Tucson-area high-tech companies posing unfamiliar fire threats

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z 2013-03-25T11:41:37Z Tucson-area high-tech companies posing unfamiliar fire threatsCarli Brosseau Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

High-tech manufacturers are coveted by economic developers for the good jobs they provide, but they pose a special threat: Firefighters often don't know how to put out the chemical blazes they can spark.

Fires in lithium-ion batteries like those Tucson-based Securaplane Technologies helps to make for still-grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners burn very hot, are prone to reignite, and the batteries often spray a highly flammable liquid electrolyte. The unmeasured risks include noxious fumes and contamination of soil when water is used to put the fire out, battery experts said in a 2011 National Fire Protection Association study.

But publicly available data isn't conclusive about whether water or any particular fire suppressant can put out a lithium-ion battery fire. Complicating matters even more: Firms often consider details about their technology proprietary, the NFPA study said.

As a result, flames can quickly rage out of control. A Jan. 7 fire aboard a Dreamliner at Boston's Logan International Airport proved so vexing it took firefighters an hour and 40 minutes to extinguish. Although firefighters in Boston kept trying, often crews have so little success they finally just let the blaze burn itself out - and try to keep it from spreading to neighboring businesses.

The risk is especially high at the tech firms and defense contractors where these batteries are manufactured or tested - precisely the type of companies Tucson hopes to attract to grow its economy.

"With a lot of these emerging technologies, the fire code is really playing catch up," said Capt. Jeff Langejans, who supervises Tucson Fire Department's Fire Prevention Division. "The biggest defense we have against that is to have them install a sprinkler system."

Weakened oversight

Current fire codes liken lithium-ion batteries to more conventional battery types, though experts caution that may not be an adequate parallel.

The NFPA has not yet published firefighting best practices for these technologies. The 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook has an entry on the batteries, but it includes advice the NFPA study shows is not yet substantiated by data.

Other factors, too, have led to weakened local oversight:

• Fire inspectors regularly encounter unfamiliar technologies and complex processes that companies consider a trade secret. Even with monthly training, inspector knowledge can't keep up. Companies also have an incentive to keep costs down, making them reluctant to volunteer information that could lead to more robust - and expensive - safety precautions.

• Fire departments feel political pressure to appear business-friendly. Some require a third-party fire protection engineer to sign off on complicated plans, but others, loath to add to a business's costs and appear obstructive, rely on calls to the state fire marshal or other local departments for expertise.

• Building officials rely on a business's description of its activities to determine its occupancy classification.

In many jurisdictions, businesses are only required to get a certificate of occupancy if they construct a new building or dramatically change the use of an existing one. It is the business's responsibility to check whether a change merits a new classification, but inspectors say few firms actually do that.

• Tight budgets have whittled down the number of inspectors, stretching the time between inspections in many parts of the region to more than 10 years for occupancies deemed low-risk.

• Annexations - which local officials have said are likely to accelerate - can result in properties falling through the cracks. It can take years for inspectors in the new jurisdiction to get around to inspecting transferred properties and records can get lost in the handoff.

Prevention pitfalls

A 2006 fire at Tucson's Securaplane Technologies Inc. was a vivid illustration of high-tech fire danger and the pitfalls of the local prevention system.

A test of a charger system using a single battery led to an inferno that destroyed a 10,000-square-foot building. Temperatures as high as 1,200 degrees made the fire "uncontrollable," records from Golder Ranch Fire District said.

The Securaplane building had no sprinklers, and it was classified as a B, or business, occupancy, indicating a low fire risk.

It was a misclassification for at least some parts of the building, Golder Ranch officials say, looking back. A building can receive different designations for different parts, depending on use.

Records showing how the designation was arrived at are no longer in the files at Rural/Metro Fire Department, which oversaw the building's fire safety until shortly before the blaze.

The building was then annexed into Golder Ranch's jurisdiction, and it hadn't been inspected since. As a result, responding firefighters knew little of what to expect when they arrived on the scene.

The last full inspection had been in 2002 with a walk-through in 2004, Rural/Metro Fire Marshal Willie Treatch said.

He said the company had been cited earlier for minor fire hazards like burned-out exit signs and serious ones like storing combustible items in a hazardous waste area and leaving open special safety cabinets that allow the company to store twice the normal amount of hazardous materials - but must be kept closed.

Another local company dealing in advanced battery technology also operates primarily under a B occupancy, and Tucson Fire officials responsible for inspecting it said they were not aware of the type of work going on there.

Sion Power, which is developing lithium sulfur batteries for electric vehicles, has, however, installed sprinklers in its building at 2900 E. Elvira Road, near the airport.

Parts of the building operate under a storage occupancy, said Ron Boose, the city's building official. Records show it was last inspected in 2009 and no major violations were found.

New protection system

Securaplane is designing a new fire protection system as it prepares a move to new headquarters near the region's tech darlings.

Its new building in Oro Valley's Innovation Park will be nestled among Ventana Medical Systems Inc., Sanofi-Aventis and Oro Valley Hospital, though each has its own industrial-sized pad.

Despite the 2006 fire, whose cause Golder Ranch investigators never pinpointed, the avionics company will face no greater scrutiny than any other business during the plan review process.

Securaplane is the first company to go through the expedited process Oro Valley set up to encourage development of Innovation Park. Both Golder Ranch and the town say fire reviews will be no less stringent than usual.

Its future neighbors did not express concern about Securaplane, but at least one articulated a wish for strong fire protections.

"Our priority is our patients' safety," Cindy Cole, marketing manager at Oro Valley Hospital, wrote in an email. "We work closely with the town of Oro Valley and the fire department to ensure we comply with all fire codes and we would expect any business in our community to do the same."

Securaplane, which has changed ownership since the fire, said it has fire extinguishers on site that exceed fire protection codes and its plans include the latest fire alarm and sprinkler systems required by building codes.

Fiona Greig, a spokeswoman for Meggitt PLC, the U.K.-based aerospace firm that now owns Securaplane, wrote in an email that the new site's developer and Securaplane are working closely with Oro Valley's Planning Committee.

She said the company employs a full-time health, safety and environmental manager and recently participated in the Pima County Local Emergency Planning Committee's Business Education Seminar to remain up to date on regulatory changes.

Relevant staff receive additional safety training regarding lithium battery technology, Greig said.

Golder Ranch records show Securaplane's current location has sprinklers and an unmonitored alarm system.

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at cbrosseau@starnet.com or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau

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