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Fire safety expert John Ivison says implementing a properly applied fire protection plan developed by a qualified engineering firm could result in lower insurance rates for sawmills.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Is the cost of fire insurance premiums hurting your bottom line? A fire safety expert says spending a few dollars on good engineering advice and implementing the recommendations could lower your insurance rates substantially or even qualify you for insurance if you are considered too great a risk now.

Professional Engineer John Ivison is acting director of the Fire Protection Engineering Masters program of the Faculty of Applied Science at UBC. He has also worked as a fire protection consultant for over 15 years, and has experience working in the forest industry for BC Forest Products.

Ivison recalls one occasion when he was hired as a fire consultant by a sawmill to offer advice on a fairly minor roofing issue. "I told them that they had a $1 million dollar problem in the fact that their total plant was unprotected," he says. "I was able to quickly persuade the owner in that instance that we had to put a plan together to get that place protected."

The company ended up spending a considerable amount of money, he says, but it was money well spent.

"It was a family business, and one fire could have wiped the entire facility out," he says.

Most wood processing facilities need specific fire protection measures not covered by building and fire codes, measures usually identified only through the experiences of existing facilities. For example, only experience has shown that metal floors and walls should be installed in saw filing rooms because of the potential for sparks to fly into standard wall crevices. This measure is not covered in either the building or fire code.

Sawmills, pulp mills and panelboard plants are considered "special structures" by the national building and fire code because of the hazard inherent to their manufacturing processes and the size of their buildings. Insurance companies have labeled them high risk, which is little wonder, given the close proximity of wood, heat, electricity and sawdust.

It's important to ensure that the engineer a company contacts can offer appropriate fire prevention advice, related specifically to wood processing facilities.

The Masters program in fire protection at UBC has yielded 35 graduates. Ivison says UBC wants to make the program available on a national basis because of how the application of building and fire codes has evolved. For example, there is more emphasis now on a performance approach, rather than a prescriptive approach. Certain prescriptive measures as laid out in the codes often should not apply to wood manufacturing structures, he says. For example, the building code may require that because a pulp mill is a six-storey structure, designers must arrange floors separated from each other. Yet, a six-storey pulp mill could require interconnected floors to complement their manufacturing process.

"So, they (codes) are going to have to be dealt with more fundamentally, rather than prescriptively," he says. "That problem should go away in the long term, providing there are enough people with the right training. A lot of federal agencies in particular are trying to get up to peed on performance-based codes." Ivison's department has drafted a proposal that would allow them to deliver courses across the country.

Based on his experience as a consultant, Ivison says a properly applied fire protection plan by a qualified engineering firm yields lower insurance rates for wood manufacturing plants.

By providing members of the insurance industry with a plan of action for application of additional and appropriate fire protection measures, he says he was able to earn up to 50 per-cent reductions in insurance rates for some unprotected sawmills constructed with wood.

"By advertising to these insurance groups that when they are in the position where they can't offer insurance," says Ivison, "you can say, 'look, call this person, and see if he can make it work from the standpoint of putting some protection in'."

It is after-the-fact measures that Ivison hopes his program's engineering graduates can help prevent.

"I'm pretty well convinced, and have been for a long time, that it is vital to incorporate fire safety features into the mill when it's constructed," he says. "Traditionally, that hadn't been happening, and just a couple of years into business I became quite concerned about that."

He says when he joined UBC, he wanted to develop a program that would teach the necessary fire protection design skills needed by engineers when making recommendations to sawmill owners, rather than leaving it up to insurers to fix the problem afterwards, "which is what was happening."

Ivison says the industry's record has improved. While insurers have set the standard of required fire protection among wood processing facilities in the past, he says he believes there is a general trend away from insurers dictating fire protection measures, and more application of standard codes.

Ivison explains why. Sawmills were often constructed in remote areas where there may not have been anyone in the area qualified to inspect the facility to ensure all building and fire code requirements were met. The onus thus fell upon insurance companies to review the facility as a precursor to providing fire protection insurance. However, he says there are now more inspectors at the municipal and provincial level qualified and able to scrutinize these facilities based on building and fire code requirements.

At the same time, insurance companies conduct fewer on-site reviews because of the prohibitive cost. Engineering consultants have become prominent players in the process of meeting code requirements. The acquisition of professional advice and building design by wood processing facility owners - in their quest to achieve a code stamp of approval - now plays a prominent role during the inspection process.

Ivison's biggest worry now, as the industry experiences a downturn, is the tendency by major companies to downsize among those responsible for administering fire protection in wood processing facilities, as a cost-saving measure.

"There is a potential risk," he says, "but I am not exactly sure what that risk is at this point. I think they are going to have more difficulty maintaining the standards of the record of fires that they've had over the last 20 to 30 years."

However, as far as smaller, unprotected operations are concerned, he says there is plenty of potential for properly trained engineers to assist in obtaining insurance by applying a properly designed plan. Companies can choose to go unprotected, but often the consequences of no fire insurance can be devastating.

John Iveson

Fire safety expert John Iveson of the University of BC says there are mow more inspectors at the municipal and provincial level qualified to scrutinize sawmills based on building and fire code requirements.

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