Evaluating Fire Precautions and Risks

A fire in your distribution center can be disastrous. Aside from the obvious threats to human life, a single fire, even if it occurs in an unoccupied building–can put you out of business. The top four causes of fires according to insurance carrier Factory Mutual are 1) electrical 2) smoking, 3) friction, and 4) overheated materials. It is easy to imagine how one of these factors may be involved in almost any distribution center.

I once worked with a manager at a K-Mart facility who had been an employee when the retailer’s entire 500,000 sq.-ft warehouse in Morrisville, PA that burned to the ground. The cause: a cigarette left on a pallet, which ignited aerosol cans. The cans acted like rocket ships and blasted flammable aerosol all over the remainder of the facility.

Your risk of a fire occurs increases based on the type of materials that you are storing. In the table below, each class of product represents a particular level of fire risk, with Class I items being low or no risk, and Plastics being very high risk. Take a moment to think about the types of products in your facility as you read over the list that follows:

Class I – Non-combustible – Glass, minerals, metals, and ceramics
Class II – Non-combustible (Class I) products with combustible packaging Class III – Combustible products in boxes or bags – no or only a limited amount of flammable chemicals or plastic
Class IV – Class I, II, or III items with a substantial amount of plastic (such as a 5 gallon plastic pail) Plastics – The most combustible (next to gasoline) such as toys, computers, compact disks, apparel, etc Flammable Aeresols and Incendiary Items – paint, fireworks, flammable chemicals, etc.

Fire sprinklers are widely recognized as the single most effective method for fighting the spread of fires in their early stages – before they can cause severe injury to people and damage to property. Any warehouse should have adequate sprinklers. Fire sprinklers must be designed to control and limit a fire, until the fire fighters can arrive. In addition to providing the water, a sprinkler system can automatically notify the fire department.

Sprinkler systems can be designed with a variety of flow volumes to control a fire with almost any type of stored material. To be effective, a sprinkler system must react quickly to suppress a fire. This means that either sensors or sprinkler heads must be close enough to the flame source to activate. If you are in an older building, or if you are storing large quantities of plastic or other highly flammable materials, consider upgrading your sprinklers to an EFSR system, or installing in-rack sprinklers. If a sprinkler system fails, it’s usually because 1) not enough water flow to control the fire for the material stored, and 2) sensors don’t trigger soon enough (for example if a fire spreads sideways before triggering a sprinkler head that is high up on the ceiling).

For you protection, here’s a safety checklist:

Make sure that fire extinguishers are in every area, and that they are charged, and that they have the right type of chemicals for the materials being stored. Make sure that extinguishers are easy to see and readily accessible. Never store fire fighting materials up in the air. Always have them in a location where they can be easily accessed.

Pay special attention to the types of materials you store on mezzanines, since these structures are harder to escape from. Always place sprinklers under mezzanines if you are storing any significant quantity of flammable materials there.

Always put highly flammable items in a separate room or caged space, to prevent the spread of a fire to or from these materials. Consider fire walls and fire doors to help contain a fire to a specific area of your building. Fire doors can close automatically when any alarm is set off. Make sure that your employees know what to do in an emergency. You should designate an assembly point outside of the building, and have a clear exit plan for all work areas. Be sure to practice this plan at least a few times a year.

Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants.

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