Preventing the escalation of a fire at the design stage of all new warehouse developments

Following recent high profile warehouse fires, more emphasis is likely to be placed on preventing the escalation of a fire at the design stage of all new warehouse developments, says Roger Williams, chief executive officer of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association

The story of the four Warwickshire firefighters who so tragically perished while fighting a blaze in a warehouse at AtherstoneonStour 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 predictable calls for the current law on sprinklers within warehouses to be reviewed.

At present only warehouses over 20,000 square metres in size legally need to have sprinklers fitted, but following the recent high profile fires there is growing demand from some quarters for the mandatory installation of these devices within all new warehouses, says Roger Williams, chief executive officer of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA).

He continues: 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.

The United Kingdom Warehousing Association represents nearly 700 third party logistics service and warehousing companies and many of our 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 Services 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.

Of course, 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.

Editors notes: About The United Kingdom Warehousing Association
With over 600 member companies, the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA) is the UKs only trade association dedicated to serving the vitally important warehousing and logistics sector. Established in 1944, the Associations members control nearly 100 million square feet of warehousing space from nearly 1300 locations across the UK. Although originally established as a trade body for the third party warehousing sector, the Association now embraces all companies that operate a warehousing or distribution facility. Membership is not restricted to those companies based within the borders  of the United Kingdom.

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