On August 4, a massive explosion ripped through the heart of Beirut’s bustling port killing at least 177, injuring about 6,000, causing an estimated 10–15  billion (USD) in property damage, and leaving approximately 300,000 homeless. News reports indicate that the presence of 2750 tons of Ammonium Nitrate (AN) was the reason the initial fire resulted in a devastating blast that sent shockwaves throughout Lebanon’s capital city and the region. The incident is yet another tragic reminder of why it is important to connect the dots on safety, as defined by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety System.

Ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer or an oxygen-rich compound that can accelerate fire or explosions. It needs another element, however, to first destabilize it. Destabilization likely occurred when flames or fire started the process of heating the AN. It then became self-reactive and ultimately gave off gases that were flammable, eventually igniting. We have seen instances of destabilization in West, Texas; Texas City, Texas; and Tianjin, China when fires started in areas adjacent to where AN was being stored with deadly consequences. In Beirut, it appears that a fire in a fireworks storage warehouse next store initiated the catastrophe we all witnessed on TV and social media.

Some countries, such as China and Italy, have the capacity and ability to manufacture large high-quality fireworks for use, while the U.S imports fireworks. Both situations have unique fire protection considerations.

Manufacturing facilities where fireworks, novelties, pyrotechnic articles, or various components are constructed typically house a combination of different fuels and oxidizers. Facilities will have different types and quantities of materials to build their desired fireworks. These materials have increased flammability, explosivity, and oxidizing effects, so it is critical that the assembly of fireworks be done in a controlled environment that limits ignition sources. In all of the fires and explosions mentioned above, some of the highest casualties were among first responders because they were unaware of the hazardous materials onsite and were not able to implement an appropriate plan of attack at the facility.

Fireworks inherently contain two legs of the fire triangle required for combustion - fuel and oxygen, so the third leg, heat (ignition source), is the necessary control for manufacturing facilities. That’s why electrical equipment must meet specific wiring requirements to prevent electrical sources from becoming ignition sources. Open flames are prohibited in areas where fireworks or components are present too. This applies to hot work, which is any work that produces heat, flame, or sparks. Most often hot work is associated with high thermal energy work such as welding, cutting, and grinding, however it includes a wide range of other lower thermal energy work, such as drilling, tapping, and abrasive blasting.

Hot work has been pointed to as the likely source of the fire in Beirut. Prior to permitting any type of hot work in an area, an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) must evaluate the area where the proposed hot work is taking place to ensure that the conditions are right (e.g. proper ventilation, no exposed fuel loads, fire resistance of the area).If any type of hot work is to be conducted in any industrial plant or facility, a rigorous hot work program is vital to ensuring safe and efficient operations – for first responders and laborers.

Components of a program must include notification of operation to the plant fire brigade or municipal fire department; a proper and thorough inspection by a trained, competent person prior to work being conducted is also important. During this inspection the actual work to be done and the existence of any combustibles in the area or adjacent areas will need to be clear. There are certain areas that might, through proper preventative measures such as removing or shielding combustibles, be made “permissible” for hot work. In some cases, regardless of the number of fire preventive counter-measures undertaken, jobs may be deemed “non-permissible” and alternative actions must be taken.

The department or brigade should have vigorous Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that include a trained fire watch that is supplied with appropriate means of communication to a central dispatch and specific fire extinguishing medium such as an extinguisher or in some cases, a charged hose line.

Guidelines for fire brigades can be found in NFPA 600, Standard on Facility Fire Brigades, which has a newly revised 2020 Edition. 

Fireworks manufacturing facilities, because of the hazards noted above, should never have hot work authorized. Less than a year ago, welding slag came into contact with fugitive pyrotechnic dust at a factory in Barcelona Pozzo di Gotto, Italy. An explosion and fire resulted, killing five and injuring three others. Even in facilities where scrutiny and housekeeping are the norm, the possibility of fugitive fuel connection still runs high.

Fireworks storage facilities face the same hazards as a manufacturing facility, but the pyrotechnic composition is not as readily available as it would be in a manufacturing facility. Storage facilities will have larger quantities of finished product than manufacturing facilities, but the inventory tends to be encased in packaging for transport and not as likely to contribute to a fire.

If display-grade fireworks are being stored, given the larger quantity of pyrotechnic composition in the units, they must be stored inside a magazine that is constructed and sited appropriately. This requires greater distances from other buildings so that if a magazine catches fire or explodes, abutting structures are situated outside the high-risk danger zone.

Facility fire brigades or municipal departments that have these types of facilities in their jurisdiction must incorporate inspection, regulation enforcement and preplanning. Pre-planning gives the responding forces intelligence on what is happening within the structure or around it. Different industrial processes, for example, require processing steps that may include mechanical or chemical actions that need to be understood so that appropriate response measures can be taken to support not The aftermath of the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas. Photo courtesy of U.S. Chemical Safety Board At left is the remains of the factory. At right is a city park playground smashed by the blast wave. only the safety of the workers and conservation of property but the very safety of the responders. Fire brigades tend to have more control than municipal departments when it comes to inspection processes and emergency planning.

Often municipal departments don’t have access to buildings and therefore don’t know exactly all the hazards present. As part of these preplanning visits, any hazardous chemicals should be identified and their characteristics fully understood. This way, in case of an emergency, appropriate actions can be taken.

Information on specific chemicals and storage limits can be found in NFPA 400 The Hazardous Materials Code, 2019 Edition. In the case of AN as a solid oxidizer, information on storage limits, separation distances, and fire protection features can be found. If the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for inspection is separate from the response units, a method for sharing information is critical for the proper action and safety of the responders. Another very handy reference guide for responders is the Emergency Response Guide (ERG) 2020, distributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This guide gives quick, valuable information to responders on potential hazards of chemicals, PPE required, evacuation distances, and brief actions to take based on whether it’s a fire, spill, leak, or first aid measures.

These references and others will assist a responding agency in determining their risk profile and methods to set up SOPs for the appropriate mitigation response.

In Beirut, had the fireworks storage warehouse been separated from the AN storage, not to mention other buildings, the damage would have been lower, for several reasons. First, a separation of buildings would have prevented any burning material from the initial fire from dropping into the AN storage area or reaching any surrounding buildings. The greater the distance between the fire and adjacent structures, there will be less radiant heat flux and a reduced chance of spread to other buildings. Second, in the event of an explosion, the greater the distance, the lower the pressure effects from the explosion shockwave - meaning less chance of walls being knocked down or turned into shrapnel.

Both fireworks manufacturing and storage facilities require diligent product control and change management while in operation. Often, operators of these facilities are unaware of hazards and are operating at a capacity above what inspection officials approved originally. Sometimes, building owners or operators may exceed safeguards they have in place knowingly and other times they may bypass the entire permitting process altogether. All facilities manufacturing or storing fireworks should follow the requirements set forth by their AHJ, as well as recognized industry standards such as NFPA 1124 Code for the Manufacture, Transportation, and Storage of Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles.

To ensure that catastrophes like Beirut are avoided moving forward, it is critical that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the manufacturing and storage of fireworks, and the storage of compounds like ammonium nitrate. Business owners, facility managers, code enforcers, as well as fire and other emergency personnel all play important roles in keeping fireworks and everything around them safe from harm.