MED’s Hangar Fire Protection TCX is in demand

Middle East District
Published May 11, 2011
Dave Miller oversees a fire protection HEF drop test at a March Air Reserve Base C-17 hangar in California. The HEF expands to fill large enclosed spaces to suffocate fire. Middle East District photo by Kristin Hoelen.

WINCHESTER, Va. -- “When a project meets the requirements of fire codes and standards, we can pretty accurately predict the outcome of a fire event,” said Dave Miller, a fire protection engineer (FPE) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Middle East District. “The better our code compliance, the higher the degree of accuracy of that prediction; the lesser our code compliance, the more unpredictable that outcome becomes.”

MED is home to the Technical Center of Expertise (TCX) for Hangar Fire Protection that provides FPE assistance throughout the country and the world through design and construction of fire protection systems, and participation in acceptance tests for aircraft hangars. The TCX provides services to the Army Corps of Engineers, Air Force, Army, Air Reserve, and the Department of Homeland Security.

MED, then known as Middle East/Africa Projects Office (MEAPO), was designated as the TCX in about 1989. It all started when Ravi Grewal, chief of mechanical engineering at the time, received a call from USACE headquarters requesting assistance in trouble shooting a fire protection (FP) system in a hangar at Shemya Island, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Ed Lockwood, then the only FPE at MEAPO, accepted the challenge to help resolve the issue.

Following Lockwood’s impressive performance and the completion of an in-depth report on his findings and recommendations, USACE, at the request of the Air Force, decided to set up a TCX at MEAPO. Lockwood was assigned as the lead FPE for the newly established TCX.

In the beginning, USACE headquarters provided all TCX funding, and FPEs were available when and if other USACE districts or the Air Force needed technical assistance and advice on FP systems in hangars. It was not until 2002, however, when the Air Force published the Engineering Technical Letter 02-15: Fire Protection Engineering Criteria – New Aircraft Facilities. This document provided the criteria for fire protection of aircraft and facilities in the event of a fire caused by a fuel spill, and mandated that the TCX not only review all Air Force hangar designs, but also participate in FP systems testing. This requirement significantly increased the TCX workload. At present, the TCX is providing support for more than 20 hangars at 11 air bases around the globe.

K.C. Kochhar, who has been working at MED for about 15 years, is the lead FPE for the TCX, and is the point of contact for customers. He is involved in all TCX projects, including requests for reimbursable funding requirements. Denise Bauer, a program analyst, provides support to Kochhar on financial issues. In the past, Daryl Puffinburger and Debra Belford have also provided financial support. Often, due to workload, Kochhar requests assistance from the other MED FPEs: Dave Miller, Greg Michaels and Rick Dipert. 

A major part of the TCX responsibilities include witnessing final acceptance tests and reviewing preliminary and final test reports to ensure the hangar’s FP systems are installed and operate as designed. Recently, Michaels and Miller traveled to March Air Reserve Base in California to inspect a C-17 maintenance hangar – a project that has been ongoing since 2006. The hangar was a pre-existing structure, previously used for maintaining the 452nd Air Mobility Wing’s C-141 aircraft, that was being refitted for fire protection systems. It also had an attached administrative facility that required a separate fire protection system.

“Aircraft hangars pose a unique and sometimes challenging set of concerns to the fire protection engineers involved in their design, installation, and acceptance testing,” said Michaels.

For five days, Michaels and Miller met with contractors, fire chiefs from the base fire department, and military officials to set up schedules, review contracts, and to run tests on the facility’s fire protection systems.

On the first day of testing, the team conducted functional tests for the manual fire alarm devices and their circuitry throughout the hangar complex. They received a report from the base’s central fire monitoring station to make sure they operated and reported as intended. As part of the inspection, they also tested duct smoke detectors, sound decibel levels, tampers in the control room, and made sure fire alarm lights and the high expansion foam (HEF) lights were synchronized with one another. Readings for each test were taken before, during, and after each system was examined.

On the second day, the group ran a water-only flow test to verify actual pressures with calculated pressures.

On the final day of testing, the fire protection team and a few base officials gathered in the hangar to watch as the HEF test was performed. The HEF systems ran for two minutes and filled the hangar with foam approximately ten feet high.

According to Miller, many necessary precautions are taken when performing the tests. It is all part of an effort to fully prepare the system in the case of an actual fire situation, which could save lives and valuable equipment.

“These systems are set up for minimal human intervention to keep someone from stopping the system from deploying the HEF,” said Miller. “Someone may argue that the foam costs money, but when you consider that the planes in the hangars cost millions, the foam is pennies in comparison. If the fire systems and foam can save lives and equipment, it is worth every cent.”

Before departing, Michaels and Miller met with the officer-in-charge of construction at March ARB to review the after-action reports of the tests. They also discussed a second hangar on the base that the team will soon be inspecting in the same manner.

The fire protection engineers at MED are not at a loss for work throughout the world. Miller is now in Afghanistan inspecting the construction and witnessing final acceptance tests of FP systems at 10 hangars in Kandahar. FPE expertise is constantly in demand.

“A customer may either overlook the fire protection requirements in their facilities or plainly say that they don’t have funds available to do it. Oftentimes, we also hear that they never had fire problems in the past, and ask why they have to spend money to install a system that may never be used,” said Grewal. “But, it may need long discussions and convincing that the facility designs need to comply with the codes, and the cost of the FP systems is a small price to pay to protect equipment and life in the facilities.”

“The bottom line is the quality in design and construction of aircraft hangar fire protection has considerably improved since the inception of TCX. We incorporate ‘lessons learned’ on a continual basis,” said Kochhar. “There is a considerable difference between aircraft hangar fire protection and simpler designs, such as barracks or commercial buildings. Our number one challenge in continuing to improve the quality … is to change the common perception that there is a conflict between quality and schedule. Our goal is to convince stakeholders that quality does not cost, it pays. We do that by educating the team, and with perseverance, persistence, and lots of patience.”