The Transatlantic Middle East District has been home to the Aircraft Hangar Fire Protection Technical Center of Expertise (TCX) since 1989 when the District was known as the Middle East/Africa Project Office, and called MEAPO. The designation followed an inquiry from USACE for assistance with troubleshooting a fire protection system in a hangar in Shemya Island, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. With only two fire protection engineers on staff, MEAPO took on the challenge and helped resolve the issue. In light of the impressive performance, in-depth report and thoughtful recommendations, the Air Force requested USACE set up a TCX at MEAPO.
Now in 2019, the TCX provides fire protection expertise assistance wherever needed in the United States and beyond through design and construction of fire protection systems, and participation in acceptance tests for aircraft hangars. The center, now operating with four full-time fire protection engineers, provides services to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, other U.S. Army organizations, the Air Force, Air Reserve, and Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Coast Guard).
According to Tom Stephenson, the District’s Chief of Building Systems Design Branch, the TCX responds whenever and wherever they are needed. Most recently, one of the fire protection engineers, Rick Dipert, was in Honduras to investigate an existing Army National Guard hangar whose foam extinguishing system was malfunctioning. Before that, the TCX, supported Pacific Ocean Division’s Alaska District with an FMS [foreign military sales] case in Hindan, outside of Deli, India.
“We have done tests in Korea, Germany a couple times, and the Bahamas, from Maine to Hawaii, and everything in between,” Stephenson said. “In the last five years alone, we’ve tested 25 to 30 aircraft hangars. And we’ve inspected more than 30 for the Coast Guard just in the past two years. Currently we’re in Norway testing hangars.”
A major part of the TCX responsibilities includes ensuring all fire protection systems are installed and operate correctly and as designed. Members of the TCX are required to witness Preliminary Acceptance Testing (PAT) and Final Acceptance Testing (FAT) for all devices. This includes smoke detectors, heat detectors, trouble systems, connections, alarm, reporting mechanisms and more.
Another vital area that is inspected is the foam discharge system.
“According to requirements, the silhouette of an aircraft must be covered in foam within 60 seconds of pulling the discharge handle,” said Stephenson. A silhouette of the aircraft stored in a specific hangar will be outlined on the floor and must be covered in less than one minute.
“Further, in less than four minutes, the non-hazardous and non-toxic foam must be at least one meter deep over the entire hangar, but it never takes the full four minutes,” Stephenson said.
“The biggest hazard in an aircraft hangar is not that an aircraft will burst into flames, but that its fuel will. This is why it’s important to get that foam down quickly, to cover the floor, to smother any potential flames. Ninety-nine percent of fires, start on the floor in an aircraft hangar,” he said.
The District’s fire protection engineers are involved with contractor executed PAT and FAT by witnessing the testing. If any of the devices fail to meet the required standards, the contractor has to work on the systems and prepare for a second PAT.
Usually, the PAT is conducted about a month before the FAT. But occasionally, when there’s a particularly short time frame between preliminary testing and Beneficial Occupancy Date, the fire protection engineers will agree to travel to a construction site to witness a PAT/FAT simultaneously before the fire protection engineer leaves the area.
“There are more than 150 years’ of fire protection experience among the fire protection engineers at the District,” said Stephenson. “Each has his own talents, strengths and abilities.”
Dave Miller started on a fire protection path early, joining a local volunteer fire company in his hometown in rural Pennsylvania when he was 14 years old. “That led me an associate degree at the local community college,” he said, “which led to working on the Safety and Security staff at the Allentown State Hospital. Then I became a career fire fighter in Fairfax County, Virginia, and earned by Bachelor of Science in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering at Oklahoma State University.
“I did a stint as a Safety Engineer with Marathon Oil Company in Louisiana, and then on to a position as Fire Protection Engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to Fire Protection Engineer for Boulder Fire Department. Then I moved to the Boise, Idaho Fire Department as Fire Protection Engineering/Battalion Chief and was later promoted to Fire Marshal/Deputy Chief. Then I came to USACE/Middle East District 11 years ago,” Miller said. Traveling and experiencing different parts of the world are among Miller’s favorite parts of his position.
Another fire protection engineer, Greg Michaels said that the actual codes and standards used by a foreign military can be quite different, “but from the time I joined USACE to now, there appears to be a movement toward assimilating what’s used in the United States; at least it seems that’s what our customers want to do.
“I see that going in the right direction,” Michaels said. “They are starting to fully understand what the requirements are and doing it properly. European codes may be preferred or English standards – and both are fine. My focus is to make sure that they follow some standard.”
The district’s four fire protection engineers stay busy and seem to keep a bag packed for testing trips, which take them all over the world and offer experiences and cultures beyond typical while providing a potentially life-saving service for their customers.