Are We There Yet?

Pandemic brings a new normal to FM Approvals

By early March, 2020, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease had spread to 110 countries and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). With the growing awareness of the extreme contagiousness of the new virus, travel restrictions were rapidly imposed worldwide.   

On March 16th, FM Approvals announced the shutdown of all facilities worldwide, including the 1,500-acre Research Campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island, USA and laboratories in Norwood, Massachusetts, USA. Laboratory testing, except for long term environmental testing, was stopped, audits were suspended globally and staff adapted to working from home. 

FM Approvals and its customers faced a new reality in which personal contact and close association posed a danger to health and welfare. In certain jurisdictions, only manufacturers deemed essential were allowed to operate, albeit under new protective measures and restrictions. 

“These are truly unprecedented times,” notes Rich Ferron, FM Approvals chief operating officer. “It has been a tremendous hardship for our customers as we transitioned to working remotely and delivering what services we could without our labs functioning and with our staff unable to travel.” 

When the Research Campus laboratories reopened two and half months later on June 1, FM Approvals was ready to make up for lost time. The regular laboratory staff was supplemented with FM Approvals engineers to extend the laboratory operating hours, rather than the usual single shift. Running more tests per day enabled the laboratories to catch up on the testing backlog very quickly. 

Throughout the summer of 2020, FM Approvals engineers and staff developed new ways to provide a near-normal level of services, including remote product sampling, remote witnessing of tests at customer locations, remote streaming tests from FM Approvals laboratories and remote auditing.

As of October, FM Approvals has:

  • Streamed hundreds of tests from FM Approvals laboratories to customers
  • Witnessed nearly a thousand tests at manufacturers’ facilities during hundreds of remote sessions
  • Remotely witnessed the production of product samples to be sent to FM Approvals and
  • Conducted thousands of remote audits.  

Here’s a look at how we did this. 

Test streaming

FM Approvals conducts thousands of individual certification tests each year to help customers fulfill the requirements of Approval Standards. Many times, customers request to witness the testing of their products at FM Approvals laboratories in Norwood, Massachusetts, and at the Research Campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island. This has not been possible during the pandemic since the facilities have been closed to visitors, so a remote option was offered to customers. 

“When it comes to roofing systems and wall sections, for instance, these must be constructed at our laboratory in order to perform large-scale tests on them,” explains Phil Smith, FM Approvals vice president and manager of the Building Materials group. “Typically, roofing manufacturers will witness the construction and testing their roof system for a 12 by 24 foot (3.66 x 7.3 m) wind uplift test or full-scale fire test, for instance, with the assistance of our laboratory staff. That hasn’t been possible during the pandemic.” 

As an alternative, FM Approvals’ laboratory staff have built roof and wall sections with customers watching via multiple live cameras. Customer representatives are able to ask questions and interact with the FM Approvals staff during the construction process. The same streaming technology is also used to allow customers to view their tests as well.

One of the first roofing manufacturers to take advantage of remote test streaming from the FM Approvals laboratories was Firestone Building Products (FSBP), based in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. 

“Initially, we thought the virtual environment would last maybe a month or so and not really impact our relationship with FM Approvals,” begins Jennifer O’Neal, Firestone Building Products senior manager of codes and field engineering. “Maybe it would give us a chance to continue to review and evaluate our processes—little did we know!”

During a recent certification program for a new roofing membrane product, O’Neal points out that she believes the company actually saved time with the virtual certification process at FM Approvals. “We work with a lot of certification agencies. In this context, FM Approvals showed a high level of comfort with the virtual evaluation process. I think we’ve gained some efficiency at both ends through the virtual evaluation process by eliminating travel and simplified scheduling.”

The remote testing program for a roofing or wall assembly begins with a virtual preconstruction meeting. “It can be very uncomfortable for long-time engineers to relinquish that hands-on verification of sample fabrication and testing—the preconstruction meeting really helps overcome those obstacles,” O’Neal continues. “During the preconstruction meeting, our FM Approvals engineer works with FSBP to make sure all of the materials are appropriate, accounted for and answers any questions.”

O’Neal adds, “I feel comfortable with this new process and the fact that FM Approvals has mapped out the steps very clearly. I do feel this will be something that will persist long-term in our industry and that going forward we have a very good business partner in FM Approvals. I think we’re in the middle of the new normal.” 

Remote testing

Even before the pandemic hit, testing required as part of an FM Approvals certification program was sometimes best performed at a customer’s facility. Very large, unusual or complex equipment was tested using customer equipment, but witnessed in person by an FM Approvals engineer. That was before...COVID. 

As manufacturers slowly began to reopen some plants with full or partial staffing, many customers have worked with FM Approvals to establish virtual pathways to continue or initiate certification programs. 

One type of fire protection equipment that is typically large and cumbersome to transport are fire pump systems. A fire pump is a vital part of a fire protection system’s water supply. There are many types of fire pumps, including horizontal split case, vertical split, vertical inline, vertical turbine and end suction. 

FM Approvals engineers usually visit a manufacturer’s location to witness the test of a fire pump system. These systems have multiple valves, gauges, a water source, electricity, and many other connections. 

According to Emily Tacopina, an engineer for the FM Approvals Fire Protection group, “About mid-June, we were approached by a company that wanted to know if there was a way we could remotely test their pump, which was located at their plant in Mexico. I broke down all the steps we go through when we witness fire pump testing at a remote location, including all the camera views we would need. Within a couple of weeks, that remote testing guideline was adapted for other remote testing, I’m proud to say.” 

She notes, “I know many of my coworkers have also done a lot of pump testing. Obviously, testing remotely is different, but in many ways there are some advantages.” 

Thanks to the new remote witnessing protocol, FM Approvals is able to accommodate customers in any region or time zone. “We may have a request for a one-day test for a piece of large equipment located in Dubai,” Tacopina adds. “For example, I have a first-time customer right now in South America. Once that customer completes their initial audit with the FM Approvals auditing organization, we will do a remote preliminary test and work with the company to figure out the best way to test their product.” 

All FM Approvals testing groups are also relying on FM Approvals engineers based around the world to help alleviate the time zone differences. Engineers in Europe, Asia-Pacific, China, and South America assist with test witnessing and other duties. In many cases, they are able to accommodate customers during their normal business hours.

FM Approvals electrical systems group has a long history of remote test witnessing, particularly for hazardous location testing in accordance with the IECEx scheme. “Remote or virtual tests for many types of products are a major convenience for our customers, particularly during these challenging times,” notes Jim Marquedant, vice president and manager of the electrical systems group. “In our group, we have been doing it for more than 10 years, which may surprise some. It’s part of the IECEx scheme operational guidelines.” 

The IECEx Operational Document, IECEx OD 024, notes that there are certain situations that may require testing to be done at a facility other than the Ex Testing Laboratory—FM Approvals in this case, including: 

  • Some manufacturers and end users who use the IECEx Certified Equipment scheme have the capability in terms of personnel, facilities and equipment to conduct part of or all the tests required by a given standard within the scope of the IECEx system. 
  • The size of the product to be tested is too large to bring to and handle at the ExTL premises (e.g., a large electric generator or motor).
  • The product configuration requires it to be tested as part of an installation located at the end user site. 

“There are certain tests and standards that we certify to that require it be done by us,” Marquedant says. “Anything that requires special equipment, such as heat detectors that need to undergo response time index (RTI) testing. The RTI apparatus is a special heat tunnel designed by FM Global Research many years ago. Another type of testing we need to do here is explosion suppression and explosion venting systems.” 

Some of the tests that were always physically witnessed in the past by an FM Approvals representative were foam fire suppression and clean agent fire protection systems. “We’re doing some of those via remote video witnessing during the pandemic. Our staff has been very productive working remotely. The tools we have today allow us to collaborate with anyone in the world at any time. Like a lot of companies, the pandemic crisis has advanced our plans as they pertain to remote work.” 

Remote sampling

When it comes to the performance of FM Approved products, even slight deviations in formulation or construction can have consequences. For instance, many roofing membranes and foam insulations depend on certain additives to enhance fire resistance. If the percentage of fire-retardant additive used varies for any reason, the fire performance of that product could be adversely impacted. 

In order to help verify the chemical composition of products under consideration for certification or re-verify products as part of recurring surveillance audits, FM Approvals collects and tests samples of existing FM Approved roofing membranes and other products. 

During the pandemic, FM Approvals has continued to collect these product samples on a remote basis. “When it comes to certain formulated products and materials, ordinarily it would be an FM Approvals engineer who would witness the production of that sample,” explains Rich Ferron. “Now, when we need to collect a sample, the customer does it for us while we observe via video and we note where they signed it so when the sample arrives at the Research Campus, we can review the video and match it to the signature. The feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive.” 

Remote auditing

The product-focused and quality-based surveillance audit is not only a critical requirement of all FM Approvals certification programs, it provides independent verification that a manufacturer has established robust and effectively-managed processes to ensure continual compliance in product production. The audit process helps ensure that FM Approved products continue to meet all the requirements of the test standard or specification.  

Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, few manufacturers allow outside visitors into their facilities. In addition, FM Approvals has limited the travel of its employees to only the most essential trips.  

Following a proof of concept in which a number of remote audits were conducted as a test, the FM Approvals auditing team began a global training program. By early August, hundreds of FM Approvals auditors around the world began scheduling and conducting remote audits with customers. 

“We focused even more than usual on critical drawings and documentation control,” Bob Lovell, vice president and manager of auditing and quality assurance. “We need to be notified of any changes made to critical documents. We review the versions we have against the current documents to identify any inconsistencies. Our auditors work with each customer location to examine the FM Approved products, procedures, processes, quality systems and records to ensure they are in conformance.” 

The FM Approvals auditors are also paying particular attention to open non-conformances. “The travel we are not having to do has freed up time for our auditors to spend more time helping customers clear up old non-conformances,” Lovell notes. In fact, from March to September, the number of open non-conformances has been reduced by 24 percent. 

Prior to the remote audit, the auditor receives all current documents that are related to a manufacturer’s FM Approved product. During the audit, the auditor conducts a live video call with the customer via whichever system the customer prefers.   

During the remote video conference, the auditor may request that the manufacturer representative show the auditor various areas, processes or equipment. 

According to Lovell, the number of remote audits has decreased from about 70 percent in August to about 40 percent remote today. The balance is conducted via in-person audits. “We designed our remote auditing program to adhere materially to our guidelines. We also didn’t want to inconvenience our manufacturers more than we had to. Customers are all having to deal with a lot of extra issues right now and we do not want to add to that.” 

Final thought

FM Approvals engineer Emily Tacopina perhaps said it best when she noted: “It’s been an adventure.”