Waste management and recycling companies can no longer ignore the situation: the issue of major blazes will refuse to die down until they or the authorities take action
Insurance premiums are going up or are much harder to attain, local communities and fire services are getting increasingly impatient and commercial, environmental and health damage is continuing unabated. The issue of major fires at waste management and recycling sites only gets more severe. Simon Jenkins, product manager at FireVu, a fire detection solution supplier, tells us why the incidence and scale of major fires at waste and recycling plants cannot continue and what can be done.
The UK averages a touch under one fire at a waste management or recycling facility every day of the year.
More precisely the number of blazes between 2001 and 2012 stood at 355 yearly, with a “low” of 246 in 2001 and a high of 425 in 2011 according to Environmental Agency figures.
Major fires at waste and recycling plants are only growing in scale
On the morning of the 23rd December 2013 a fire broke out at UK Wood Recycling’s Wilton facility on Teesside.
The blaze was fuelled by 16,000 tonnes of waste wood stock that would have been used for fuel or reused for recycling.
The volume of the waste wood involved led the fire service to allow the fire to burn itself out in order to help reduce the impact of the smoke on local air quality.
On the 6th January, the stack of wood had reduced by 80%. The Cleveland Fire Brigade decided to change strategy and actively tackle the seat of the fire with a view to extinguishing it.
The UK Wood Recycling example is not exceptional. Indeed, it is a quite common for fires to last two weeks or longer. The volume and nature of the combustible material, sometimes stored with inadequate fire prevention processes and procedures makes for a perfect fire.
Waste management fires are different
It goes without saying that a major fire is costly to the waste management or recycling business – it can also be particularly damaging to local communities. South Wales based Siteserv, which experienced a major fire in November 2013, employs 200 staff for instance. I make this point because it is by no means the largest enterprise in the sector. So if a fire puts jobs at risk, it has the potential to have a disastrous affect on the local economy.
Moreover, turning to environmental damage it is not just include the “nuisance” of smoke. Fumes can often be noxious and toxic. Fires being fuelled in part by asbestos are not uncommon.
Police warned residents within a two mile radius of Siteserv that fumes could be a result of asbestos burning on site. The fire was in November 2013. You don’t need to go back too far to find examples.
There are environmental issues with water run-off contaminating water courses and in turn drinking supplies and adversely affecting wildlife.
Fire crews must decide whether to allow the fire to burn itself out with all the attendant air pollution and loss of materials or tackle the blaze, often with multiple fire crew being pulled to the site and risk serious consequences from water run-off as well as putting crews in danger.
Anyone with a passing interest in the fire services would have come across the myriad of stories about fire services making drastic and painful cuts. Valued professionals have left the service and operations centres are being closed and amalgamated.
Moreover, the fire services have to accommodate this increased pressure with an unacceptable number of false alarms that remain stubbornly high. Isle of Man Fire and Rescue Service, for instance, in 2013 had 1,460 call outs that firefighters attended, of which 936 were unwarranted or nuisance calls.
A major fire, at its height, can demand 30, 40, 50 fireman to contain and fight the blaze. A major fire in January this year at Lennerton Lane, Sherburn-in-Elmet near York, which stored 15,000 tonnes of tyres, engaged 14 fire engines and around 70 fire fighters at one point.
The resources concern, with the affect of waste fires on the local community and the environment, is leading to fire services looking to tackle the issue with new vigour. It cannot be expected that the situation such as it is will be allowed to continue.
Increasing insurance premiums are an even greater problem for waste management companies.
While the number of fires is not up, the scale and profile of blazes has notably increased.
Insurers are pulling out of the sector while there are lower risk industries offering safer bets. Premiums are up for property insurance (buildings, contents, machinery) and business interruption cover. Those that can find and afford insurance policies are finding their policies increasingly weighted with stricter warranties and terms and conditions, meaning that it may become more difficult to make claims in future.
Environment Agency Technical Guidance Notes (TGN)
There needs to be a resolution, a strong and defined response.
The Environment Agency issued towards the end of 2013 its TGN. There are mandatory elements to the guidelines for holding an environmental licence that can be lauded.
Yet there are some points that cause concern as they are suggestions with no power to make waste management companies take action. Two points that stand out from my point of view are that waste management and recycling plants should use suppression and fire protection systems.
A suggestion is almost not worth making, if many industry businesses have not implemented these suggestions in the light of the current situation, then when will they?
The guidelines will undoubtedly be reviewed and amended, but until they are the current fire crisis in the waste management sector will continue.
Let’s look at the second of those two areas: fire detection technology.
Fire detection technology
The technology is there to enable quick action to contain fires before they become entrenched, causing significant damage to businesses and the community’s resources and potentially quality of life.
In no particular order and with objectivity the following three technologies could be considered. It should be noted that the type of material stored will form part of the decision process.
Infrared detectors (IR) are simply transducers of radiant energy, converting radiant energy in the IR into a measurable form.
Detecting IR energy emitted by objects takes away reliance on visible light and so obscured conditions should not affect its effectiveness although thick smoke is an issue; oil and grease can also be problematic.
Most IR detectors are designed to ignore constant background IR radiation, which is present, focusing on the modulated part of the radiation.
When exposed to modulated non-flame IR radiation, IR detectors become more prone to false alarms.
Operator verification ensures appropriate action is taken, minimising false alarms of already under pressure fire services.
Aspirating Smoke Detectors
Aspirating Smoke Detectors (ASDs) work by assessing the presence of smoke particles suspended in air that have been drawn through sample holes in a pipe network into a detection chamber.
ASD is highly sensitive, often detecting smoke before it is visible to the human eye, which is particularly valuable in slow growth fires or where a fire develops deep in stockpiles.
However, the sensitivity to distinguish between smoke and dust in early stage smouldering fires can be compromised, the size of dust and smoke particles can be similar.
There are technological approaches to reduce nuisance alarms, but compensatory technology may impact the sensitivity of a smoke detector and early warning reliability.
Future integration of ASD with intelligent detection systems, including remote monitoring and verification will improve its effectiveness.
Video Smoke Detection
Video Smoke Detection (VSD) is a proven technology in terms of what it can deliver.
Essentially it detects danger by looking for smoke patterns, often at points that might be particularly vulnerable to fire risk.
Rather than waiting for a signal to trigger specific sensors, VSD can offer early warnings by cameras pointing at the subject space and looking for changes in variables. It can also survey large open sites.
If a complex has areas that could trigger alerts from signals that might resemble smoke, such as dirt from recycling plants, then such areas can be isolated. This allows safety staff to concentrate on the key danger areas.
Safety operators can work on site or remotely. With high quality video, they can determine if an alert is a real fire risk and take appropriate action. Alerts can be studied after the event to improve safety.
The scale and damage inflicted by major fires at waste management and recycling sites is rising and rising at a menacing rate.
Action needs to be taken and I believe it will be. Yet, until it is the litany of major fires inflicting significant commercial, environmental and health related damage will continue.
We need to be robust and firm in our response if we want the situation to really improve. Let’s hope that industry thought leaders and associations, the Environment Agency and the waste management and recycling businesses themselves push us to a situation where we talk about frequent major fires in the past tense.
Simon Jenkins is the product manager at FireVu, which offers Video Smoke Detection (VSD) fire detection solutions for the waste management and recycling industries. www.firevu.co.uk
Simon is contactable on email@example.com or on 01928 706422
Published in April’s Fire Risk Management and reproduced by its kind permission.