Underwriters Laboratories (UL), USA is a global independent safety science company with more than a century of expertise in innovating safety solutions and promoting safe living and working environments. ULcertifies, validates tests, inspects, audits and offers expertise across many industries. At the recently concluded 5th annual Fire Advisory council (FAC) in Mumbai, August.W.Schaeffer, Senior Vice President and Public Safety Officer at UL, USA and R.A.Venkitachalam, Vice President, Public Safety Mission, India spoke to Buildotech on some critical aspects of Fire Safety in India.
Factors affecting the fire safety in buildings and awareness in India
Schaeffer: I have been coming to India since 1995 and we started our operations here in 1987 from Bangalore. There has been a tremendous change in both the infrastructure development and building construction techniques across the country. The trend of green buildings has introduced different type of concerns for both the owners and authorities. For example, solar panels on roof for power generation are the most important feature of any green building. Though beneficial from energy perspective, the panels are high voltage product on roof with small clearance and thereby present an imminent danger of electrocution to the firefighters and concerns for access & evacuation for occupants in case of fire. Other safety apprehensions are the trapping of chemicals emitted by interior furniture and furnishings in green certified buildings as they are designed to be air-tight to preserve energy. In terms of awareness, the interest in FAC confirms the heightened understanding among the professional of safety in general and fire safety in particular in India.
Venkitachalam: India presents complex challenges as the urban environment differs not only across the cities but within a given city as well. In terms of fire safety, new developed areas fare much better than older parts of the city such as Old Delhi or Fort area in Mumbai. Newly constructed buildings are more safety compliant due to obvious reasons and it’s the older buildings that need to be upgraded. In new buildings, the materials of construction have changed as they are being constructed to be green. The new materials impact IAQ, fire safety & other properties in a different way presenting newer challenges. India has most million sqft of area under green construction and architects dilemma is to meet green standards and LEED ratings on one hand and to achieve highest safety standards on other hand without compromising on either. For instance, to increase insulation, the designer may have to compromise on the natural ventilation in the building. The overalll awareness is going up and preparedness of the fire brigades is getting better but more needs to be done. Having said that, taking in cognizant the size & diversity of country like India one, cannot expect change overnight and it has to be gradual.
Need for upgradation of fire safety standards and building codes
Schaeffer: The building codes and standards have to change with the changing construction techniques. About twenty years back, buildings used different materials, today building interiors involve more synthetic materials which behave in a different way, can catch fire easily and may afford less escape time. So, firefighters too have to react in a different way for which the building codes need to upgrade accordingly to reflect these changes. For example, in USA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee comprisng academicians, manufacturers, certification companies etc. meets every three years and discusses the changes required in the standards. As a matter of fact, safety is a process and is not just about certification or national building code. It should also include enforcement and identifying of gaps. Best of the safety standards are useless if buildings are not checked regularly for compliance.
Venkitachalam: We see two types of standards and codes at work in Indian market. One is the international standards (like NFPA in Delhi metro and new airport construction) used in buildings made for international companies that have to be constructed as per the global specifications followed by the company elsewhere. Second is the national building code by Indian bureau of standards followed in general by Indian designers and developers which was recently revised & published. Though the Indian standards are advanced and keeping pace with the new requirements but what is lacking is their stringent implementation. Also, the codes can be made “ocupancy type” specific like for hospitals, schools etc. to make them more efficient and take them to the next level. To implement strong safety standards, there has to be regulatory push as well as user pull. National Building Code is the regulatory push but the user pull has to come from occupants and users awareness of what to expect from the building and demanding of their rights.
Role of UL in India
Schaeffer: UL is a safety company which started in Chicago, USA with developing standards for electrical products, fire related products and conducting safety inspections. So safety is the foundation of the UL. We apply modern test methods and analyses and work with regulatory authorities, manufacturers, insurers, retailers and other partners in the country. Earlier Indian companies would send their products to our laboratory in the US for certifications to make them readily acceptable in global markets. As UL interest in India grew, we set up a laboratory & research facility in Bangalore to service clients in India locally. Going a step further, we have implemented “UL India for India” to develop safety unique to this market. We are developing standards that would be uniform across industries to offer basis for environmental claims. One of our goals is advanced safety research. In India at IIT Gandhinagar, we are conducting research on solar panels performance under harsh conditions. Each year, we sponsor fire safety challenge where team of students from Indian technology institutes compete to develop best recommendatins and the two top teams are then invited to UL lab in Chicago. Beyond IIT, we are also reaching to school students. UL is conducting an interactive exhibition at Visvesvaraya University in Bangalore for children to educte and help them learn safe practices. Forums like FAC India that includes experts from India & US is a sounding board for UL to know the new challenges and identify how UL can meet those India specific challenges.
Venkitachalam: Safety challenges are common worldwide but living style and safety applications differ from country to country. When it comes to fires, research in fire prevention is most important. One of our clients has developed a product to prevent kitchen fires. This UL listed product detects gas leakage in air and shuts the gas valve off. Second example is the sponsored research of IIT Gandhinagar students which is focused on detecting fire when deep frying is going on. By the very nature of our services, to some industries we provide direct services and some indirectly. For example, Hotels inspection and safety audit is an indirect service. Whereas, commissioning monitoring, production monitoring and design planning for a photovoltic power plant is a direct service. We are also working with Bureaue of Indian Standards (BIS) that sends products to our test lab for certifications. Some of UL’s clients include Delhi Metro, Honeywell and Prestige to whom we provide fire safety auditing and inspection services. In 1997, UL entered into a partnership with leading Indian fire protection bodies to establish the Indian Fire Advisory Council (FAC). At the end of each council meet, we publish a white paper sent to ministries and fire departmnts of the states to reach out to them and help them discuss common problems and setup recommendations. UL is working closly with fire safety community in India like retired fire chief of Delhi, Fire chief of Mumbai etc to share a broad range of topics and achieve a commonality of thinking. Regular and consistent data on fire accidents is required in India to figure out causes of fire. UL facilitates the authorities in doing so. Our approach in India is – ‘In India for India’. It is important for us to understand local challenges and offer relevant tailor made solutions for Indian society by utilizing our international exposure as a global company.
Brief on the latest research by UL
Schaeffer: A few years ago, UL did smoke study to understand the very nature of smoke and how it is different now than tewnty years back. The composition of smoke generated today has altered as the materials used in building construction have changed. Thus, UL is revising smoke alarm standards to make them sensitive and detect new kinds of smokes and respond in accordance. Another area of research is Lithium ion batteries used nowadays in phones, electrical automibiles, appliances and various other products. We are conducting advanced research in energy storage to improve standards of these batteries to make them safer to use. In addition, some of the research we are doing is specifically for fire fighters like techniques, protection etc.