Snuff it out quick

31 August 2021

The eCommerce boom is driving the need for greater warehouse fire control, for the sake of both safety and business continuity, says Paul Berry.

THE PANDEMIC changed many things, and the way we shopped was no different. As we were all forced home, the only way we could shop was online. But even post-pandemic, the demand for eCommerce remains higher than ever.

With new businesses taking their fancy to secure a slice of the retail pie, the demand for warehouse space has grown by nearly a third since 2015. Those wanting to make the most of spaces have started storing stock higher and denser than ever before – and therefore the risks associated increased. Warehouses devastated by fires increased by 42% in 2019/2020. It is now clear that greater regulation, education and understanding of fire safety risks is critical.

80% of businesses without a business continuity plan that are hit by a major incident either never re-open or close within 18 months. But who’s responsibility is it to ensure the correct fire safety solutions are in place? Surprisingly, it’s not the warehouse developer or owner, it’s the building occupier. Those who want to continue trading and ensure the safety of assets and people must take action before it’s too late.

Typically, warehouses would only store one type of product. This made it easier to ensure that fire regulations for that product, in that warehouse, were met. The type of sprinklers used were adequate for the product and there was an appropriate fire risk assessment in place. However, since the boom in eCommerce this past year, business and warehouse owners have an even greater opportunity to make the most of the spaces they rent. The space they have can be used try to store as much as possible. Sadly, this creates huge safety risks.

From paper goods to televisions, warehouses are now diverse and ever-changing. Some of these products are highly flammable, while others aren’t, and each will require different fire safety measures. Each product comes with its own fire security regulations and needs a different approach on how it is kept safe. Warehouses that were once used for one product and adhering to regulations, may not be anymore; leaving them unfit for purpose.

Not only does Ocado need to ensure it has the correct systems for the products and packaging stored, but the robots must be accounted for too in the fire safety protocols. 

Every single thing in the building contributes to the fire safety risks businesses face and needs to be accounted for when deciding on efficient fire safety protocols. Recently, Ocado were hit by a major warehouse fire when three robots collided, causing disruptions to operations. Around 100 firefighters and 15 engines tackled the blaze due to the detection system and sprinklers failing to operate. Not only does Ocado need to ensure it has the correct systems for the products and packaging stored, but the robots must be accounted for too in the fire safety protocols. The news highlights the immediate obligation retailers have to ensure all the correct systems are in place and working to avoid danger to assets and staff.

Sprinklers are the first line of defence when it comes to fire suppression. Yet according to regulations in England and Wales, sprinklers are only compulsory in warehouses over 20,000 square metres in area – the size of nearly 4 football fields. This is compared to just 800 square metres in Norway, where more stringent regulations mean sprinklers are much more common. When installed correctly and appropriately, sprinklers activate as the first point of call, before the fire service even arrives. Those that truly want to look after their business, products, and people will have sprinklers installed no matter the size of their warehouse.

However, sprinkler systems are not one size fits all. Every building is different. Each storage environment requires different fire suppression solutions to safeguard its goods, people and even robots. If more products are being stored at a greater height, the sprinkler system needed will be vastly different to those that store stock lower. In the event of a fire, the systems installed need to be suitable to tackle a blaze for the products and storage within that specific warehouse.

That’s why it’s no use going it alone. Those looking to rent out warehouse space must call in a professional body to help them assess the risk. Since the onus falls firmly on the building occupier, as opposed to the owner or developer, they need know whether existing systems are fit for purpose, depending on the product they are looking to store. Only with advice from a third party will business owners be able to rest easy knowing their staff and assets are the safest they can be.

Paul Berry, director, fire suppression at Johnson Controls UK&I

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