Industrial facilities may contain automated storage and retrieval systems that firefighters should know about ahead of time. - Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Industrial facilities may contain automated storage and retrieval systems that firefighters should know about ahead of time.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The theme of this column is technical pre-planning. It was motivated by my responses to real fires where a lack of pre-planning played a huge role in less-than-positive outcomes. At the same time, there were also positive experiences based on good pre-planning and the work of well-trained firefighters

In one case, there was an incident at a very large auto parts warehouse during my active fire service days. The firefighters I spoke to said that the sprinklers could never control the fire because of the fuel load and the ceiling height. Little did they know that the sprinklers were installed per a Highly Protected Risk (HPR) criteria and would be put to the test shortly thereafter.

That leads us to the story of the fire, the need for pre-fire planning and routine inspections, and the importance of training as it relates to fighting fire in industrial facilities.

Our Story Begins

A fire broke out in a very large auto parts warehouse in the middle of the night. The first alert was a water flow alarm. Shortly thereafter, a pump activation alarm was received so we knew for sure water was flowing from the sprinkler system. A few minutes later we had a phone report of smoke in the building. Upon arrival, we found a light haze throughout the building.

Visibility was not a problem, but the use of self-contained breathing apparatus was still required. Upon investigation, we found that the fire had been controlled by four activated sprinkler heads. The sprinklers worked as expected.

This demonstrates that when installed correctly, in accordance with the code requirements applicable to the products (aka fuel load) and storage configuration, the expected performance of the sprinkler system is well-known. Statements such as "the fire load and ceiling are too high" should not be accepted as fact without some form of testing or analysis.

In this incident, there was a portion of the fire that was shielded from the flow of the sprinklers, which had to be extinguished manually by the fire crews. Sprinkler suppression or control almost always requires fire service intervention for final extinguishment.

After a review of the situation, it was determined that the best way to reach the remaining fire was from the top of the carousel rack, by lowering a cellar nozzle into the narrow space between the carousels. The cellar nozzle, which shoots water in all directions, would suppress the fire by hitting the open-face boxes.

Two military firefighters were elected to complete the final extinguishment — one with industrial experience and one with shipboard experience. The operation was successful.

In telling this story to municipal firefighters, virtually all said going on top of the carousel is too dangerous, and they wouldn't have done it. I believe this points to an important disconnect in the fire service community.

Sprinklers are designed to knock down and limit the spread of fire upon successful activation. At some point, firefighters will have to gain access to achieve final extinguishment.

Fire departments that are responsible for protecting industrial facilities with specialized hazards such as this must train and pare themselves. When the complexity of the incident exceeds the level of training or expertise of local resources, a pre-arranged private service provider should be brought in.

Ultra-Compact Storage

This brings us to the latest generation of efficient storage. So as not to state the trade names of these systems, I will simply refer to these new systems as ultra-compact storage. They are becoming extremely popular because they make the greatest use of available warehouse volume and require the fewest personnel to operate.

To the vendor's credit, they sponsored full-scale fire tests of their arrangement at two internationally recognized test facilities. These tests proved that the fires in their arrangement could be controlled by sprinklers.

However, in all the tests, final extinguishment was extremely difficult. The firefighters at these test labs do this kind of firefighting routinely. It is their "bread and butter" fire.

During these tests, they had to preform extraordinary measures to extinguish the fires. This was because of lack of access to the center of the ultra-dense array.

The test arrays were small; firefighters could reach the center of the array using a scissor lift from one side or the other. With full-scale warehouse arrays, there may not be enough reach to achieve access from the side.

Unfortunately, many fire departments haven't properly trained to effectively handle incidents like this.

The ultra-compact storage situation is simply the newest in a world of constant change. This entire series has been dedicated to making every effort to keep abreast of these changes, evaluate required levels of protection, and determine the most effective options.

This can only be done through technical pre-planning, regular inspections and ongoing training by those firefighters and fire officers who have the responsibility to protect these facilities.

Editor's note: John Frank has decided to take a break from writing the Risk Assessment column but will remain a contributing editor, writing periodically on topics related to new arrangements and ultra-compact storage.

John Frank is senior vice president of the AXA XL Risk Consulting's Loss Prevention Center of Excellence, where he is involved in loss prevention research and loss prevention training.