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Fire prevention is better than cure – why waste managers need to act now!

Attribute. West Midlands Fire ServiceFires at waste sites are unfortunately a common occurrence. It is estimated that there is approximately one every single day across the UK. With the rising number of fire-related deaths in the waste industry at landfill sites and recycling centres, it has never been more important to take a more serious approach to fire suppression.

Darrel Moore from CIWM recently reported that there had been three major fires across waste and recycling sites in just four days; including a SITA site and an organic site.

The West Midlands Fire Service reported some shocking statistics back in 2013 after a serious incident at a recycling plant in Sedgewick. The fire which involved over 100,000 tonnes of recycled plastics required 39 fire engines, over 200 firefighters and 14 million litres of water. The environmental impact was huge, with an estimated 19,000 tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere.

Skip Hire Magazine interviewed Roy Wilsher OBE, Director of Operations of the Chief Fire Officers Association who led the Fire Futures Forum in 2013. The aim of the forum was to bring together agencies involved with the reduction of fires at waste facilities and to develop a long-term strategy to reduce such incidents.

In your experience as a Chief Fire Officer, what is the most common cause of fire on waste management sites?RoyWilsher.jpeg1

There is a real variety, so it depends on how things are stored. If its organic material that’s a bit damp, it can self-heat, you get that quite a lot. We also get accidental sparks from cutting. The famous one in Birmingham was apparently from a Chinese lantern, which was accidental and of course, you get deliberate ones as well.

When these large-scale fires do happen, what is the impact to waste operators?

There are several impacts really. For legitimate businesses, which most are, it’s obviously the business continuity, the damage to the business, the loss of money, profit and all those sorts of things. If you’re put completely out of business, which is possible, you have to deal with all those circumstances.

Then of course there’s the impact on the environment, in terms of ground, water and air pollution.

There’s the impact on the local community. So, often if there are large sites, there’s the smoke and the disruption caused by firefighting and then also the disruption to the Fire Service itself. Often, the larger events can go on for days, if not weeks and take up an awful lot of resources.

What are the dangers to public health?

A lot of the plastics and the rubbers and certainly the plastics that are being developed for burning in power stations can burn with great intensity and with some toxic production, so there are some health risks from the smoke. Often, we give advice to people to stay indoors and close their windows. I think the bigger risk though is to the environment, especially if there’s a nearby river or canal; to the fish and the wildlife and the pollution on the ground and with fire getting into the drainage systems and the sewers. The Environment Agency are very concerned about that. Any event like this, we work very close with them to look at all angles of pollution and health.

Some of the statistics in your report from the Fire Futures Forum with regards to the large-scale impact are quite shocking. What would you say is the overall cost and impact to the emergency services as a whole?

It’s really difficult to quantify. If you use the Smethwick example, they put a figure of £6 million on it. We had our own example in St Albans, which was a wood recycling plant, which went on for weeks and it was hundreds of thousands in additional costs.

One of the big risks, it was all built around one of the major electrical intakes into London. There are five particular intakes; 450,000 kilovolts that bring the electricity in to London and there was the possibility that one of those might have been damaged, so there’s all sorts of other aspects you need to think of.

For the Fire Service, what are the main challenges in trying to promote the prevention of large-scale fires at waste sites?

What we’re really trying to do is work with everyone involved; the regulators, the Environment Agency and the industry itself. I must admit when we started on this work, I’d never come across so many associations and industry groups that are in waste and recycling. Even with tyres, there are about six different groups. So, it’s getting to everyone and getting everyone involved. We work with WISH very closely as an umbrella group, but not everyone is connected with them. There’s Government involvement, but also what is very important is that we’re trying to involve the insurance industry. There are one or two insurers starting to withdraw from this part of the market, so the waste industry will find it hard to get insurance cover.

What we’re not trying to do as the Fire service is to point fingers, blame or prosecute anyone, but rather work with people. Our philosophy is ‘prevention is better than cure’ and how do we help people running the sites? They are a big part of the economy and we need to make sure they don’t have fires because that’s better for everyone.

You all have the same vision, but trying to engage businesses and organisations of so many different sizes from all over the country must be challenging?

It is difficult, but we’re working very close with the EA and are talking about joint inspections. Inspection sounds quite harsh, but joint visits to people, to make sure that we reduce the burden on the business as well; so you don’t have the EA one day and the Fire Service the next. We will come together and talk about what needs doing. So we’ll talk about stack sizes, what material should be stored next to each other and possible suppression like sprinklers and drenchers. That sounds expensive but we will be very mindful of the limitations of the business. I think if we work together, we’re much more likely to get on top of these things.

Are there currently any laws where you must have some type of fire suppression in place or are they more like guidelines?

It’s guidelines. There’s a new fire prevention guide that’s just come out from the EA, which is perhaps not where we would like it to be and it might be reviewed very quickly. As we go through the consultation, that will assist and be used as the base document to work with all parts of the industry to help in bringing better prevention.

What would, in your opinion, be the most effective strategy that businesses and councils can take in order to prevent these fires from happening?

It’s very much about planning. What tends to happen is people underestimate exactly how much waste they are going to have to store and where they are going to put it and then put the wrong waste next to each other. We’re now on to full-scale fire testing, so the guidance we can give in future will be based on actual fires and scientific data, rather than a guess. So when people say ‘Why do you say my stack should be only so high and separated by so much?’, we can say ‘Well, the radiated heat from this particular type of waste is based on proper testing, rather than just guesswork.’

Do you see there ever being any solution to stopping these fires or drastically reducing the number of incidents?

I’m hopeful that we can reduce them. It’s the sort of thing we’ve done over the last ten-fifteen years in people’s homes. There’s about 40% less fires now than there was 15 years ago. We’ve worked on prevention, all the things we’ve done around smoke detection, chip pan fires, smoking in bed and all those sorts of things. We’re using that same philosophy ‘prevention is better than cure’ with this particular industry now.

Since the Fires Futures Forum, have there been any significant developments in the reduction of fires at waste management facilities?

The guidance has been updated. We’re working much closer with WISH and the EA on these matters. There’s not been a great shift or change at the moment, but we’ve really set the groundwork and the foundations now to move on over the next two or three years and really push forward to make this a better situation for everyone involved.

Is there anything specific you would like to say to our readers?

I think the biggest thing I would say is don’t be afraid to contact your local Fire and Rescue Service. We, as the Chief Fire Officers Association, are just about to give guidance from our side; that we should be prepared to work with local industries and any part of the waste industry in this way. So, don’t be afraid to contact us for advice because we will come and give it.

The big challenge for everyone involved is the sites that perhaps aren’t quite as legally minded as everyone else, the ones that don’t care about industry regulations or guidance, the ones who dump things somewhere, they are the ones we need to tackle as well.

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