Tell us about yourself.
I am a fire protection engineer and Vice President of Engineering for ORR Protection Systems. I fit the definition of a “fire nerd.” I grew up in a firefighting family that volunteered in their community and was a “chief’s kid.” My father’s day job was running a hardware store, which I worked in, and that gave me lots of opportunities to develop mechanical aptitude and electrical skills. I went to Iowa State University and majored in Construction Engineering. I first worked as a mechanical engineer for a consulting engineering firm and started to specialize in fire protection systems. That interest leads me to ORR where I’m finally able to focus on special hazards fire protection systems, which is a passion I didn’t know I had until it found me.
How did you get into this career field? What attracted you to this?
In my mechanical engineering career, we had three areas of design responsibility: HVAC, Plumbing, and Fire Protection. At the time I volunteered for my local fire department (and still do) and the leadership at the engineering firm assumed I would like getting assigned projects with more intense fire protection needs (they were right). I started picking up more and more projects with smoke control, clean agent systems, and foam systems and eventually I tested for a fire protection engineering license after already having a mechanical engineering license. I’ve always taken a construction-oriented approach to fire protection systems and working for ORR allows me to continue with that angle.
Tell us about ORR Protection Systems who they are and what they offer.
ORR Protection Systems is a provider of special hazards and fire alarm systems as well as a full-service provider of fire protection system inspection testing and maintenance. We specialize in mission critical facilities and power generation plants, but we have customers in all markets. We have a strong national business and provide services for many large companies that choose to consolidate their fire protection needs with one provider for convenience and consistent quality.
What does “mission critical” mean? What is a “mission critical” facility?
In the traditional sense mission critical means data centers and telecommunications facilities that must operate with high reliability and minimal downtime. We feel that definition extends to lots of other facilities that have a high cost of downtime or perform a function critical to their business or the public. With that mindset, many of our customers value their fire protection systems and voluntarily choose higher levels of protection that exceed the minimum levels required by building codes.
What are some fire protection/life safety consideration for data centers that are different for other occupancy types?
Like any building or room, data centers cannot tolerate a large fire, but it’s the information technology equipment in a data center that is sensitive even to small fires or smoke events. It is the ripple effects that a lost or interrupted computer process has on public safety, critical services, or economic loss away from the room the fire occurs in that makes data centers unique. Our society’s reliance on technology, in one way or another, originates in a data center and that makes them worthy of higher levels of fire protection.
What codes and standards apply to data centers?
NFPA 75 is an occupancy standard for information technology equipment rooms (data centers). It’s the primary standard, but it references several others where it borrows concepts for protection, including NFPA 76, the National Fire Alarm and Signalling Code, and the National Electrical Code.
NFPA 75 is a voluntary standard. The choice to follow the requirements in NFPA 75 is made after performing a risk analysis of the data center room or facility. There are seven risk factors listed in the standard that help determine if it should be followed.
Have you been involved with and/or can you comment on the NFPA Research Foundations Data Center Project?
The Fire Protection Research Foundation has conducted a two-phase project on smoke detection in high airflow spaces and has completed phase one of a two-phase project on the use of gaseous suppression systems in high airflow spaces. Phase two is planned for late 2017 and 2018 and is in the fundraising stage. ORR has contributed time on a technical panel and financial resources as a principal sponsor for some of these. We feel this research is beneficial for our customers and are happy now that research from the detection project has now made it into NFPA 75.
What do you see for the future of data center protection and design?
I think that designers plans for data centers are very creative and different. I think there will be the continued growth of modularity and data centers will be designed to grow in building blocks, such as the use of containerized data center buildings. I also think the computing power packed into smaller and smaller footprints will force operators to consider advanced fire protection systems like clean agent systems and air sampling detectors because a single thermal event localized in one area of a room can affect so much processing output. I also believe that it will make it more cost-justified because the more expensive fire protection approaches can protect much more financial revenue being generated by the high-density computing equipment.
I expect liquid-cooled servers will be more popular in the future and manufacturers will choose combustible oils as the cooling fluid. The oil, similar to mineral oil, is a combustible liquid and that will necessitate a change in the fire protection approach because combustible liquids have really never been a part of IT equipment rooms before.
In regard to data centers what is the most important information for the following groups:
- firefighters responding to emergencies in these facilities, should know to power down electrical equipment and when it is appropriate to do so. Can power be shut down for just the affected portion of the facility? The best way to figure this out is to have a meeting with the data center facility engineers and work it out ahead of time.
- facility managers and building owners responsible for these facilities, should understand how to operate the fire protection systems they have in place, how to train their employees and contractors to interact with them, and what not to do to cause false alarms or accidental discharges of a suppression system. Facility managers need to have written procedures for their systems and contractors servicing those systems should be able to help provide them if there are none.
- fire inspectors and plans examiners that are reviewing these occupancies, should know whether NFPA 75 has been applied or not, and the installation standards for the chosen fire protection systems. Most buildings are not data centers and the specialized systems that get installed can be rare in some jurisdictions. It is really great when a fire inspection department is big enough they can turn one person into the “special hazards” guy and he can review all those systems.
I have learned a lot from reading manufacturer white pages and from the Fire Suppression Systems Association resources. The special hazards industry is small and much of the institutional knowledge that gets handed down to the next generation is documented through the FSSA and certain manufacturers.