Competencies required from the plumber

By Vollie Brink, Pr Eng

The proper installation of all types of piping and piping materials, fittings, and fixtures for water systems is essential.

Why do people wait for a disaster to happen before they react?

This includes domestic cold and hot water, and also piping and fixtures for fire protection and firefighting water systems. You install firewater reticulation piping with fire hose reels and for fire hydrants and even the fire sprinkler system piping, if you are approved to do so.

We recently established a new division at the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE), so the path of the engineer and the plumber now cross that of fire engineering. This is a competency that must be added to the profile of the plumber.

I watched a series of TV programmes on disasters and the question was, “Could it not have been prevented?” In all the disasters, there were ample warning signs over a period of time, but it was ignored by the owners or management. In most cases, it was about money — not appropriate maintenance, ignoring warning signs, and so on — instead of the safety of people.

fire pump systemMost, or all of the disasters could have been prevented if early warning signs had been taken seriously by the authorities, management, or owners, and if minor work, maintenance, or changes had been made timeously. It could have saved many, many lives.

Just one match dropped carelessly in an old escalator that for many years had not been cleaned properly, didn’t just cause a fire, but a disaster and it killed and maimed many people.

A pumping set-up for a fire sprinkler system. Credit: Bravo Fire Systems

In many cases, the authorities had made a rule that the staff must first try to contain the fire and if that fails, only then must they call the fire department. Only after the disaster had occurred did they change the rule to allow the staff to immediately call the fire brigade, even if there is only smoke.

Why do people wait for a disaster to happen before they react?

A culture exists of ignoring signs of imminent or potential danger if there is a cost involved for the owner or management. There is a very old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine”; in this case, it would be “… saves lives”.

Fire engineering places a high priority on the installation of water fire systems such as fire hose reels, hydrants, and sprinklers to fight fires, but not so much emphasis on how to prevent fires. Fires start somewhere with a small or large flame and in many cases, it originates from some or other electrical fixture, wire, or cable.

When I was younger, I once had an after-hours contract to fix the electrical problems in the offices of a large company. The problems were almost entirely related to electrical plugs in which heaters had been connected and the wiring had overheated and burnt. Any of these plugs could have caused a fire and some of the heaters had been left on during the night and over weekends.

We regularly inspect the water systems to fight a fire, but we don’t also check the electrical system from where most fires originate. Or am I wrong? Should we not have a large note on ALL fire hose reels: “CALL THE FIRE BRIGADE IMMEDIATELY”? Should we not have a regulation that all buildings must be inspected and certified by an electrician once a year, as an example? Should we not make people more aware of the dangers of old electrical flex and extensions and multiple plugs? Perhaps a permanent notice on the multiplug that it is only to be used from one 15A plug?

In many large buildings, the escape routes are closed and locked and used as ‘storerooms’. Many old buildings are hazardous environments, waiting for disaster to strike. Is it not necessary perhaps to require an annual certificate of safety (CoS), which must include the electrical installation and gas installation?

The fire hose reel is a ‘first aid tool’ for anybody to use in an emergency, but how many people know that it is dangerous to direct the water on or into an electrical installation? I believe we must concentrate more on how to prevent fires and leave the firefighting to the fire brigade who is thoroughly trained and equipped.

Water is becoming a huge problem and the design and supply of water systems for fire protection and firefighting will have to be reviewed seriously. Fortunately, there are excellent engineers who are wrestling with these challenges and perhaps the future will look different.

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