Focus back on fire risks

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The story of the four Warwickshire firefighters who so tragically perished while fighting a blaze in a warehouse at Atherstone-on-Stour touched everyone. And with the Atherstone fire followed just days later by another huge fire at a warehouse on the site of 2012 Olympic Park, there have been calls for the current law on sprinklers within warehouses to be reviewed.

At present only warehouses over 20,000 square metres legally need to have sprinklers fitted, but there is growing demand from some quarters for the mandatory installation of these devices within all new warehouses.

There are a number of myths associated with sprinklers. For example, reports of water damage from fires in buildings with sprinklers are often exaggerated and, in the event of a fire, it is usually only the sprinklers directly over the blaze that open while all the others stay shut. I am also told that incidents of sprinklers opening by accident are almost unheard of nowadays. That said, within the third party warehousing and logistics industry, the words ‘sprinklers in warehouses’ usually raise eyebrows and any talk of ‘retrospective fitting of sprinklers in warehouses’ is guaranteed to raise blood pressure.

Many UKWA members are fearful that, with the government under pressure to consider more stringent regulations in this area, new regulations relating to the fitting of sprinklers in warehouses might be applied retrospectively – whatever assurances to the contrary are given.

At the moment UKWA is sanguine about this scenario, because there are a number of practical problems that prevent the use of sprinklers in some types of warehouses and in some localities. Nevertheless, we are clear that Building Regulations for new build warehouses will become more stringent in the future, particularly on the subject of fire suppression.

One of the driving forces behind the calls for wider use of suppression systems may be the environmental cost of major fires – an angle that has not been argued robustly in the past. The recent fire at the Buncefield Oil Terminal near Hemel Hempstead has highlighted the extent to which a major chemical fire will contaminate the atmosphere, while the use of certain types of foam in fighting such fires is being questioned after problems with the local water supply were detected.

At present the Fire Service’s policy is to allow warehouse fires to extinguish naturally if the blaze does not present a threat to human life, but going forward it looks likely that more emphasis will be placed on preventing the escalation of a fire at the design stage of all new warehouse developments and suppression systems look certain to be used more widely.

UKWA welcomes progressive legislation that seeks to add protection to property and people, but we will be doing our best to ensure that any changes to existing regulations are sensible, practical and applied with a light hand. Our role in the debate will be to make the voice of the industry heard and we would welcome input not only from members but also the wider logistics industry.

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