New fire guidance is burning a hole in common sense

No-one wants to see fire take hold at a waste facility and, like our fellow safety-minded colleagues in the industry, we take fire prevention very seriously indeed.

Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman, Grundon Waste Management
Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman, Grundon Waste Management

Through personal experience, I know the lasting impact that the crackle of flames and the acrid burning smell of smoke can make.

Many years ago I was caught in a hotel fire and if that sounds dramatic, that’s because it was.

In common with many of my generation, after leaving school, I spent a year backpacking around Australia and South East Asia.

Having run out of money, I funded the rest of the trip selling burglar alarms door-to-door in a far-flung place called Wollongong. Six of us shared a hotel room and I nearly perished when one of our group lit a bedside candle and promptly fell asleep.

By the time I was shaken awake, smoke had already filled my lungs, one of the beds was on fire and flames were climbing up the walls.

Thankfully we all escaped and, as most of us had grown up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ where barn fires were a common occurrence and easily extinguished by a human chain passing metal buckets of water, we followed their example and put the fire out.

What does this have to do with fire prevention at a multi-million pound waste facility?

I believe it shows that with a healthy dose of practicality and common sense, it is possible to make a difference.

I’m not suggesting that a line of volunteers with buckets of water would be the right solution for a major blaze, but to my mind, this example underlines the fact that the new Environment Agency (EA) guidance Fire Prevention Plan (FPP) is lacking in that one key ingredient – common sense.

We all know that the fire brigade no longer has to put fires out. Once there is no more risk to life and limb, it’s more of an exercise in ‘controlled burn’, which is distressing if you are the owner, but eminently sensible if you are the fireman risking his life to save the family backgammon set.

The demand of the new FPP that buildings must have a fire suppression system capable of extinguishing a fire within four hours is therefore, something of a white elephant. Even setting that aside (there are exceptions) it is the lack of options which I find so disappointing.

No mention is made of other water suppression systems that use alternative methods to a 2D water dump. For example, both water mist and foam suppression systems are being shown to put out fires quicker and with a far lower level of water use.

I feel the same way about the guidance that sufficient water supplies should be on site to manage a ‘worst case scenario’.

The guidance states that for a 300m3 pile of waste (the equivalent to three walking floor bulker loads), 2,000 litres of water per minute should be available for a minimum of three hours, ie: 360,000 litres.

To put that amount into perspective – it’s roughly the equivalent of a 25m x 10m swimming pool with an average depth of 1.5m.

And there’s no mention of what happens if you have 10 x that 300m3 pile of waste – then we’d be moving onto Olympic-sized swimming pools!

Does the EA really think that operators have access to such a huge quantity of water or that the water companies will be happy to give us that capacity on tap?

Perhaps they would like to see us all take a leaf out of the book of the latest London ‘celebrity’ craze and dig down into underground chambers.

And there’s a thought, as a nifty sideline perhaps we could invest in a subterranean spa resort with the water nicely heated by solar panels above.

I digress, but the point is that with this new guidance, it seems the EA wants to turn every Materials Recovery Facility into the equivalent of a super tanker under attack from Somali pirates, with enough water on hand to squirt the entire Indian Ocean at their aggressors.

Apparently, we can propose alternative fire prevention measures, providing they meet all three objectives – minimising the likelihood of a fire happening; extinguishing a fire within four hours; and minimising the spread of fire within the site and to neighbouring sites – but I suspect the process will be lengthy and somewhat convoluted.

If on the other hand, we ‘submit a plan which includes all of the measures in this guidance, the EA is likely to approve your plan’ then we could be home and (staying) dry.

Given however, that there are 19 measures in place, operators will have go to the nth degree to cover all possible scenarios and no doubt try and negotiate our way through the many layers of hard-pressed government decision makers at the same time.

Would it not be easier to identify the nearest body of water and provide the necessary length of hose, whilst at the same time fitting early detection and first response systems?

At Grundon, we are currently sitting on our hands whilst this guidance pans out, holding back on millions of pounds worth of investments, and we are just a small part of the wider industry.

Yes, there is a report on the financial impact of the guidance on operators due for publication later this year, but at a time when we need to be looking to the future, surely our time and money could be better spent.

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