27 December 2018

Kenya: Balls That Fight Fire By Exploding

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It takes billions of shillings to put up development properties, but rarely do they have mechanisms for prevention and mitigation of fires, despite the interventions being a small percentage of the cost of the development.

With disaster response and preparedness in the country wanting, a number of properties have been razed to ashes as fire-fighting departments watch helplessly due to lack of water, inaccessibility, or grounded fire engines. Investors are left to count losses running into billions of shillings.

But fire outbreaks are not only limited to high-end properties. Many fires have been reported in residential homes.

Malfunctioning of electrical appliances, human error or negligence, power surges and unattended to electrical appliances are some of the leading triggers of fires in commercial or residential properties.

FORGOT TO SWITCH OFF

In May, fire gutted a section of Sarit Centre Shopping Mall. Although the inferno was contained within a few minutes, extensive damage had already been done.

More than two years ago, La Miguela Hotel Gardens in Ruaka, Kiambu County, caught fire after a chef forgot to switch off a chips fryer at night, leading to a fire. The hotel lost Sh1.8 million in the process.

The incident triggered the director of the hotel, Mr Jimmy Kuria, to think of looking for affordable, friendly and economical ways of averting similar incidents in future, preferably automatically, without human presence.

After a year or so of researching on the latest fire-fighting technologies through the internet, Mr Kuria and his wife Isabella settled on Elide Fireball technology from Thailand.

It took them a year before they settled on the Thai technology.

"We then went to Thailand with my wife and one of my managers to get demonstrations and training on how it is used," Mr Kuria says.

La Miguela Holdings Managing Director Wanyeki Kago says the fireball has a runner fuse and a pyrotechnic detonator inside it, which explodes once the runner fuse catches fire or comes into contact with flame.

He says that the ball is more effective on initial fires and most of the time where it has been deployed, it has acted even before the flames have gotten out of hand as a result of its capability to explode on its own and within three seconds.

"One of the things that happens with fires is that people wait and call the fireman after they have been unable to put out the fire. By the time the fireman comes, the fire has gotten out of control."

This unique ball comes in handy when it is installed in fire-prone areas like where there is a generator or above an electrical circuit breaker so it can explode on its own if there is a short circuit and smother the flames by use of a dry powder, mono ammonium phosphate, contained in it.

Moreover, the sound of its explosion also acts as a fire alarm as the explosion will alert that there is fire.

The fireball is not coming to replace the existing methods of extinguishing fires, but to complement with a finer and more efficient way. "The building can burn with the cylinder hanging there because it has no explosive device, but the ball will explode, giving you the alarm and also extinguishing any flame that could have progressed into a major inferno," Ms Kago points out.

ANYONE CAN CARRY

Mr Kuria, a diploma in Civil Engineering holder, explains that in a domestic setting, the fireball can be installed above an electrical circuit-breaker or the consumer unit where fire can occur, in the kitchen, in the laundry area, where ironing is usually done, and in the sitting room, where most electric appliances are.

The ball can be used by anyone, a child or an old person, as it is light at only 1.5 kilogrammes and six inches wide in diameter. Anyone can carry and launch it while at a distance, ensuring you are safe from the raging flames.

In contrast, a fire extinguisher cylinder requires training to use and also one has to aim at the base of the fire, exposing the user to toxic fumes and smokes as one need to be close to the fire while using it.

He adds that the outward explosion of the fireball is not concussive as you can explode it while holding it. "The explosion is mild but forceful enough to disperse the dry powder within 10 square metres. For a cylinder, you have to be trained on how to remove the safety pin, aim at the base, and have the energy to carry it".

Mr Kuria states that the fireball can also extinguish Class A fires like flammables from solids like wood, paper; Class B fires from gases; and Class C fires from electrical malfunctions.

It can also work where there is a shortage of water.

In matters cost, a single fireball goes for Sh15,000 and has a lifespan of five years with its efficacy dropping only by 20 per cent in its sixth year.

For a cylinder, the cost is between Sh8,000 and Sh9,000 but has to be refurbished every six months at a cost of between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000 depending on the supplier.

"In five years, the cylinder may have reached Sh20,000 in servicing and so if you look at the compounded cost of servicing and initial cost, it will be more expensive than the fireball."

Mr George Gitau, a fire-fighting consultant attached to the Kiambu County Fire Department, says that most often, people don't give much thought to fires breaking out in their homes, so they lack the necessary fire-fighting equipment that could save properties and lives.

This is despite the fact that many homes are filled with electronics and appliances that can be triggers of fires when they overload electrical outlets.

Dishwashers, dryers, microwaves, refrigerators, toasters are some of the appliances that can cause fire.

In most cases, he says, fires mostly occur around main switches, sound systems, overloaded sockets, fryers, and in the kitchen -- unattended cooking and forgotten immersion heaters, isolated places like the generator area, and where an iron box is used.

RISK ASSESSMENT

Mr Gitau says one should first assess the risk areas or get someone who understands more about fire-related matters to point out the areas.

He points out that after one has done a risk assessment and identified probable fire points, the fireball covers eight to 10 square metres and should be mounted not more than 12 centimetres above the risk area and in a static position for it to work effectively.

"In school, place it where it is visible but make sure the prefect is responsible so that it cannot be removed. Also, have some with the watchmen. In cases of a dorm, it is more about active deployment where you can either roll it to the fire or throw it into the fire."

Once exposed to a naked flame, the ball's fuse, which runs across it on both sides, detonates at 85 degrees via self-ignition.

The exploding ball releases mono-ammonium phosphate, which also displaces oxygen once it gets into the air. Once dispersed, the powder coats whatever was burning.

"A fire triangle has three components: heat, fuel and oxygen. And if you remove one, it goes out. The fireball targets the oxygen. When it explodes, the explosion creates a vacuum by displacing air, meaning that with the oxygen gone, the fire will definitely go off," Mr Gitau says.

According to the fire consultant, the fireball is more effective when the fire is at the incipient stage or at worst at the growth stage where its dry powder phosphate component smothers whatever was burning and chokes it of oxygen before it becomes uncontrollable.

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