Four Steps to Warehouse Fire Safety

From TheHartford:

Fire is one of the biggest threats to warehouse operations. Whether a fire is started by lightning, a carelessly thrown cigarette or a faulty electrical system, the end result is the same - lives could be in danger and your valuable goods could go up in smoke.

The first step in minimizing the threat of fire is to make sure you've taken the proper preventive steps - both inside and outside your warehouse operations.

Step 1. Prevention is the Key
Do you periodically take a walk around your storage facilities to determine the potential for fire? It's worth a few minutes of your time to do so, keeping in mind the following vulnerabilities:

Lightning hazard
  • Consider the value of conventional protection such as lightning rods
  • Incorporate arrestors on sensitive electronic equipment (ref: NFPA 780)
Vegetation overgrowth
  • Keep field or seasonal dormant grasses mowed
  • Cut tree line back 50 feet or more from the building
  • Control access of visitors, including former employees, and provide escort for visitors
  • Use television security, security patrols or both
  • Install and monitor electronic security systems
You should also conduct a similar survey inside your building(s), checking on these common systems and operations:

Lighting systems
  • Keep combustible stock clear of metal halide lamps, which become very hot
  • Routinely inspect florescent fixtures
Heating and electrical systems
  • Keep high rack storage away from suspended heaters
  • Make sure heaters are regularly inspected and serviced according to manufacturer's recommendations
  • Maintain an electrical preventive maintenance program
Hot work and housekeeping
  • Establish a hot work control program in accordance with NFPA 51B
  • Establish and enforce a no-smoking policy
  • Remove trash for safe disposal daily
Material handling equipment
  • Maintain forklifts in accordance with manufacturer's recommendations
  • Refuel lifts outside the building
  • Keep battery charging areas well-vented to the outside and use only explosion-proof fixtures and equipment
Step 2: Storage arrangement can fuel the fire
Once you've taken a look in and around your buildings, consider your storage arrangements. Storage arrangements can range from simple piles of loose material called bulk storage to more organized arrangements placed in different types of racks. Other storage classifications include solid pile, palletized (solid) pile, bin box and shelf.

The way you've arranged your storage greatly influences fire behavior. Because fire spreads both vertically and horizontally, it's best not to place material too high or too close together. For example, with the two most common types of storage arrangements - palletized solid pile and racks - the key is to keep the storage height lower than 12 feet and the aisle spacing greater than 8 feet.

Fires in bulk or solid pile (without pallets) storage areas are difficult to detect and, once discovered, are difficult to extinguish. Piles of organic materials may be subject to spontaneous combustion and require the use of embedded heat sensors to detect temperature build-ups. If you're using this type of storage method, you should store only low-hazard commodities in bulk or piles, and make sure the fire protective system for the material has a nearly inexhaustible water supply.

Storage racks are typically arranged to contain pallet size loads in single and double row arrangements reaching considerable heights. The higher the rack, though, the greater the difficulty in controlling a fire. When using rack storage, ti's important to pay attention the the flue spacing between the rows and pallet loads. By keeping these spaces open and unobstructed, water from overhead or in-rack fire sprinklers can penetrate the rack arrangement and control the fire.

If you have unused pallets in your warehouse, you should be aware of the fire threat they pose and store them in a low-value exterior building. A minimal number of pallets can be stored inside if they are stacked flat, no higher than 6 feet per stack, with no more than four stacks per pile, and piles are separated by eight feet of open space or 25 feet of commodity.

Many warehouse managers find they can significantly improve their fire protection by simply lowering the height of the storage or separating it with wider aisles.

Step 3: Make sure your sprinkler protection is on target
If a fire does break out, you want to make sure you've protected your storage facility with the appropriate automatic fire sprinkler designed for your type of commodity and storage arrangement.

All commodities are not the same, and different materials have different burn characteristics. That's why, when designing a fire sprinkler system, it's vital to know exactly what commodity is being stored and how it's packaged. Commodities are classified according to their ability to burn - from the least volatile called Class I, up to Class IV. Beyond the standard classes are plastics and special hazard groups.

All basic fire sprinkler systems begin with a basic ceiling installation design, and additional sprinklers can be brought in to address obstructions, high racks, mezzanines, etc. In-rack sprinklers also may be added if storage racks are higher than 12 feet.

An automatic fire system is judged on three basic tests:
1. Is the system design appropriate for the occupancy?
2. Is there an adequate water supply to support the sprinkler system's demand?
3. Is the entire sprinkler system being adequately tested and maintained?

When a sprinkler system fails to control a fire, it's generally found that the design was improper or the water supply was impaired.

Keep in mind that the use of solid shelves presents significant difficulties for a ceiling sprinkler system and should be avoided, if possible.

Step 4: Have a fire department preplan
One of the best ways to enhance your fire protection efforts is with a fire department preplan - a cooperative effort between the warehouse operator and emergency responders. During this process, fire officials typically visit the facility, identify potential hazards and plan their tactical response.

Fire officials may also:
  • Review both common and special hazards
  • Identify anything that could hamper the fire suppression effort
  • Provide information on procedures for safely evacuating the building in an emergency
All pre-plans should be considered living documents that are updated periodically. If you make any changes to storage arrangements or commodity types - or to the building's fire sprinkler system- you should communicate those changes to all those involved in the pre-planning process. This is especially important when hazardous materials might be involved.

The ultimate goal in the event of emergency is to safely evacuate the warehouse and support and effective fire suppression response. Detailed information on pre-fire planning in normally available from your local fire department.

(The National Fire Protection Association is an international nonprofit organization established in 1896. NFPA serves as the world's leading advocate of fire prevention and is an authoritative source on public safety. The NFPA can be contacted at 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, Massachusetts, USA 02169-7471 Tel: +1 617 770-3000, Fax: +1 617 770-0700 or online at www.nfpa.org)

- The Hackett Security Team

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