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Warehouses and fire risk

Modern warehouses can have complicated configurations which can allow for fires to spread rapidly, making manual firefighting efforts more difficult. These fires regularly result in major damages and losses, not only to the buildings but also stock losses and resultant financial loss (profit).

Storage areas can be large and include extensive shelving, block storage, bulk goods, liquid storage and even refrigerated rooms. It is also not uncommon to find forklift trucks and conveyor belts servicing internal operations.

Warehouses are not always owner-managed; these are often run by third party tenants who may store and manage goods for a rental fee.

In South Africa, between 2011 and 2015, there were 436 warehouse fires registered with FPASA (Fire Protection Association of Southern Africa). In most cases, the cause of the fires could not be determined.

In analysing claim reports, some common problems and causes stand out:

  1. None or inadequate fire extinguishing system.
  2. Insufficient water supply or insufficient water pressure to fire hoses.
  3. Inadequate fire detection system. Lack of early warning alarms.
  4. Employees’ failure to control initial outbreak. Lack of training to use fire fighting equipment is frequently the reason.
  5. Human error or willful or grossly negligent conduct. Some examples include, smoking in non-smoking areas, performing hot work, faulty installation of electrical equipment, careless handling of fuel and electrical equipment, and even incorrect storage practices such as certain chemicals and products that can self-ignite.

Another issue is that warehouses are not divided into fire zones or their firewalls have significant shortcomings, allowing fire to spread more rapidly. An effective way to reduce overall risk is to divide storage areas into classes based on risk exposure.

Unused storage equipment such as wooden pallets can pose greater risk due to their significant fire load. These unused pallets are commonly stored at the outer wall of warehouses and then become an easy target for arsonists. Instead, these should be stored a safe distance (at least 20 metres) away from outer walls of warehouse buildings or in a separate fire zone within the warehouse.

Source of information: Courtesy of David Leclezio of Tradesure.