‘Most companies don’t like to talk about their failures, but you can’t develop new technology without them because failures are an important part of the process,’ said Tristan Mackintosh, founder and chief executive officer of Safespill. ‘Failures are windows of opportunity. That was certainly the case during our development of the Safespill system, which was a nine-year exercise of trial and error.’
The first very basic prototype was built in 2012, and the first fire tests were conducted at a fire field outside of Houston. Once the proof of concept was validated, Safespill raised capital to fund system testing in a more sophisticated way and build a facility to fire test indoors.
A typical test cycle started with a small, ignited flow rate of a specific fuel – gasoline, heptane or kerosene – and kept testing until failure. Imagine flowing 40 litres per minute (10 GPM) of burning gasoline on the test floor for five minutes. When that test was successful, the flow rate was increased until the prototype showed signs of failure or when the test pumps maxed out. Another test scenario started with a 1,000L (275 gal) composite intermediate bulk container (IBC) that was 25% full of diesel. This test was repeated at 50% and 100% diesel levels, and then moved to testing with more-flammable kerosene. Testing was conducted at the same 25%, 50% and 100% levels, and then shifted to gasoline.
‘Safespill knows the exact limits of the system because our testing has pushed it beyond the limits,’ said Mackintosh. ‘This has meant some fire tests have had to be extinguished with AFFF when the fires got out of control. On one unfortunate occasion, our test facility burned to the ground.’
Testing was meticulously documented on terabytes of GoPro videos that recorded fire tests from many different angles. It was through a process of trial and error that Safespill learned fire protection the hard way, ultimately giving the company a tremendous respect for fire and the fire protection engineering discipline.
As Mackintosh sees it, ‘Playing with fire is fun… until you witness it first-hand… feel the heat on your face standing 50 feet away… when a 20-square-foot pool fire quickly escalates 2,400% to 500 square feet. The exponential growth in energy released during a fire is impossible to truly appreciate in a graph or 3D model. After a fire test didn’t go as expected, we would always say, ‘This is why we test.’ That mentality was the basis for learning from the test, improving the system and testing again.’
Improvements to the Safespill system continued to the point it could handle any realistic Class B fire in aircraft hangars or IBC storage applications.
Joining fire protection and environmental protection
Safespill deals with both fire protection engineers and environmental engineers. As their names imply, one focuses on the causes of fires and how design and architecture influence the prevention and suppression of fires, and the other focuses on environmental issues and plans to decrease their effects on the environment.
‘It’s understandable why fire protection and environmental protection haven’t always been aligned given the accidental discharges that have plagued the aircraft hangar industry in particular, releasing thousands of gallons of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) into the environment,’ observed Mackintosh.
By virtue of their respective professions, this creates tension.
‘It’s safe to assume that fire protection engineers most certainly care about the environment, but when their only choice is AFFF to put out Class B fires quickly, the pollution effect becomes a necessary evil,’ added Mackintosh. ‘And they cannot risk lives or allow billions of dollars of aircraft in a hangar to go up in flames and be instantly doomed to the scrapyard to prevent pollution to the environment.’
To the benefit of both disciplines, the Safespill system bridges the gap between superior fire protection and superior environmental protection by eliminating the need for AFFF and PFAS, and it also prevents any spilled flammable liquid from ending up in the environment. Here’s how: spilled liquid is drained through the hollow aluminium floor and pumped to a containment/holding tank as part of the system. Mackintosh points to this holistic approach as the cornerstone for Safespill’s mission to transition the world to environmentally safe fire protection.
The military and NFPA 409 adoption
The US Armed Forces approached Safespill in 2019 to determine whether this system could be an alternative for AFFF and high expansion foam in aircraft hangars. There was growing evidence that PFAS was harmful to both people’s health and the environment. Congressional questions were being asked, and fire protection engineers saw the writing on the wall for an eventual ban on PFAS use in the military.
In May 2019, when visiting Safespill’s office, military fire protection engineers saw with their own eyes just how far the Safespill system had come since a presentation to the NFPA 409 Technical Committee in 2015. The engineers were highly impressed and asked Safespill to perform a dropped wing tank test. In a nutshell, an external fuel tank on a fighter jet can be jettisoned mid-air to increase manoeuvrability during a dog fight. A scenario fire protection engineers prepare for is when a jet is in the hangar, and in case of human error or mechanical failure, these tanks could drop on the hangar floor.
‘Considering these tanks are thin-skin aluminium shells, they could crack open like an egg, releasing large amounts of fuel on the hangar floor within seconds,’ said Mackintosh. ‘The military conducted fire tests in the ’80s to test AFFF performance against halon when that system was phased out as a fire protection system. If Safespill could prove its system’s performance, it would build a pretty strong case as an equivalent fire protection system for Class B fires in hangars.’
A pivotal moment
In September 2019, Safespill was ready to demonstrate its fire test and invited the Air Force, Navy, Army and several fire protection engineers of defence contractors that operated a large number of hangars, many of whom were also on the NFPA 409 Technical Committee, Standard on Aircraft Hangars.
The demonstration was conducted on a 400ft2 floor, where details about how the system works were explained. A steel trash hopper was full of 165 gallons of JP-4, an aviation jet fuel comprised of 66% kerosene and 33% gasoline, that could be emptied on the floor in a controlled way via a winch. Everyone was instructed to step back 40ft before an on-site fireman ignited the fuel in the hopper, and the winch was released, dumping all the fuel on the floor. Everyone witnessed first-hand that the fire was controlled instantly and was completely extinguished within 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Here’s where things got even more interesting. It was a pivotal moment.
After a fireman verified that the fire was out, guests came back on the test floor and saw for themselves that the system was totally intact and cool to the touch where just seconds before the burning fuel was flowing. Safespill demonstrated that it had nothing to hide and that the system’s performance speaks for itself.
‘As you can imagine, many of the fire protection engineers in attendance were blown away,’ reflected Mackintosh. ‘For several guests at the demonstration, it was the first time they had experienced not only a fire test from that close but also were able to do a complete before and after walk-through.’
Indeed, this was the pivotal moment in which both the military and commercial hangar industry became seriously interested in the Safespill system. Today, Safespill has multiple military installations in use for the United States Armed Forces and will be extending its offering to other NATO militaries in 2023.
According to insurance carriers, environmental liability is becoming a much bigger factor than it was several years ago. Additionally, aircraft insurance underwriters are increasingly refusing to cover damage from firefighting foam accidental discharges. Safespill technology is now accepted in the 2022 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 409 Standard on Aircraft Hangars, favourably positioning Safespill to gain traction in the commercial hangar industry.
Rooted in a serious mission to transition the world to environmentally safe fire protection, Safespill has long-term plans to expand into Europe and other regions beyond the United States.
‘The United States military, with bases all over the world, is basically training us to execute projects overseas, which is driving organization growth and geographic expansion,’ added Mackintosh. ‘Whether Safespill sends its system in 40ft shipping containers to a military base in Guam or to a hangar in the United Kingdom, the process is not all that different, and standardization is key. The nominal dimensions of the parts in our system are based on the metric system, and we aim to use pumps, sensors and valves that have Factory Mutual (FM) Approval and are also available oversees, making it easier to work with local stakeholders.’
Credibility built on confidence and humility
‘Safespill today represents a system that can be recommended confidently by military fire protection engineers and other fire protection professionals as a valuable, proven solution for both fire protection and environmental protection,’ concluded Mackintosh.
Safespill’s respect for fire along a long, humbling journey of turning failures into trial-and-error windows of opportunity has built credibility for its holistic approach and proprietary innovative system to environmentally safe fire protection.
For more information, go to www.safespill.com