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Essex food production facility destroyed in early morning blaze

10 June 2022

AN EARLY morning blaze at an industrial site in Harlow destroyed the production facilities of a local food manufacturer. The devastating fire swept through an unsprinklered sausage manufacturing factory, sending plumes of smoke across the town, with the long-established business now counting the cost of the damage and dealing with the disruption to livelihoods.

Essex Fire and Rescue Service was called to the fire in late April when it broke out at the Riverway food production facility during the night shift. On arrival, firefighters discovered that the factory was 95% alight and 100% smoke-logged, which necessarily limited access. The blaze required 70 firefighters, ten appliances and specialist equipment (including aerial ladder platforms) to bring it under control.

In fact, it took 36 hours before fire crews could hand the site over to security staff. Fire crews were forced to return to the site four days later due to reports of smoke and a ‘hot spot’ emanating from an unstable section of the heavily damaged building.

While night shift workers escaped unharmed, considerable resources were used by the Fire and Rescue Service to control the fire. The impact on the local community and environment has been significant with local road closures, residents forced to keep their windows and doors closed due to harmful smoke and a number of measures employed to minimise the impact of pollution.

The disposal of the destroyed 2,500 m2 building will cause an adverse environmental impact, while the materials and resources required to repair and rebuild it will incur significant financial costs.

Uncertain future

In business for over 50 years, the local family-run food concern employed over 130 workers who, like the company, now face an uncertain future. Riverway Foods will need to recover from the effects of the blaze. In the worse case scenario, the effect of the fire could mean the closure of the business altogether.

It’s interesting to note that this fire took place in a modestly-sized building, which the company referenced on its website as being a ‘21st Century factory’ that was purpose-built with the latest technology. The Fire and Rescue Service worked hard to protect surrounding properties, yet the intervention of 70 firefighters could not stop the fire from spreading in a building of this size. Industrial fires impact far larger premises with similar results and with potentially larger impacts.

Iain Cox, chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, commented: “We must always be thankful when a fire is contained and extinguished with no loss of life, but that’s not enough. Lives are still affected regardless, and we must strive to minimise the effect that fire has in all circumstances.”

Cox continued: “When we minimise fire spread, we not only protect lives, but we also safeguard property, businesses and jobs. A properly controlled fire can be the difference between a building requiring renovation or demolition. Halting the spread of fire when it’s first detected is the best way in which to limit damage and minimise costs and impacts. Sprinklers have been shown to contain, control or extinguish fires in 99% of cases. Impacted business can be operational again within hours, thereby avoiding the economic and social costs that can arise from fire episodes.”

Fibreglass mouldings factory set for rebuild

An unsprinklered fibreglass mouldings factory in Suffolk destroyed by a major fire in 2020 will now be rebuilt. Following on from an insurance claim and ongoing disruption to its business, Hatcher Components has applied for planning permission for a new production facility at its site in Parnham.

The story represents a harsh lesson in overcoming adversity, but poses questions as to why key resilience measures like sprinkler systems are not common practice when it comes to mitigating such events.

The fire on 13 August 2020 at the unsprinklered Hatcher Components production facility led to destruction of the factory and storage area. No fewer than 50 firefighters from the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service attended the blaze, but were unable to save the building.

The blaze was caused by overheated machinery and brought disruption to local businesses. Nearby residents were advised to keep windows and doors closed due to hazardous materials exploding and large plumes of thick black smoke.

Production capability hampered

While no-one was injured, the business – which has another site in Framlingham – lost circa 50% of its production capability and struggled to maintain large orders. Staff needed to work excessive overtime, while management had to outsource work which was both inefficient and costly.

There is much to be said about business continuity in the event of a major disruption such as fire, but this needs to be part of a wider risk management strategy. Judging by the many fires across the commercial sector, there appears to be a ‘disconnect’ between the business continuity plan and the mitigation gained from actively protecting assets.

“If one of the big risks is the fact that you might lose a factory which is critical to your whole operation to a fire – and you have not considered how to protect it – then your disaster recovery will mean you will have to find new premises, machinery and logistics in order to recover,” stated Iain Cox.”This is exactly what happened to the Hatcher Components production facility.”

According to Cox, a more successful strategy would be to protect the very critical elements of the operation which are vulnerable in the first place with systems such as sprinklers. “It’s clear that resilience has been assumed to be covered by the particular goal of compliance with regulations, but unfortunately key stakeholders cannot see that this is not always the case.”

Property loss

Sadly, fires such as the one that occurred at Hatcher Components occur on a regular basis and remain one of the leading causes of property loss. If the businesses come back, rebuild times of over 12 months are not uncommon. The use of temporary space is often hampered by similar delays for the delivery of new machinery.

The inclusion of a sprinkler system can prevent major financial and equipment losses, containing what could be a potential major disaster and instead turning it into a minor inconvenience. Proven time and again with consistent reliability, the inclusion of a sprinkler system represents an effective investment to prevent a business’ hard-earned success from, quite literally, going up in flames.

*Further information on the Business Sprinkler Alliance is available online at www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org

**Image courtesy of Essex Fire and Rescue Service