BY PETER B. LORD
Journal Environment Writer


Despite the spectacular and very public failure of a flame-retardant paint in a fire test last week, companies are coming to Rhode Island to sell similar paints that they insist will make buildings here safer than anywhere in the country.

A company called NoFire Technologies recently won certification from the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review for its NoFire A-18 paints to be used for fire protection.

And representatives for International Fire Resistant Systems, the company whose fire demonstration at Quonset Point literally went up in smoke last week, say they will continue to seek certification for their flame-retardant products.

Other companies are expected too.

The interest in Rhode Island springs from the comprehensive fire regulations passed by the General Assembly in response to The Station fire that killed 100 people last February.

The new code is so strict it pushes Rhode Island ahead of nearly any other state in the country when it comes to fire protection, according to Samuel Gottfried, the chief executive officer of NoFire Technologies.

"Rhode Island is a great state because it's at the forefront when it comes to fire codes," said Gottfried. "Most states are reluctant to upgrade their fire codes. New York City, for instance, is considering an upgrade that wouldn't take effect until 2019."

Specifically, the new code stipulates that places of assembly for up to 150 people don't have to have sprinkler systems, but their walls must be covered with flame-retardant materials. More than 400 businesses fall into that category.

A business can comply by using Sheetrock, according to Thomas B. Coffey, executive director of the fire-safety board. Or, he said, if its walls are wooden or made of some other flammable material, it can use paints that are approved to resist flame spread.

The new law is expected to create a market for companies such as Gottfried's, which until now has sold most of its paints for military and industrial uses.

"Most people don't know these products exist," said Gottfried.

At the same time, he said he was concerned that the fire demonstration put on by his competitors last week would leave the public with the wrong impression.

To market their paint, Firefree 88, the people at International Fire Resistent Systems built two wooden sheds at Quonset Point. They lined both with 1 1/2-inch polyurethane foam much like the material that caused The Station fire to burn so fast.

They painted the inside of one shed with Firefree 88 -- the paint is the newest step in fire technology since sprinklers, they said. They invited reporters and the North Kingstown Fire Department, and then they started small fires in each shed.

The unpainted shed almost immediately erupted into a swirling ball of flame.

For about 90 seconds, the demonstration of the shed coated with flame-resistant paint went well. The fire was confined to a small blaze in the corner.

But then the fire overcame the paint and the shed turned into a fireball.

Gottfried was as horrified as his competitors.

"They learned the hard way that dealing with foam is different," he said.

More importantly, Gottfried said he worried that people would think the paints don't work. They do, he said. His paint has been certified for use by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, as well as in countries around the world.

Gottfried is working with a local contractor who will apply the paints in businesses to ensure the application is done correctly.

"Firefree 88 is manufactured by a company that constantly makes outlandish claims about performance, but with no corroborating documents," Gottfried said. "Their Web site is very long on claims, but short on approvals."

"It is simply outrageous, and a potential public disaster, for this company to claim that its product can replace sprinklers," he added. "Even companies with far more superior products than Firefree 88 do not make such outlandish claims."

The makers of Firefree 88 don't respond to competitors' comments, according to spokesman Jeff Dennard. But he insisted his paint has passed numerous national tests as well.

Dennard acknowledged that the company went too far with its demonstation.

"We went several steps beyond any demonstration or test ever done," he said. "On the other hand, according to the videotape, Firefree 88 did keep the structure from erupting into flames for a couple of minutes -- presumably long enough for sprinklers to have doused the source of the fire if Firefree 88 and sprinklers had been used in tandem."

The makers of Firefree 88 plan to continue seeking state certification for use as a flame retardant in Rhode Island.