High cost of hangar fire codes

 - June 29, 2009, 12:14 PM

If they didn’t already know it, attendees at the NATA FBO Leadership Conference held last month in Chantilly, Va., learned that fire codes set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) can have a huge effect on the cost of building new hangars. They also learned that even more stringent local fire codes can make hangar construction costs prohibitively expensive.

Mike France, NATA’s new manager of regulatory affairs, pointed out that there are currently no specific regulations that govern hangar fire safety. NFPA standards become mandatory only when adopted by a local government authority. In lieu of those standards, some jurisdictions’ fire departments set their own fire safety standards, which are usually stricter than NFPA criteria.

NATA has joined NFPA in helping to update the NFPA 409 standard that covers aircraft hangars. The last revision was in 2004, and NATA is concerned that the new revision will be too costly for hangar builders to implement and offer no additional safety benefit.

Bob Showalter, chairman of Showalter Flying Service in Orlando, in the middle of the Sunshine State of Florida, recently built a new hangar and had to install a fire-suppression system fed by a 40,000-gallon water tank costing $250,000. For some inexplicable reason, the Orlando fire marshal required Showalter to heat the water tank to prevent the water from freezing. Showalter was finally able to persuade the fire marshal that unless another ice age covers the U.S., it would be physically impossible for the water in the tank to freeze, and thus the heater was not needed.

The real problem with both the NFPA standards and rulemaking fire marshals, noted Mercer Dye, president of Mercer Dye Facilities, is that the actual risk to human life of a hangar fire is extraordinarily low, if not nonexistent. Dye researched hangar fires and was able to find a record of hangar fires between 1988 and 2009 provided by an insurance company. The list is not all-inclusive because there is no data-gathering mechanism for hangar fires worldwide, but the information it provides is telling, in that there was not one fatality in any of the 67 fires during that period. While about $386 million worth of aircraft were destroyed, the fact that no one was killed begs the question, why is the industry spending so much money to try to put out fires in hangars?

Showalter noted that if a hangar catches fire and aircraft burn but the fire is put out, no one is going to want to rebuild the damaged aircraft. “Does anybody want half an aircraft rescued from a fire?” he asked.