Recent articles have noted the dash for warehouses that service our thriving e-commerce sector. Demand is strong for large, tall and clear spaces to meet our insatiable appetite for online shopping. But when you consider that the average cost of a large warehouse fire is £5.9m1 and that 43 warehouse fires occur every month, can these businesses afford to take any risks when it comes to fire protection?
When the latest regulatory guidance was written in 2006, the design of warehouses was different than what we tend to see today in the world of the logistics. Demand has changed with the rise of e-commerce; we expect our products to be delivered swiftly and this calls for changes to the physical infrastructure of warehouses to change to keep pace with consumer expectations. The modern warehouse will potentially be arranged on multiple levels, automated machinery and within a large volume. The fundamental challenge of concentrations of combustible materials in regular storage arrangement, making them ideal to aid fire spread, remain.
Reflecting on terms like automation and robotics one would think that there is less material and staff than our old image of a warehouse. It may actually tend in the opposite direction with denser arrays of combustible storage and in a number of cases these facilities can now have 1,000 staff or more. These warehouses are not the ‘common building types’ envisaged by Building Regulations Approved Document B and perhaps need differing solutions. However, this is a direction and change for these buildings that government needs to reconsider when reviewing the current English compartment sizes for warehousing and the guidance on the provision of sprinklers.
The Fire Safety Building Regulations (FSBR) guidance envisages unlimited-size industrial buildings. In the case of warehouses across Great Britain, this can be 14–20,000m2 in footprint and in many cases up to 18m tall, without incurring guidance for subdivision or sprinklers. Such buildings are truly enormous, roughly seven times the size of your average out-of-town DIY store. But the FSBR makes no consideration for minimising of the spread of fire within the large compartments of the building.
The building will survive for the period it takes to get people out, after which we transition into a period where the inherent resilience diminishes. They have physical limitations when it comes to firefighting due to their compartment size. There is a twisted logic that says the building is disposable in the event of fire.
A tale of two fires
Fire incidents tell us a lot about the challenges of such concentrated amounts of combustible storage and the challenges to firefighting by the fire service to contain them without the early intervention of systems like sprinklers.
This was apparent on 29 August 2020, when more than 100 firefighters and 20 fire appliances from Essex Fire and Rescue tackled a large night-time blaze at food distributor Kent Foods, based in Basildon. The fire and rescue service worked hard in arduous conditions to save the unsprinklered, 7,300m2 warehouse. The Environment Agency was also involved to prevent products from the fire spreading into local water courses. The warehouse was destroyed. It serviced the company’s customers in the south-east of England. The business had to stretch to redistribute its work to other locations within the group to continue to supply customers. Some 11 months later planning permission has been granted for the rebuild and the site has been cleared.
In contrast, when fire broke out at the A.F Blakemore and Son food distribution warehouse in nearby Hastings in October 2020, there was a very different outcome. A small fire located in a fan unit had been quickly extinguished by the sprinkler system in the 9,000m2 warehouse. Had the fire not been contained it would have caused significant damage to this logistics business, which supplies food products to a network of Spar stores across south-east England. In both cases, the warehouses were below 20,000m2, which under current English guidance meant they were not guided to have sprinklers. It is interesting to note that the planning application for the reconstructed Kent Foods building has just been granted and highlights the provisions of sprinkler tanks for the warehouse that is to be rebuilt.
Warehousing and the future
The contrast between two buildings with and without a sprinkler system in a fire can be quite stark. The concentration of combustible material means that if a fire takes hold, it will be incredibly challenging to deal with. In the event of such a fire, many businesses with sprinkler systems suffer a minor interruption and find they’re back up and running in a matter of hours. Those without can see five to six times the damage and suffer longer spells of interruption.
Looking ahead, one has to consider that the modern warehouse still faces challenges from a density of combustible materials. Decision makers consider the risk of fire is catered for by following building regulations when envisioning their new building, even though the guidance to those regulations is limited. Fire remains the largest cause of damage to such warehouse buildings. People may consider that the number of industrial fires may have fallen, but the extent and cost of those that continue to happen is increasing. However, they can be contained and extinguished by systems such as sprinklers to ensure that life is not put at risk and businesses, jobs and the economy are protected.
For more information about the BSA visit the www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org
1 Fears pandemic-led e-commerce boom could spark rise in warehouse blazes