Americans have reiterated several versions of the NASA space pen story for years. The story claimed that NASA spent millions of dollars developing an “astronaut pen” which would work in outer space while the Soviets solved the same problem by using pencils. Fortunately, the story isn’t true, but it does highlight a valid lesson: we sometimes spend a great deal of time, effort, and money creating “high-tech” solutions to problems when a simple solution is right in front of us. In the fire safety industry, Fire Protection Engineers call upon their engineering expertise and interpersonal skills to find the most affordable solution for clients.

Tunnel Vision

Insurance underwriters (IU’s) are pretty good at identifying fire safety risks. A few years ago, a client approached us regarding the expensive solution their IU had recommended in order to maintain coverage. The IU had correctly determined that the current storage in the warehouse posed a fire risk that the facility’s sprinkler system could not adequately manage. To overcome the fire risk, he recommended a new sprinkler system and a larger fire pump at a cost of roughly $250,000.

The Investigation

After discussing the current storage situation with the warehouse operator, Harrington Group’s fire protection engineers found an alternative storage situation that could eliminate the identified fire risk. Instead of completely redoing the sprinkler system, an alternative storage and rack layout would reduce the fire risk to a level that the existing sprinkler and water supply systems could adequately manage. The client’s needs were completely satisfied in terms of storage capacity and efficiency. After negotiating the acceptance of the alternative solution with the IU, they rescinded their recommendation and the client saved $250,000.

Common Threads

An underwriter’s job is to identify fire risks and recommend prescriptive solutions condoned by their superiors. Investigating a building as a stagnant structure with fire risks that need to be combated with a limited set of solutions can leave affordable alternative solutions overlooked. At best, the canned solutions are correctly applied and no alternatives are recommended. At worst, companies can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fire risk that could have been solved at a fraction of the cost. A fire protection engineer’s goal is to look at all of the possible solutions and find the most reasonable one that provides both safety and cost efficiency.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.