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Best Practice for Warehouse Fire Safety Strategies

09 December 2022

WAREHOUSE FIRES have the potential to be devastating, posing a threat to life, destroying business operations and exerting a detrimental impact on the supply chain. Ahead of the busy Christmas period, Neil Eves offers some Best Practice advice when it comes to fire safety strategies.

The end of November witnessed the biggest online shopping event of the year. Black Friday 2022 was once again a week-long event whereby bricks-and-mortar and online retailers offered huge discounts and one-off deals to encourage consumer spend. Despite the UK being on the cusp of a recession, Britons were predicted to spend an estimated £3.95 billion on Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases ahead of Christmas.

All of which points to the fact that the logistics sector – and the vast array of warehouses underpinning it – is vital to our economy. Indeed, research conducted by Savills notes (in the 2021 UKWA report) that, for every extra £1 billion spent online, a further 775,000 ft2 of warehouse space is needed to meet the new demand.

As the need for warehouse space increases, so there are additional fire safety factors that need to be considered by ‘Responsible Persons’.

Back in 2019, 200 firefighters battled through the night to control a huge fire which swept through an Ocado warehouse fire in Hampshire. The robotics warehouse, where 30,000 orders were being processed each week, had to suspend operations and customers took to Twitter to complain.

The warehouse has since reopened and is now even bigger at 217,000 ft2. It fulfils 60,000 direct to customer orders per week when at full capacity. Looking back, though, that fire came at great cost to the retailer with its share price dropping by 6% at the time.

What causes warehouse fires?

A key issue facing the UK warehousing sector is lack of land for development due to the pressure exerted on local authorities by the Government to build more homes. With the demand for online shopping growing, though, the knock-on effect means developers and operators are looking at old spaces and adapting and scaling existing industrial properties to satisfy the need.

Building Regulations are failing when it comes to fire precautions for developing older buildings. All single-story buildings are treated the same, resulting in warehouse developments that may well be compliant with statutory guidelines, but are not properly equipped to prevent fires for a warehouse scenario. Also, due to their proximity to other buildings, fires can easily spread. That proximity also makes it difficult for Fire and Rescue Services to be close enough to deal with fires effectively.

Of course, these issues are further compounded by the fact that modern technology now means more and more warehouses are automated almost 24 hours a day. None or very few personnel are on site. This makes visual identification of a fire incident unlikely. That being the case, the safety of the building and its occupants is completely dependent on automatic fire systems.

Some of the most common causes of warehouse fires, beside arson attacks, are electrical faults, heating equipment malfunctioning and when combustible materials are exposed. For example, there’s a significant challenge facing cold storage operations. The very nature of cold storage warehouses presents a fire risk due to the materials used to control temperatures. Evaporative condensers are used to sustain low temperatures in cold storage warehouses. They do this by removing air moisture to very low levels of humidity, which in the case of a fire would accelerate the spread of flames.

Prevention techniques

Fire scenarios are preventable when the correct life safety equipment is installed. This is essential action, and notably so when you consider that preventable fires in the UK warehouse industry cost our economy upwards of £230 billion each and every year.

When carried out properly and thoroughly according to the law – ie the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – a fire risk assessment is the starting point. It’s also advisable to energise an independent audit by a consultant or insurer as this will help to ensure any fire strategy is robust.

Warehouse managers should consider the safe storage of waste and other flammable materials to stop the spread of fire if it were to break out. Keeping these materials in a designated safe storage area will reduce the risk of them causing a blaze.

The best way in which to save lives in the warehouse environment is to ensure that automatic fire detection is in place across the entire facility. With particular attention paid to vulnerable areas designated as such in the risk assessment, fire specialists can then advise on multiple fire detection solutions that are ideal for warehouses. Here, it’s vitally important to ensure that the right systems are installed for the project.

Fire detection requirements

Point-type detectors are often the best value for money option, but these smoke detectors should not be used in a dusty warehouse or at heights above 10.5 metres. For their part, heat detectors should not be used at heights above 7.5 metres (or 9 metres for an A1 detector).

High sensitivity smoke detection is a great choice, especially so in a cold storage warehouse. Just make sure suitable dust filtration is in place to prevent false alarms. If properly designed and installed, these systems can be simple to maintain.

Beam detectors are ideal for large and high-level applications if the environment is not prone to dust. An advantage of beam detectors is their ability to detect when smoke is scattered over wide areas. This is achieved due to the detectors using the obscuration method, which detects fire due to smoke particles obscuring the infrared light along the sensing path.

Linear heat detection cable is ideal for protecting warehouse racking.

Video smoke detection is a superb choice for high-speed detection in high-level risk areas. With high bay warehousing, there’s a risk of smoke stratification, which occurs when the rising smoke reaches a different temperature level in the high building. Instead of rising, the smoke flattens out and may never reach a ceiling-mounted smoke detection system. Video smoke detection overcomes this risk by detecting the smoke as soon as it becomes visible to the camera.

Thermal imaging is now being used across multiple industries to detect ‘hot spots’. Industrial laundry facilities rely on thermal imaging to ensure fire safety due to the very nature of the materials they work with being highly combustible. Thermal monitoring systems can detect rising temperatures before the fire has a chance to spread.

Another example is fuel storage which is notoriously hazardous because the commodity itself is so flammable. Corrosion, leaks and human error can lead to explosive – and, sometimes, catastrophic – consequences. Warehouse managers are now working with fire safety specialists to install systems such as thermal imaging to automatically monitor temperature changes in fuel storage depots via the use of thermal imaging cameras.

All of these systems can help avert disaster, satisfy insurer oversight and improve safety for workers and members of the public alike.

Review the strategy

Driven by consumer demand, the trend for more (and larger) warehouse units will continue to grow. Take a drive along any major motorway in the UK to see these huge buildings becoming commonplace. Research carried out by Forrester suggests that, by 2025, online retail will account for 35% of all retail (driven by events such as Black Friday), meaning that at least 64 million ft2 of additional warehouse space will be needed for that sector alone. Given this growth, the risk of fire also increases, so it’s important for logistics companies and warehouse managers to understand that risk.

In a post-Grenfell world, businesses cannot afford to be complacent. Warehouse building owners and ‘Responsible Persons’ need to ensure they not only meet the latest Government legislation, but also understand that insurance companies are tightening their belts when it comes to fire risk, particularly so for those warehouses operating cold storage.

If we look back to the Ocado warehouse fire, where customers were left without their orders, it’s wise to remember the impact fire can exert. It’s something which is devastating at any time of the year, but even more so during the peak trading season in the run-up to Christmas.

Warehouse operators need to work with experts who are skilled in ensuring a robust fire strategy, advising on the latest – and best – detection systems and carrying out regular maintenance. Those who do will be the ones who benefit from better insurance premiums and more favourable negotiations when it comes to distribution and storage contracts.

Neil Eves is Head of Systems Sales for Hochiki Europe (www.hochikieurope.com)