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Don’t Let Your Company Go Up in Smoke: Tips on Preventing and Responding to a Fire
Up in Smoke: Tips on preventing and responding to a major fire at a forest products facility, including some frequently overlooked keys to minimizing damage.
By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 10/1/2010
Within the forest products industry, it is often said that it is not a question of if a company has had a fire, but a question of whether it has had one yet. However, it is often only after a company has experienced a devastating fire that they realize that they were unprepared to respond to it and that the resulting damage could have been greatly reduced.
I spoke with several companies that have gone through the fire experience. They each had unique suggestions to offer – not just on preventing fires, but on ways to diminish the damage that they can cause. They realize that though they may have another fire, they are now more prepared to deal with one.
Find Some Water
The most basic tool in fighting fire is, of course, water. Companies should know what water sources are accessible to them in case of a fire. This is especially important for plants located in rural areas, such as Potomac Supply in Kinsale, Virginia which is located about 50 miles from the nearest large city.
“We don’t have the benefits of municipal water,” said Clifford Mullen, senior vice president of operations. “We’re dependent on our own water system.”
To deal with this issue, Potomac had a large water tank installed in a central location on their property, as well as multiple fire hydrants, to increase protection of their many buildings.
In addition, Potomac installed a diesel pump for the tank that will run even in the event of power loss.
“We’ve got a diesel pump that’s not dependent on anything else in the world except itself,” said Clifford. Even if there are power outages, it is not an issue.
Choose Your Weapon
Sprinkler systems are the first-responders when it comes to plant fires. However, choosing the right one is not a simple choice. There are many options available – dry systems, wet systems, anti-freeze systems, deluge systems – each with its own merits. But don’t try to decide on your own. Talking with a sprinkler company is the best place to get started.
“The first thing you want to do is get yourself aligned with a good reputable sprinkler company that can help guide you through it,” Clifford said. “What you think you know is nothing compared to what they have as far as knowledge and engineering.”
When speaking with a sprinkler company, consider the maintenance and required of the system as well as future expansion plans.
Though they have about 15 sprinkler systems throughout the plant of different kinds, Potomac Supply tends to lean toward dry systems, according to Clifford.
“If you put in dry sprinkler systems it is a little bit more cost and a little bit more to maintain it,” Clifford said. “But in our area, it’s so much easier and better to maintain in the winter time when you won’t have to worry about keeping the building heated to keep the sprinkler system from freezing up.”
Each company’s situation is unique and will require a unique solution. The biggest mistake that could be made would be to ignore the idea. Sprinklers are often the only thing keeping a fire under control before fire fighters arrive, and should not be overlooked.
“If you wait for the fire department at a lumber company, by the time they get here the problem’s gone past being a problem and gone to a major issue,” said Clifford. “That’s why you have to have this protection first in line.”
Cut the Power
Being able to turn off the power to a building could make the difference between a minor mishap and a catastrophe. Sammy McCorkle, general manager of Timbermen Plant in Camak, Georgia learned that first hand earlier this year as fire fighters stood by and watched his plant be engulfed in flames.
It was 45 minutes after they arrived on the scene before the fire fighters turned on the water hoses and began dousing the flames, as they had to wait for the electric company to turn off the power to the building, according to Sammy. During that time, the fire grew and spread, causing much more damage than it would have if it had been contained earlier.
“It would have been a minor fire instead of a multi-million dollar fire,” Sammy said.
Timbermen chose a unique form of fire protection following their fire experience. They are now having a master cut-off switch installed at the substation, which will allow them to cut the power to the entire building without waiting for the power company to arrive.
Depending on the power company and the voltage coming into a building, there are several options available for companies interested in taking a similar preventative action. With high voltage services, many power companies will not grant access to a substation to plant personnel due to liability issues, according to Rick Armstrong, field engineering supervisor at BARC Electric Cooperative. However, a disconnect switch could be placed between the transformer and building. Some utility companies even require this in high voltage situations, Rick said.
The best way to discover what options are available is to speak with the utility company. They can give you all your options. Depending on what route you take, they may perform the service, or may suggest you hire a local electric contractor to do so.
Talk to a Professional
Though some people consider insurance companies a nuisance, they are some of the best sources for advice on fire safety. After many years in the industry and two fires, Jim Kesting, owner of Madison County Wood Products (MCWP) in St. Lous, has come to realize this.
“My attitudes have changed a lot with age, but more importantly with experience,” said Jim. “I used to look at the insurance folks as an aggravation. We were too busy making pallets and dealing with the day-to-day issues of running a pallet operation. I have learned that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care. These folks are trained, know the pitfalls and understand the risk.”
Beyond knowing what some of the best practices are, insurance companies also know what actions can help save you some money, and possibly afford a better system, like Potomac Supply found when installing one.
“It was such a premium reduction up front with our insurance that it helped us over the years be able to pay for the system,” said Clifford.
Watch Your Neighbors
It could be easy to spend so much time focusing on your plant’s property that the areas surrounding it are completely forgotten about. MWPC had railroad tracks located near one of its former properties. Jim said sparks from the wheels to rails often occurred, once even catching nearby weeds on fire and spreading onto their property.
“You need to keep these areas clean, such as weeds that could catch and spread into your facility,” said Jim.
Any property that comes in contact with yours can have an impact. Consider nearby property and any hazards they may pose. Then you should come up with an action plan that can reduce the possibility of a fire.
Even if your company has never had a fire, implementing precautions is still a wise move for any forest products company. Take the time to make sure that you are doing everything you can to prepare your company to respond in case of a fire. After all, it’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.