Every industry faces fire risks, but in the waste and recycling industry, fires occur almost daily. These fires can spark from hazards such as pressurized tanks, chemicals, hot-work activities, fertilizers, cigarette butts and, an emerging culprit, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. If fire incidents aren’t detected and managed early, they can trigger a domino effect, presenting further risks to your employees and facilities.
These risks, if not addressed properly, are a real threat to any operation, as they can result in direct and indirect costs including downtime of operations, potential injuries to employees and difficulty finding reasonable insurance options.
At Fire Rover, we understand these risks and consequences and have developed a versatile solution that is helping to detect fires early and ultimately eliminate fire hazards at waste and recycling facilities as well as a number of other occupancies where the risk of fire is commonplace.
In this article, I will provide an overview of the scope of the problem, the consequences and the solutions available to address the problem the industry is facing on a global scale.
I have been tracking and consolidating the reported waste and recycling facility fire data in the US and Canada since 2016. The numbers that seemed to never end in 2018 have come down over the years. In fact, waste and recycling facilities in the US and Canada experienced 317 reported fire incidents in 2020, which is slightly lower than the five-year average of 318. Additionally, we incurred 23 reported injuries and three deaths in 2020 that can either be directly or indirectly attributed to these fire incidents.
These fire incidents occurred across various types of waste and recycling facilities – municipal solid waste, paper and plastic recycling fires decreased in 2020 but are still in line with the five-year average; scrap metal fires increased and continued on their upward trend; construction and demolition (C&D) fires were down 25% year on year but are underrepresented for various reasons; and e-scrap fires have been steadily increasing, coinciding with the growth we have seen in our personal electronics and storage numbers.
All of these incidents happened for different reasons, but one common and growing culprit is lithium-ion batteries, which present many dangers and challenges for waste and recycling workers and facilities, especially if they aren’t disposed of or recycled properly.
This is a worldwide problem, and, unfortunately, without public education, the sharing of operational best practices and the investment in new technologies, the waste and recycling industry will continue to face many consequences and challenges.
Preparing your operation for fire prevention and operational best practices is just the first step in successfully dealing with fire risks. The second step is the onsite and/or fire-professional response. The third step is proper investments in solutions and technology that will reduce the risk and severity of fire incidents.
One of the biggest consequences is the cost for these fire incidents, which I personally feel is unfairly borne by operators across the globe. Producers, on the other hand, aren’t currently burdened with this cost, as they manufacture and distribute batteries and then leave operators, fire professionals and society to deal with the problems these batteries may cause. The manufacturers make small and insignificant investments in public education, but most of their capital is spent paying for lobbyists and associations that push their agenda.
A recent article published in The Wall Street Journal predicts that rechargeable lithium-ion batteries will transform the way the world uses power and disrupt industries, as demand continues to grow and prices continue to trend down. This prediction is in line with a recent report published by UK-based Eunomia Consulting, which predicts the problem of lithium-ion battery fires is only going to get worse, as more and more batteries come to market each year.
Of the 670 fires recorded by ESA waste-management members across the UK in 2019–2020, 38% were either recorded as caused by Li-ion batteries or ‘suspected’ to have been, according to the report. This is higher than the percentages recorded in the previous three years by the body (21% in 2016–2017, 25% in 2017–2018 and 22% in 2018–2019).
These fires not only pose risks to employees and facilities but also come with a high price tag. According to Eunomia, the real cost of lithium-ion battery fires in the UK is about £158 million. Using my reasonable assumption for unreported fire incidents and taking into account the current exchange rate, the cost to the US and Canadian waste and recycling operators due to lithium-ion battery fires is unfairly more than US$1.2 billion. Since Eunomia’s study only associates lithium-ion batteries with about 50% of fires, which is in line with previous US surveys, the real cost borne by our waste and recycling operators is realistically and conservatively about US$2.5 billion annually.
These high costs, along with the industry ranking sixth among deadliest occupations, raise a red flag to insurance companies, which have been leaving the industry at a fast pace over the past few years. The fact is that insurance companies often leave an industry when they feel that the risks are not able to be controlled or there is no end in sight. But, to the waste and recycling industry’s advantage, Fire Rover has been reeling insurance companies back to the industry by proving that our solution helps operators have less fire risk than at any point in history, including the time before the lithium-ion battery wave even began.
These real-life incidents that we are able to provide (see the Fire Rover YouTube page) gives operators a leg up when it comes to negotiating coverage options with insurance providers, and while insurance companies want to ultimately protect our industry’s occupancy, in reality they only want to work with operators that are proactively addressing problems and investing in proven solutions like the Fire Rover.
According to Ryan Butler, vice president of risk mitigation for Cottingham & Butler, which provides insurance for a number of different high-hazard industries, ‘Carriers become hesitant to enter or write complex classes of business when they see systemic losses. However, underwriters gain another level of confidence when they see operators investing time, capital and resources into auditing and analysing their exposures, as this shows there is a willingness to improve and avoid mistakes.’
‘If an operator invests in an audit, they will be on the path to better risk-management practices, which can actually help them reduce a catastrophic loss,’ he adds. ‘It is imperative, irrespective of insurability and coverage options, that operators take the necessary precaution to avoid losses wherever possible, as experiencing a large loss will tarnish the reputation of the business for three to five years.’
Proven solutions and technologies
To prevent and eliminate fire incidents, you need to invest in solutions that actually work for your facility type. This means that traditional fire-suppression methods such as water sprinkler systems and smoke alarms may not be the best option to stop a fire at a facility where there’s a lot of activity such as a materials recovery facility (MRF), transfer station or waste-to-energy facility.
This is why we developed Fire Rover, a comprehensive firefighting solution that combats incipient fires and explosions within seconds from ignition. This system is specifically designed for the waste and recycling industry and has eliminated more than 1,000 fires in waste and recycling facilities across the US and Canada.
There are many advantages to using the patented Fire Rover system, including:
- Equipped with FLIR thermal cameras that can be paired with listed optical flame detectors to satisfy code compliance, the Fire Rover provides early heat abnormality detection before visible smoke or flames are present.
- Once a heat abnormality is detected, alarms received from the detectors are transmitted to a UL central station, where a Fire Rover agent verifies if it’s a false positive or if it’s a threat and action needs to be taken.
- If action needs to be taken, the Fire Rover agent alerts the facility, the fire department and authorities and then shoots an environmentally friendly cooling agent from the Fire Rover’s nozzles onto the hot spot to eliminate a fire before or after it starts. This allows ample time for fire professionals to arrive on scene and for the facility operator and fire professionals to provide an appropriate response to the level of hazard.
- Lastly, the Fire Rover is capable of superior suppression, which is partially due to the elevated water density a monitor delivers when compared to the design densities of a typical sprinkler system and partially due to the targeted suppression from controlling the monitor from the central station.
By detecting early when the fire is small, targeting the fire and putting large amounts of water in this initial growth stage, the total water usage is significantly reduced. This was the finding of a 2020 FM Research Technical Report entitled ‘Reducing Water Demands with Innovative Fire Protection Solutions’. In this report, smart monitors demonstrated the ability to reduce the amount of water necessary for un-cartoned unexpanded plastic and cartoned unexpanded plastic fire sources by up to 88%. According to James Andy Lynch, founder and CEO of Fire Solutions Group, Fire Rover would be classified as a smart monitor by Factory Mutual (FM) and is defined in the FM standard 1421 Approval Standard for Fire Protection Monitor Assemblies.
‘Having been in the fire industry for more than 20 years, and working with a number of new and emerging technologies, I feel comfortable saying that Fire Rover has positioned itself as a must-have tool in the box of fire-protection equipment we as engineers must consider when designing fire protection for a facility,’ says Lynch, who has worked with Fire Rover in multiple capacities including designing systems for proper coverage, preparing variances utilizing technical data to support its use, assisting with the FM approval process and submitting text changes to various fire codes.
Keeping pace with the changes and needs of the industry, in 2020, Fire Rover took its solution a step further by adding an additional ‘quick connection’ for fire professionals. The quick connect allows fire professionals to take a defensive approach to fighting a lithium-ion battery fire effectively while remaining safely outside the facility.
This solution, which is currently installed in 181 facilities across the US and Canada, received the National Waste & Recycling Association’s 2020 Innovator of the Year – Recycling Equipment award, which celebrates innovation in design and manufacturing that increases the effectiveness or efficiency of recycling equipment and operations.
Additionally, Fire Rover has designed and installed a box-less solution for waste-to-energy and industrial facilities that utilizes the operators’ existing water infrastructure. The targeted deluge solution can replace a traditional deluge system with the ability to target any fire with water, providing more control of the event, alleviating the issue of accidental discharge and allowing dual control of the system by both the Fire Rover agents as well as the operator.
As you’re making your operational plans for 2021, it’s important to implement fire prevention and reduction best practices and to invest in technologies and solutions that are going to keep your employees safe and your operations running more efficiently.
Without these preparations, an unfortunate incident could present unexpected costs, operational downtime and danger to your biggest asset – your employees. I encourage you to take action now and to be prepared. After all, good operators have fewer fires than bad operators, but new and innovative solutions are needed when good operators are still having fires.