Imperative steps be taken

Imperative steps be taken

As the size and capacity of major distribution warehouses continue to increase, the inherent fire risks associated with these facilities has also become more pronounced. In addition to the devastation of loss of life reflects Tracey Bellamy, Chief Engineering Officer at Telgian Engineering & Consulting, the economic value associated with just the physical property and contents that are at risk can be staggering not to mention the downstream loss of business continuity that can occur.  

Recent devastating fires in the Ocado warehouse in Hampshire in the UK, the Amazon support warehouse in California and the ammonium nitrate explosion in the warehouse in Beirut all serve as examples of the potential impact of such events. As a result, it is imperative that steps be taken to understand and mitigate that risk. Improvements to fire safety within a warehouse facility can be improved through 5 distinct steps:

Fire prevention procedures

The very best fire is one that does not happen. Enacting aggressive fire prevention practices are aimed at doing just that, stopping a fire before it starts. The primary effort to limit potential fires involving something as simple as implementing a good housekeeping process. Properly managed housekeeping will help to reduce the accumulations of stray debris and combustibles that can often become opportunities for ignition of a fire. Additionally, appropriate housekeeping efforts can be used to aid in limiting the exposures of incompatible materials to one another. 

The control of ignition sources is also imperative to controlling fire occurrence. This can include, but is not limited to: 1)having and enforcing “No Smoking” policies within the facility 2)implementing appropriate “Hot Work” practices in accordance with a recognized standard such as NFPA 51B, 3)management of the use of portable heating equipment, and 3)maintaining all equipment, both fixed and portable, in proper safe operating order.

Fire protection system design

Even with the best fire prevention practices, we must still be prepared to address the control of fires when they occur. This is done through the installation of good fire protection systems within the facility. The design of these system varies based on the fire hazard represented by the materials stored, heights of storage and the building, and method of storage being utilised. Not all automatic water-based fire suppression system designs are the same. Different hazards require different levels of protection. At the onset of the system design there should be a thorough communication between the operator of the facility and the design team to ensure that an accurate picture of the proposed storage is conveyed to the design team so that the correct design criteria for the actual hazard can selected. This can include addressing the current planned use of the facility as well as planning for future needs. 

A lack of communication between all parties can lead to an under designed sprinkler system incapable of addressing the hazard or an overdesigned system resulting in an elevated cost. Getting this right is essential to having a properly designed sprinkler system for the protection of the facility.

Management of change

Just as important as having a properly designed sprinkler system installed in the facility, is understanding the limits of such systems and managing the operations of the facility within them. A properly designed sprinkler system designed to protect the storage of a specific commodity classification, storage arrangement (including configuration, aisle width, height, etc.) will require that the facility operate within the bounds of the limitations of the design. A simple change in product packaging, use of plastic pallets, storage arrangement, etc. can render the sprinkler system ineffective. A proper management of change process is needed to ensure that each change is thoroughly evaluated to assess the impact on the protection of the facility. The provisions of Chapter 4 of NFPA 25, mandate that the owner of the facility or their designated represented complete and evaluation of the impact of the change against the installed fire protection system within the facility. 

Preplanning for manual firefighting efforts

Automatic fire sprinkler systems are designed to provide for control or suppression of the fire, depending on the design concept chosen, but will not necessarily result in complete extinguishment of the fire. Most often the final extinguishment of the fire will require the manual intervention of firefighters through the application of hose streams. Since the fire sprinkler system is not expected to extinguish the fire, proper preplanning with the fire department or fire brigade as to the installed systems, the arrangement of the facility and available resources at the site is essential to effective fireground operations in the event of a fire. Having a thorough knowledge of the facility prior to the day of an emergency event will aid tremendously in making timely appropriate fireground decisions.

System Inspection, Test and Maintenance

As with any system, maintaining fire protection system in proper operating order is essential to ensuring the readiness of the system to operate and control the fire. This is accomplished by adhering to the required inspection, test and maintenance scheduling provided by the relevant NFPA Standards. For water-based fire protection system, these are included in NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems and for fire alarm system components these are included in NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Having a fire protection system that is not in proper operating order can be just as bad as having none at all.

Following these five simple rules can greatly reduce the risk and improve the chances of successful operation of our installed fire protection systems thereby protecting us against a devastating fire loss. Keeping our facilities safe to protect the lives of our facility personnel and those of the arriving fire service and protecting against both operational and economic loss make this effort worthwhile.