A little over 3 years ago I started my role in leading a small fire protection group. It is a subset of up to 3 people within a multi-discipline engineering consulting firm.
The first week there I asked my boss about what my title should be.
He asked what I wanted it to be, largely indifferent to the outcome.
If it mattered to me, he said, I should think about it and choose what I feel is right.
A myriad of thoughts came to mind. A buddy of mine was just promoted to “Director of Fire Protection Services,” which I liked and sounded fancy.
“Team Leader”? Sounded too self-appointed (and too Star-Trek-ian).
Finding a Title
I asked my wife and it spawned a healthy discussion.
A job title should relate to the actual work accomplished so that clients can relate. Sure, that part is easy.
Maybe a fancy job title could impact future roles. Maybe a fancy one would make mom proud.
After thinking about it for some time I kept asking - does the job title really even matter?
I came to this role from a 500+ person company with an assortment of titles and even levels within each title.
At the new small company – what did the title even matter? I’d be doing design, engineering review, business development, project management, and low-level management. The work wouldn’t change whichever title I chose.
Sorry, I Still Get Carded
It was around that time, just six years into the industry, that a recruiter approached me. It was for a Senior Fire Protection Engineer position.
The recruiter said I paired up exactly with the role. He expressed disbelief when I wasn’t interested in the role, considering I was just an Engineer at that time. [side note: I’m somewhat convinced recruiters will say anything to set up a job interview.]
Why even have the term “Senior” in a job title if it is even possible for someone 6-years into the industry to have a crack at it?
I am not saying I would have gotten the job – I surely would not have – but to even suggest a 29-year old could be a “Senior” Engineer completely degrades the meaning of the term Senior.
Perhaps in large organizations the job title is the measure of prestige and responsibility. Perhaps it carries more weight where there is little else to distinguish thousands of employees.
But for the rest of the world? The small consultants & contractors? I can’t see it carrying much meaning, or at least nowhere near the importance of the role itself.
Your role in fire protection is so much bigger than your job title.
Whether you're an intern, engineer, manager, designer, or leader of the multi-hundred-person firm - you play an important role in protecting people and structures from major loss.
Your hands create the safety we want to see in the world.
That is far more important than your title.
Consider your role and your contribution to the world beyond the job title and I promise your work will be more rewarding.
So where did I end up with my new job title?
I chose “International Director of Fire Protection and Life Safety Design & Consulting Services”.
…just kidding, I stuck with “Fire Protection Engineer”.
What About You?
Where do you stand on job titles? Am I on an island, or have you had similar thoughts yourself?
I'm interested in your take - post your thoughts here.
p.s. This blog covers weekly takeaways in my experience as a Fire Protection Engineer. Some are thoughts on career while others are real-world technical applications. If you’ve found this interesting, consider sending to a friend.
One project question I very commonly receive from civil engineers is whether a post-indicator valve (PIV) is required.
In short, there are options. I'm exploring PIVs in more detail in this week's article. If you want to get more like this, subscribe for free here.
Purpose of Post-Indicator Valves
Post-indicator valves have long been used to stop the flow of water into a building during developed stages of a fire. Exterior wall collapse of a burning building poses a threat to break water supply mains as well as create many openings to the water supply. Without a valve to stop supply to these areas, firefighters and their efforts could be compromised by the loss of pressure and outflow of water to areas of a site that don't need water.
With the recognized effectiveness of sprinkler systems and cost pressures, the requirement for post-indicating valves have become more relaxed in the last decade. Code references to account for building collapse, for instance, now appear only indirectly in location requirements for hydrants and post-indicator valves to be sufficiently away from a building.
Components of Post-Indicator Valves
The post-indicator valve has several important features - first is the ability to quickly shut the valve with use of the post indicator valve handle. The second is to quickly see whether the system is in the 'open' or 'shut' condition in a protected enclosure. It can sometimes be difficult to see after years of dirt on the glass, but not impossible.
The valve itself is along the water main below frost depth such that only the stem is subject to freezing conditions. It's a simple concept that's carefully crafted to protect the valve and stem in a reliable fashion.
One example of a post-indicating valve - a Mueller Company Vertical Adjustable Post Indicator Valve (see https://www.muellercompany.com/fire-protection/ulfm-indicator-posts/)
History of the PIV Requirement
So is a post-indicator valve required or not? This used to be an easier question to answer.
While not a referenced standard from the International Building Code, the International Fire Code requires that all private fire service mains be installed in accordance with NFPA 24 (IFC 2000-06 Section 508.2.1, 2009-18 507.2.1). NFPA 24, the Standard for the Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances, governs system requirements between a water supply main and a building's service entry.
Up until the 2010 Edition, NFPA 24 required a listed post indicator valve on every connection from a private fire service main to a building unless special criteria were met (NFPA 24 Section 6.3). The special criteria included the use of a non-indicating underground gate valve with a roadway box and T-wrench or locating an inciating valve in a pit. Either special case required approval of the AHJ.
Current Valve Options within NFPA 24
Since the 2010 Edition, NFPA 24 gives a series of options for isolating a building's system and does not mandate that a post-indicator valve be used. These options (from 2010-13 6.2.11, 2016-19 6.2.9) include:
While still considered an "indicating" type valve, wall indicating valves are generally less preferred than post-indicating valves as they are more susceptible to a building collapse than post-indicating valves.
Post-Indicator Requirements of NFPA 14
NFPA 14, the Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems, also weighs in on post-indicator valve requirements.
NFPA 14 requires that each water supply (except for an FDC) shall be provided with a listed indicating valve in an approved location (NFPA 14 2000 4-2.6.1, 2003-07 126.96.36.199, 2010-19 188.8.131.52.1).
The prescriptive way to accomplish this is through the use of a post-indicating valve. Annex material within NFPA 14 goes further, stating a list of preferences for outside control valves:
NFPA 14 does give exceptions (as is almost always the case in fire protection), but they require AHJ-approval. Wall-point-indicating valves, or underground valve with roadway box and T-wrench, are alternative options that require AHJ approval (NFPA 14 2000 4-2.6, 2003-07 6.2.6, 2010-19 6.3.6).
Post-Indicator Requirements of NFPA 13
So where does NPFA 13 stand on post-indicator valves? In short, it doesn't. NFPA 13 only states that where post-indicator valves are used, they top of the post must be 32-40 inches above grade, and they must be protected against mechanical damage (NFPA 13 2002 184.108.40.206, 2007-16 220.127.116.11, 2019 16.9.9).
AHJ & Insurer Inputs
Authorities Having Jurisdiction may also want to weigh in on requirements for post-indicating valves. Some municipalities write code amendments to require PIVs, while others may request PIVs be installed for certain building types.
Insurers, such as FM Global, may also want input. FM Global for instance, recommends that each system has a control valve a minimum of 40 feet from the building (with less preferred options also recommended in Data Sheet 2-0 2.6.2).
What's the best course of action for your project? First, check for local or state code amendments that may affect post-indicating valves. If you have a standpipe system within the building, plan to provide a PIV. Last, check with your AHJ for any nuanced requirements you may be missing or to coordinate a location with the AHJ.
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It is a popular and well-established concept that water and electricity don’t mix.
Water is electrically conductive which creates a major hazard of electrocution where a continuous pool of water meets a live electrical feed.
Can We Omit Sprinklers in Electrical Rooms?
On a few occasions I have come across building authorities and building owners who assume that sprinklers will not be installed inside traditional electrical rooms.
Why? The basic tenant that water and electricity don’t mix.
While the concept is important, the intent of sprinkler protection throughout a building is not just for each item within a building, but the building itself.
The primary intent of sprinklers is suppression – or stated differently – to prevent the growth of fire from the room of origin throughout a building. This includes all the rooms and spaces beyond just the electrical room where a fire could begin.
This week I’m digging into guidance surrounding electrical rooms.
NFPA 13 Guidance
NFPA 13 (2002 Section 18.104.22.168, 2007-10 22.214.171.124, 2013 126.96.36.199, 2016 188.8.131.52, 2019 9.2.6) allows sprinklers to be omitted in electrical rooms, but only where each of the following are met:
Concerns with Providing Sprinklers in Electrical Rooms
Providing sprinklers within electrical rooms could:
Prior to the 1994 edition of NFPA 13, important electrical equipment were required to have hoods (or shields) comprised of non-combustible construction to prevent direct contact by sprinkler discharge. All electrical rooms were required to be sprinkler protected.
Beginning with the 1994 edition, NFPA 13 introduced language to address concerns for firefighter safety and equipment damage. Sprinklers could be omitted in electrical rooms where the room contains dry-type equipment (no oils), is dedicated to electrical equipment only, is fire-resistant to reduce fire spread, and the room has no storage hazard.
The 2016 Edition, the requirement for equipment hoods or shields was removed to direct it under the scope of NFPA 70.
Just recently for the 2019 Edition new text was introduced such that no storage is permitted (non-combustible storage had been allowed) and liquid-type K-class (less flammable, non-spreading fluids) would be allowed.
International Building Code Input
The International Building Code (IBC) does not allow the omission of sprinklers “merely because it is damp, of fire-resistance-rated construction, or contains electrical equipment” (IBC 2000-18 184.108.40.206.1).
Within the same code section, the IBC does allow sprinklers to be omitted in “generator and transformer rooms separated from the remainder of the building by walls and floor/ceiling or roof/ceiling assemblies having a fire-resistance rating of not less than 2 hours.” These rooms must have an approved automatic fire detection system.
According to IBC commentary, buildings with sprinklers omitted in one of the sections allowed by the IBC would still be considered fully-sprinklered throughout and in compliance with the code and NFPA 13. This distinction is important as it carries eligibility for code alternatives, exceptions and reductions.
Combined, both the IBC and NFPA 13 require electrical rooms to be protected unless the prescriptive alternative option is followed.
As NFPA 13 commentary outlines, sprinkler systems have been successfully installed in rooms containing electrical equipment for over 100 years with no documented instances of a problem. While still seemingly controversial, most projects designed today include sprinkler-protected electrical rooms.
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MeyerFire is all about dissecting real challenges that real people face in fire protection design. I'm thrilled you're a part of our journey for better fire protection worldwide.
I'll start by saying I'm not perfect. I've learned some things the hard way that I could have avoided, which in part spurned this whole blog. This week's topic covers one of those things learned by trial and error (but mostly error).
If you are responsible for fire protection bid plans and you expect a contractor to provide hydraulic calculations, then you should include flow test information on your plans.
"If you are responsible for fire protection bid plans and you expect a contractor to provide hydraulic calculations, then your plans should include flow test information."
NFPA 13 does just about everything but require a flow test to be completed on the preliminary plans.
Annex material, for instance, has long spelled out that preliminary plans should be submitted to the AHJ prior to the development of working plans by a contractor (A.14.1 in 2002 Edition, A.22.1 in 2007-10, A.23.1 in 2013-16, A.27.1 in 2019). These preliminary plans should include test information with date and time, conducting party, location of hydrants, and size of mains.
Water supply information is a critical part of the overall fire protection equation but it's value comes before bidding as well as after.
If it is not a requirement in 13 to have it included in preliminary plans, then why provide it when the contractor can?
Well, there are several reasons.
1. Determine Fire Pump & Water Storage Tank Prior to Bidding
Is a fire pump required for the project?
It’s an important question – the cost impact to an owner is often between $50,000 and $120,000 between the pump, controls, piping and equipment, and possible generator when a pump is required.
The only thing more expensive than a fire pump or water storage tank included on a project
is when they get added as a change order.
Is the available flow to the site low, needing a break-tank or a full water storage tank?
The cost impact to an owner here is even greater.
If a flow test is not included on preliminary plans, how is a contractor supposed to confirm that a pump or a tank are not necessary? Take the word of the engineer? Guess based on past-history?
For flat-terrain areas with little construction activity over time, anticipating the available supply might be possible. For hilly areas where I live with a wide variety of water main sizes, it can be next-to-impossible to guess an available water supply at any given location.
If you are a prudent contractor and you are to bid a job without clear water supply information, what would you do? Bid a price conservatively high to anticipate large pipe sizes with a poor water supply? That’s possible – but then you’re also far less likely to win the job. Bid a competitive price, but exclude larger pipe sizes or a fire pump/tank? That could work to win the job, but what happens when the actual flow test is run and you determine a fire pump is necessary?
I’ll tell you what happens – the owner gets a very large change order they weren’t anticipating and the general contractor, sprinkler contractor, and design team all look bad.
Part of my role is creating upfront preliminary plans for owners & architects that go out to bid, but I also work for sprinkler contractors to produce installation/shop drawings. I’m very fortunate in that I get to see both sides of the industry.
A Real-World Example
One current job that I’m working for a local sprinkler contractor on is a new-construction five-story medical office building. It’s a great building with tall floor-to-ceiling heights and a fifth-story ceiling that’s about 80 feet above ground level.
The preliminary plans call for an FM Global Hazard Category-2 shelled area (0.20 gpm over 2,500 sqft) on the top level. Once the flow test came in, even with good pressure, it wasn’t enough to support this hazard classification.
Could the hazard classification get bumped down to better align with the future tenant use? Possibly. Could a fire pump be added to the project at a significant cost, late in construction? Possibly.
Either case, this all could have been avoided had flow test information been provided on the original plans. Bidding contractors wouldn’t be eligible to claim large change orders based on unanticipated pressure, and they can flag issues before they even submit bids.
2. Reduce Potential for Major Change Orders
Too often the single cost that a building owner is concerned with is the total cost of the job at bid. They should be concerned about the total cost of the project, including change orders and including the lifecycle of the system.
What good does accepting a low bid do if it is later rife with change order cost additions? It happens all the time with poorly prepared bid plans.
Including a flow test as part of the preliminary plans removes a major potential change order opportunity as it enables the sprinkler contractor to do their own pre-bid layout and calculation should they choose to do so.
3. Removes Potential Conflict of Interest
I have encountered misreadings of pressures from a gauge in the field, test results that were incorrectly copied between documents, and flow tests that were suspicious enough to go and re-test.
I (thankfully) have never come across anyone doctoring flow test numbers.
Is it possible that a contractor could fudge flow test numbers to save on pipe sizes and improve their bottom line? It’s possible. Virtually all of the contractors I’ve come across are very proud of their installations and are in the business because they care about life safety. Have I ever seen it happen? No. Could it? Yes.
When an engineer provides the water supply information upfront, however, this potential conflict of interest evaporates.
Including flow test data (or fire pump/water storage tank information) can be a critical piece
for bidders to properly assess and bid a system.
4. It’s Not That Hard to Get
For all the information we expect contractors to produce after they win a job, could we as engineers not produce such an important (and basic) piece of information?
Some water purveyors run hydrant flow tests at no cost. Some jurisdictions will do the same.
Even when both don’t run the tests, you can do it yourself. Read and follow NFPA 291, watch some videos, pickup a flow test kit for $400-$600, and remember to open and close valves slowly. It’s not terribly hard to do.
If you aren’t interested in running the test, hire a contractor. I’ve seen tests run as cheap as $150 and as expensive as $1,200 (a 3-hour drive each way), but they are often between $350 and $550 to have completed. Local contractors are more than capable of providing this service and they can do so quickly.
One of the biggest hassles in running a test early is often the tight design schedule many projects are on, and explaining to the owner why a flow test should be done upfront when a sprinkler contractor could just to it later. This article at least helps you address the later concern.
5. It’s Fair to Bidders
Bidding contractors are often not as concerned about how much or how little you want them to do. If you want schedule 40 throughout, they’ll provide schedule 40 throughout. If you want a nitrogen system, they’re provide a nitrogen system.
What contractors are extremely concerned about is that their bid price is fairly compared to other contractors. They will not provide schedule 40 if they feel another contractor will not provide it. Same with nitrogen or any other upgrades that could otherwise greatly benefit the building owner.
Water supply information is one of those key pieces of information that allow contractors to bid on an even playing field.
6. Retain Data History
How often do you find old building design documents that don’t include shop drawings? If you’re like me, it’s all the time. An engineer’s pre-bid plans don’t often have a wealth of helpful information – but having a little water supply block is a helpful data point when comparing historical water supply points.
Since engineer’s preliminary plans often get stored and tracked with the rest of the construction documents, including the water supply information can be a helpful way to retain that information for designs and renovations in the future.
I’ll slowly now descend from my soapbox by saying again that I’m not perfect. I’ve sent far too projects out to bid without water supply information than I would like to admit, often without any legitimate excuse. As an in-house goal we now try to hunt down water supply information for every project that we expect to see a hydraulic calculation by the contractor. That’s every building addition, occupancy hazard change, and every new construction project. It’s just too important of a data point to leave out for bidders.
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This week I'm wrapping up some coverage of fire standpipe systems. In case you missed it, here are the recent articles on this topic thus far:
An Introduction to Standpipes
Addressing Egress & Clearances for Standpipe Hose Connections
Standpipe Connection Location by Code Edition
Whether a standpipe hose connection should be located on a floor-level landing or an intermediate-level landing has been a classic tactical and design discussion in the fire protection community.
Defining Floor versus Intermediate Landings
A main floor-level landing is the horizontal portion of a stairway where the stair risers stop and occupants can enter a floor level, leave a floor level, or turn to walk on the stair itself.
Intermediate-level landings are the horizontal portion of a stairway where the stair risers top and occupants can turn to continue onto the stair.
Defining floor-level versus intermediate-level landings.
Landings offer a resting space when transcending stairs as well as limit the distance someone is likely to fall down a flight of stairs. Stairs that jog back and forth with landings offer some benefits. They help limit the building area dedicated to stairwells, they create a consistent door location on each floor, and they to help break up long stretches of stairs.
Do hose locations matter?
They do. Hose connection locations have implications on the tactical approach for firefighters, the ease of installation for contractors, the complexity of design for designers & engineers, and the cost implications for building owners.
Standpipes at floor level landings offer a simpler overall installation with design benefits.
Benefits of Connections at Floor-Level Landings
Benefits to standpipe connections at floor-level landings include:
Crossing the stair with sprinkler feeds from combination sprinkler/standpipe risers on intermediate-level landings can create head-height issues or knee-knockers, depending upon the approach. Standpipe hose connections at main-level landings help avoid these issues.
Connections at intermediate level landing requires that designers and engineers account
for the additional hose length needed just to cross the stair.
Benefits of Connections at Intermediate-Level Landings
With all the benefits to designers, installers, and overall simplicity, why would intermediate-level landings be considered? Mostly it’s about first responders and the tactical approach in firefighting.
Connections at intermediate-level landings offer more tactical than design benefits.
Benefits to intermediate-level connections include:
Conversations with AHJs
Regardless of approach, code stipulates a prescribed method but allows the AHJ the latitude to shift the landing location as he or she sees fit. Like other nuances of suppression design, it can be very beneficial to make the call and confirm an approach well before submitting plans.
Here are a few important considerations that accompany standpipe design:
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.