Atherstone fire set to force industry safety rethink

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While the causes of the fire and the way that it was tackled remain to be resolved, there is no doubt that such a tragic and high profile event has brought to the fore the industry’s responsibility to take all steps possible to avoid a reoccurrence.

Designed for efficiency, the modern distribution centre may hold most of the company’s assets under one roof, hostage to an electrical fault, an overheating motor or a discarded cigarette butt. And in developing the modern distribution centre, the logistics industry has unwittingly created the ideal scenario for the maximum damage – and as we have seen the loss of life – should a fire break out. Even if goods being stored are not flammable, which appears to have been the case in Atherstone, packaging materials will quickly ignite and help to spread a fire.

Fire prevention and management may require careful building design and good housekeeping, but no single step has as much effect on a company’s ability to avoid fire damage as the installation of an effective sprinkler system, work which had sadly not been carried out yet in this case.

Systems which can detect and extinguish fires rapidly can play a vital role in minimising fire spread and damage to building, equipment and stocks. VESDA (Very Early Smoke Detection Alarm) systems linked with overhead sprinklers are fast becoming standard in storage and distribution facilities.

According to a spokesman for Alpine Fire Engineers, experts in fire and protection and sprinkler systems, most fires can be controlled with just one or two sprinkler heads which causes far less damage than the volume produced by a fire hose.

As well as reacting quickly to the first signs of danger, sprinklers do far less damage to goods. Half of all fires are controlled using one or two sprinkler heads, releasing typically 60 litres per head per minute. A fireman’s hose uses over 1,000 litres per minute, and sprinklers generally release less that one per cent of the water used by the fire brigade, causing minimal damage to stock. has managed the installation of sprinkler systems for a number of clients including B&Q, Woolworths, Screwfix Direct and Halfords, and was heavily involved in tests on an innovative foam fire-fighting system for cosmetics manufacturer L’Oréal.

The warehouse design and layout should also be planned to control and minimise the effects of a fire. High and low risk operations should be kept entirely separate, or failing that, divided by effective firewalls to ensure that fire cannot spread rapidly from one sector to another.

Even occupants of existing buildings with a traditional open-plan design may find that installing firewalls may have a very positive effect on their ability to negotiate lower insurance costs. Fast access for emergency services to the building and a water supply may also pay dividends in the case of an incident.

Electrical equipment should be correctly installed and insulated and regular checks carried out to ensure that appliances and equipment are not overheating. Where a heat source is part of a process, it should be located away from combustible materials with the necessary fire-fighting equipment readily available.

Recycling materials – whether plastic, paper or timber – is not only environmentally responsible, but also encourages staff to collect material into appropriate containers instead of leaving debris which could quickly ignite.

In the light of recent events there is little doubt that companies operating warehouses will judge it prudent to review their design and operations, and take whatever steps are necessary to prevent a similar event.

Insurance will certainly be reviewing their requirements and cover, and all parties would be well advised to seek professional and experienced guidance on fire prevention and control.

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