Staying safe

Christoph Aebischer discusses integrated protection for power plants

Fire detection and protection systems are needed to prevent severe disruption to power operations. (GETTY IMAGES)
Fire detection and protection systems are needed to prevent severe disruption to power operations. (GETTY IMAGES)

Despite worldwide concern about the environmental impact of traditional power plants, demand for energy continues to grow in line with industrial development and population growth.

As developing countries seek to fuel their economic growth, global demand is expected to increase by 30 percent by the year 2040 over that of 2010.

No two power plants are the same, but all have one thing in common: operational success is seen to be dependent upon the ability to manage risks and provide continuity of supply.

Safeguarding power facilities against the diversity of internal and external safety and security threats calls for an integrated risk management strategy.

Most recently, no region has experienced a greater boom in demand for energy than the Middle East, where the region’s rapid change is a key driver in its current push to maximise efficiency and to pursue sustainable energy goals.

The Lower Gulf Region, comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Yemen, is continuing to invest heavily in critical infrastructure during a challenging time for the power industry, as producers and consumers alike re-think the ways in which energy is produced and used.

Against a background of change in political circumstance and global megatrends such as urbanisation, growing as well as ageing population and climate change, the region is seeking to create ways in which a constant, stable and sustainable supply of power is guaranteed to provide optimal conditions for continued social, political and economic development.

No two power plants are the same, but all have one thing in common: operational success is seen to be dependent upon the ability to manage risks and provide continuity of supply. All facilities carry many different operational, security and fire risks that threaten daily production - such as theft, vandalism, equipment failure, fire, leakage of potentially hazardous materials and deliberate attack.

For, however it is caused, any disruption in the power supply, as well as causing massive inconvenience to possibly millions of people, could have a significant economic impact on the area affected. In such a scenario there will also, of course, be the financial losses to the plant operator, as well as the damage to reputation.

Efficiency is obviously key in meeting the challenge of supply continuity. But as well as making the generation, transmission and distribution of energy as efficient as possible, the effective safeguarding of existing facilities is also critical.

At a time when fossil-fuelled power plants face a greater risk of politically motivated attack and when fires represent 50% of actual losses sustained, safety and security are more important than ever in keeping the region’s operating plants at maximum continuity.

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Fire protection of plants
Although fires are not exactly an everyday occurrence on these sites, if they pass undetected for any period of time, they can cause substantial damage and severe disruption to the supply of power.

Potential hazards such as large quantities of flammable liquids and materials, combustible dusts and electrical systems are common and heavy power loads or defective equipment can lead to overheating and sparking short circuits. A fire could then break out, typically following a long period of overheating and smouldering.

Cable channels throughout the sites represent a particular hazard in that damage to even a small area of wiring can cause extensive disruption to the whole plant.

All cabling should, of course, be routed away from possible sources of ignition and regular cleaning is important, as cable trays are often installed in hard-to-reach places and combustible dust and matter might otherwise accumulate.

If exposure cannot be avoided, fire retardant cable jackets or coatings or other protective measures can be applied to the cabling.

Modern detectors intended for use within challenging environmental conditions can be installed to provide the very earliest detection of smoke, guaranteeing reliable response in all types of fire.

They offer detection accuracy and rapid notification through signal evaluation, even under the difficult conditions caused by frequent deceptive environmental phenomena such as dust, steam or welding fumes that occur throughout the plant.

Alternatives include optical wide-spectrum detectors, heat detectors, flame detectors, linear smoke detectors and multi-sensor detectors.

The parameter sets can be adapted to the expected types of fires and deceptive phenomena and can be programmed to allow for day and night operation or processes being performed within the vicinity of the detector.

Some are based on a uniform technology platform with standard interfaces – such as BACnet – for the optimum interaction of individual components, including other sensors, alarm devices, control panels and connection networks to ensure reliable operation.

There is also the potential for fire detection systems to link with the video surveillance system to provide visual verification of any alarm situation. Live or recorded images can be used for subsequent clarification of exactly what has happened and how the situation is developing.

Safety personnel can then react appropriately, avoiding false alarms and unnecessary evacuations. In addition to a network of fire detectors and alarm sounders, hard-wired command points and manual extinguishing units should be installed for protection of particularly vulnerable areas.

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Extinguishing systems
For extinguishing purposes, modern extinguishing systems provide solutions for all types of conflagration and can be tailored flexibly to specific site protection requirements.

Thousands of gallons of water can be delivered at a fixed pressure over a period of time to cope with any outbreak suitable for extinguishing by this method. This is typically achieved through fire hydrants strategically located throughout the site – both inside and outside – connected to a large water reserve with back-up connection to the mains water supply.

Gaseous extinguishing systems that utilise innovative discharge technology to produce constant pressure during flooding can be installed in control rooms, transformer stations, computer rooms and other areas containing sensitive or electronic equipment.

Nitrogen is widely used, sometimes in conjunction with a cooling water mist, argon, carbon dioxide or any other means of reducing the amounts of oxygen within the contained area. The gases are chemically inert and used at concentrations that are not harmful to workers.

These widely available, natural gases offer excellent extinguishing properties for the fire Classes A – solids, B – flammable liquids and C – flammable gases.

Argon is also suitable for extinguishing Class D – metal fires. Turbine buildings should be fitted with spray-deluge sprinkler systems capable of delivering thousands of litres of extinguishing agent per minute or a foam-water mix in those areas where oil is used, such as the pump and motor stations.

With systems giving the earliest possible fire detection, alarm notification and the activation of pre-programmed control functions, fast and effective evacuation can also be instigated by today’s integrated solutions.

Pre-defined configurations of modern voice evacuation systems allow the appropriate announcements to be made to workers and visitors on the site in an emergency situation, according to pre-determined, phased evacuation schemes.

Security of power plants
Safeguarding power facilities against the diversity of internal and external security threats calls for an integrated risk management strategy. Effective security systems need to be modular, scalable and adaptable to cope with changing requirements – and able to accommodate large numbers of workers, contractors and visitors.

They need to cover multiple buildings of different usage that are often located far apart, throughout the site. A multi-layered strategy involving all physical and electronic systems from the perimeter to the turbine rooms is the optimum way of keeping facilities as secure as possible.

On such complex sites, the monitoring and surveillance of perimeter fences is crucial. External motion detectors can play a vital role, triggering an alarm as soon as intruders set foot in restricted areas and providing unparalleled detection accuracy when used in combination with video surveillance systems providing visual verification.

Ensuring the integrity of these extensive perimeters used to involve large numbers of security staff, either patrolling or watching video monitors. Integrated intelligent video security solutions, based on a combination of risk-appropriate protective measures, can now assist with accuracy, reliability and shorter response times.

Video sensory analysis – technology able to gather and filter available data to an extent that a single operator can handle and manage all available information without fatigue – allows security personnel to focus on critical situations and supports their decision-making by providing critical information in real time.

Policy-based alarming, object identification, automatic flagging and preventive risk indication can further enhance system efficiency.

For buildings, outbuildings and storage areas across the site, fully integrated access control solutions allow freedom of movement to workers and visitors in a controlled environment.

Provided areas are secured with strong defenses and reliable locks, access control systems can ensure that only people with pre-arranged clearance are given entry to the many restricted areas of the sites. The same applies to access to sensitive data held on the computer systems.

Biometric technologies such as fingerprint, 3D face recognition systems or iris scanning can be used to create an even higher security level for special areas. Plants running multiple satellite buildings will benefit from central management of access rights, allowing authorised personnel to access any building with a single card – with the same card used to realise a ‘time and attendance’ solution.

Technological advances have enabled video surveillance to automatically record when an alarm is generated at any point of entry, in case of forced entry for example. Video cameras and recordings can also be accessed and managed remotely.

Enhanced response to emergencies With the Lower Gulf focusing on meeting the growing demand for power and providing continuity of supply, protecting the region’s critical infrastructure and reliability of supply is at its highest level of importance.

Today, more than ever, with the risks and threats that affect power plants, providing a safety and security solution that integrates different systems into one comprehensive entity is more than just merging equipment and technologies.

It is about putting into practice a design concept to support daily business operations whilst ensuring fast and efficient response to emergency situations. Integrated solutions for fire safety, security, energy and electrical installation protect the entire site, ensuring reliable operation and helping guarantee continuity of supply.

Today’s integrated solutions from leading manufacturers and integrators include equipment monitoring, fire detection, extinguishing, intrusion detection, video surveillance, access control, evacuation, energy management, lighting, building management and comfort systems – along with high-performance risk management systems utilising the very latest, proven technologies.

As well as preventing the likelihood of a safety or security breach, limiting the impact of any incident and improving recovery from it, state-of-the-art safety and security systems improve management of the site on a day-to-day basis.

Importantly, post-incident reporting analysis – a regulatory requirement – provides data analysis should any incident occur, enabling the necessary procedures to be put in place to help prevent it happening again or to have a robust response if it does.

Christoph Aebischer
Christopher Aebischer is head of Fire Safety and Security, Middle East, Africa and APAC, for Siemens Building Technologies. He has worked for Siemens for 16 years, with experience in a range of areas such as Service, Projects and Sales. Previous positions include being head of Siemens Building Technologies in Hong Kong & Macau, and Global Head Region Management Security Solutions.


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