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Mandatory fire suppression systems for large storage occupancies

23 March 2017

The “unacceptable” lack of fire legislation in the UK regarding safety of property must not be allowed to continue, a clearly passionate Stewart Kidd, of Loss Prevention Consultancy, told delegates in the Fire Safety Keynote Theatre.

Stewart, who has been campaigning on the issue of mandatory fire suppression systems for large storage occupancies for 30 years now, highlighted the often fatal results for fire-fighters attending warehouse blazes and pointed out that ‘relevant persons’ don’t include them, i.e. there is no duty of care to protect them while they are fighting fires.

He said: “UK fire legislation is only about the safety of life, not property. The Westminster government insists that issues of property protection are solely for owners and their insurers. In addition, the current legislation takes no account of the environmental damage caused by fires. The message from the Department of Communities and Local Government is, to put it bluntly: ‘no deaths, no new rules’.”

And the problem is getting bigger as warehouse premises get bigger, he went on. There are now huge facilities sited in areas where there is only retained cover. “So, you have part-time fire-fighters having to tackle blazes in 40,000 sq.m facilities!” marvelled Stewart.

As well as the size of these structures, many are constructed without any knowledge of what they will eventually be used for. Usage also changes over the lifetime of the building, it can change seasonally, and many facilities that are designated as ‘storage occupancies’ are actually more like factories, with various processes going on. To highlight this particular problem, Stewart played a game, showing images of a variety of facilities and asking the audience to say whether they were retail, factory, or warehouse premises. “The thing is,” he said, “you very often can’t tell just by looking!”

One of the biggest problems, according to Stewart, lies in ownership. He explained: “Most large warehouses are owned and managed by different parties, so what happens when there’s a fire? Take the Primark warehouse blaze at Magna Park in Lutterworth, in November 2005. A fire occurred at this 40,000 sq.m. facility on the day the sprinkler water was disconnected. The building was totally destroyed, as was one fire pump. The fire service was in attendance for three days.

“The building was owned by a pension fund. Primark was a leasehold tenant, which hired TNT to manage it. TNT contracted various management functions out to third parties. As for the fire-fighting water and the fire-fighting water system maintenance, this was Magna Park’s responsibility. But – you guessed it – they’d contracted it out!

“So, the question was: who’s in charge? Who is the responsible person? Who is the duty-holder?” In all, said Stewart, 17 different experts were retained on the case and, had it not settled, it would likely have gone on for weeks.

The environmental impact cannot be underestimated either, warned Stewart. And here is where suppression systems can really help. Stewart quoted research which found that where automatic fire suppression systems are in place, typically only 20-40cu. m/hour of water is needed to fight the fire, rather than the typical 200-400cu. m/hour with a hose stream. He also cited BSA statistics, which revealed that 9 billion litres of water are wasted fighting fires each year in UK warehouses and 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted.

And yet the situation remains in England that only facilities with an area greater than 20,000sq. m require protection by automatic suppression systems. “Contrast that with the situation in The Netherlands, for example,” said Stewart, “where all facilities above 1,000sq. m must be protected. As usual, we are well out of step with the rest of Europe!”

Summing up, he reiterated that the biggest problem is detachment between owners and occupiers. “The worst outcome for them is probably financial loss, but they can sort this out with their insurance and live to fight another day. Not so the Fire Service, for which the consequences can be far more severe. We must not forget that we have moral obligations well beyond our legal ones.”