires, IKEA decided that fire safety was a top priority, and developed a tough minimum standard for an internal fire safety concept.

This concept consists of five elements: a fully addressable fire detection and alarm system, an emergency evacuation system, a fire sprinkler system, a smoke management system, and an internal fire response team.

The first priority is to detect a fire at a very early stage, and, if possible, to extinguish it with the internal response team. If that is not possible, the fire sprinkler system is the first line of defense, and must be able to suppress the fire in case the fire brigade is delayed. Consequently, IKEA is focused on having fire sprinkler systems of high quality that are able to overcome possible fires in the products carried, and with a safety margin to allow for changes in the product range experienced over time.

The concept has proven to be very efficient. Every year a number of fire incidents occur. Most are detected and dealt with at an early stage, but some develop and activate the fire sprinklers. Since the new fire protection concept was introduced more than 30 years ago, the automatic fire sprinkler systems have overcome all the fires when they have been activated, and in all cases with a good margin.

As an international retailer, IKEA had to adapt its own fire safety concept to many different local fire codes. Some countries have advanced fire codes but not all countries have fire protection criteria in their codes, which reflect the situation IKEA experiences in large retail stores with several thousand visitors in combined retail and storage areas. Not all codes acknowledge the need for strong fire sprinkler systems in such environments.

Only a few of the major fire protection codes are broadly accepted internationally. NFPA 13 is, without a doubt, the most widely accepted fire sprinkler standard worldwide; therefore, it is important for companies such as IKEA that NFPA maintains an international focus.

In recent years, the Fire Protection Research Foundation has been leading a test program aimed at developing an Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler protection criteria for exposed, expanded plastics in rack storage. This program was initiated to fill a gap in NFPA 13. Today, there is no protection criteria using ESFR only to protect exposed, expanded plastics in warehouse racking. With the amount of plastics increasing in the product range of many retailers, there is a greater need for this new protection criteria.

This recent testing has introduced vertical barriers in the racking. The barriers were placed at the rack uprights to prevent fire spread in the longitudinal direction. They proved to be efficient, and in most of the tests, were successful in containing the fire between the two barriers protecting the center of the main rack section.

By adding the vertical barriers, it was possible to reduce the number of active sprinklers in the new criteria, and consequently the amount of water needed for the design. This has a positive impact on the cost of a new fire sprinkler system. In many countries outside the U.S., it is uncommon to have sufficient water pressure and volume in public mains, and water tanks are often needed.

The recent test program has focused on developing new criteria that makes it easy to use internationally. One of the challenges on the international scene is the number of different warehouse racking systems. Both the depth of the racking and the distance between the rack uprights can vary from country to country. The intention was to develop protection criteria that can be accepted as-is, in as many countries and for as many different rack configurations as possible.

One solution was to define a protection area between the vertical barriers, rather than indicate at which rack uprights the barriers should be installed. By stating a maximum protection area between the barriers, it will be possible to use racking with different depths and spacing between the rack uprights as long as the total protection area between the uprights is in accordance with the criteria.

With this new protection criteria, IKEA will have a strong and cost efficient fire sprinkler concept, which will protect its retail stores and warehouse facilities in the years to come. However, building configuration and product range will change over time. As a consequence, IKEA will constantly review its fire safety systems, and if needed, develop new and better ways of protecting its buildings against fires.

Fire safety is and will continue to be a high priority at IKEA. Loss of lives and substantial financial losses can be avoided by taking this approach.

Tom Pedersen is with IKEA.

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