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Careful Planning, Preventive Steps Can Reduce Fire Risk
This is the second article of a two-part series on fire and fire safety. Gordon outlines what you can do to help prevent fire from breaking out in your plant.
By Gordon Hughes
Date Posted: 7/1/2003
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series of articles on fire and fire safety. Gordon Hughes is uniquely qualified to write about fire safety issues for pallet and sawmill businesses. He was a professional firefighter for 31 years in Toronto before retiring as a district chief and has experience fighting fires at lumber companies and wood processing businesses. Gordon also serves as executive general manager of the Canadian Wood Pallet and Container Association. He has written a manual on industrial fire safety that incorporates fire department expertise for preventing, planning for, and responding to fire.)
Most fires are caused by careless- ness and deceit. The majority of fires that occurs in the yard of a lumber business or pallet or container company start from one of two major sources. The most common is cigarette smoking — discarding a finished yet still burning cigarette near stacks of lumber or pallets. The burning cigarette ignites dry grass or paper, starting a fire that spreads to the lumber or pallets.
Of course, a board will not ignite if you place a burning cigarette on it. The wood must be exposed to a flame for a period of time until it reaches ignition temperature. Another cause may be a hot or overheated forklift that is parked on dry grass or debris. The hot metal ignites the grass or debris, and the fire spreads to the pallets or lumber.
If you allow smoking in the yard and you wish to reduce the risk of fire, put plastic or metal barrels of water along the forklift route, near picnic tables and other locations where workers travel or congregate. In addition, supply deep ashtrays or cans filled with sand in your staff lunch room. Remember, the bigger the ashtray, the better.
The best way to reduce the risk of fire in the yard is to prohibit smoking in the yard. Inform your staff that smoking is not allowed outside, and that violations will be grounds for dismissal. Remember: you stand to lose everything if your business is struck by a devastating fire; the careless employee who caused the disaster will only lose his position, not his livelihood.
Setting Up Your Yard
Many pallet companies store pallets and other finished goods in the rear of the property while keeping raw lumber close to the building to make it more accessible. A different way of storing finished goods and raw material can help prevent a fire from spreading and improve security.
One objective in fire prevention and safety is to prevent a fire from spreading to adjoining property. You can accomplish this by building a solid ‘fence’ around your property with bundles of raw material. It is almost impossible to ignite a package of banded lumber or timber. If it were to ignite, the cause most likely would be an alternate source, such as a discarded cigarette that caused dry grass or debris to catch fire. Bundled lumber stored close together will burn to a depth of only 1/4-inch. The loss of banded lumber to a fire will be very small; almost 100% can be reclaimed.
Packages of lumber may be stacked directly against a fence line, and this is acceptable to fire officials. (However, stacking pallets or other finished product next to the fence line would be against fire regulations.)
The solid wood barrier provides a significant amount of security. Most people trying to enter the property illegally after hours will seek an easier option than climbing high stacks of bundled lumber.
Store raw lumber around the border of the yard and finished products in the middle. Keep finished product together, leaving access for fire trucks between the rows. Stacks of finished product may be high. Fire codes generally allow finished product to be stacked 18-20 pallets high (this moves one lift of pallets into a trailer) to 50-75 feet wide and 100-150 feet long. Allow for a 15-20 foot access route around the stacks for fire trucks.
Many companies stack finished pallets next to their building for quick delivery. They hesitate to move them into inventory due to ‘just-in-time’ delivery requirements. Fire officials will allow storing finished goods next to the building for a short time period, but there must be signage or lettering on the building or lot indicating that the pallets are ‘In Transit’ and will be delivered soon. Pre-cut material may not be stacked next to a building.
Access routes for fire trucks are somewhat of a misnomer. From the time a fire starts to the time a passer-by or employee sees it and reports the fire to his superior or calls 911, 15 minutes or more may have passed. When the first fire truck arrives at the scene, it will not set up directly adjacent to the fire, which could jeopardize the firefighters and their equipment. Most likely, the first fire truck to respond will set up on the street next to a nearby hydrant, and the firefighters will run hoses into the yard to the fire. The officer in charge will assess the fire and direct other arriving fire trucks to deploy hoses.
Firefighters will concentrate their efforts on pallets, which burn well because of the dry lumber and also the spaces between decks and boards, which allow air to circulate. Firefighters understand that stacks of bundled lumber circling the yard will be easy to extinguish — in fact, they may burn out because of the lack of oxygen and raw material.
By the time all the firefighting units are on the scene and their equipment is deployed, 30 minutes may have elapsed.
Close stacks of pallets and other finished products will promote quick, funnel-like burning — much like a chimney. This kind of fire will draw air from ground level in the immediate vicinity. If you are within 50-75 feet, you can feel the air shooting past you. The funnel effect may send flames 100-200 feet into the air. A fire can burn so hot that if water pressure is insufficient, the fire will simply turn the water to steam, extracting oxygen from the water to feed itself further.
A pallet fire of this type, in which the pallets have been stored in the middle of the yard, will allow firefighters to concentrate their efforts on a limited area, and losses will be minimized. The firefighters can set up ‘water curtains’ — spraying water into the air — to protect adjacent pallets or other finished product and allow the fire to burn itself out.
Many pallet companies that have propane powered forklifts keep a filler tank somewhere on the property. These tanks must be protected by cement or steel pilings to prevent them from being struck by a forklift or other vehicle.
All forklift operators should be certified propane handlers and able to correctly refuel the forklift. If a forklift operator drives off while it is still attached to the tank filler valve, he should be trained to shut off his valve and allow the propane to expel. On every tank there is an emergency shut-off which should be a quarter-turn valve or similar. If a driver pulls away from the line and causes the propane to burst into flame from either the fill or filler line, allow the fire to burn and call emergency services. Do not try to extinguish the fire. Clear the area, evacuate the plant and wait. The fire department will extinguish the fire and get you back in service quickly.
Too many dangerous situations can develop if your employee puts out the propane fire. If the propane flows from a severed line, the fuel will naturally flow to a lower area, such as into ditches or a lower section of the yard. If another hot forklift truck drives through the propane or a cigarette is tossed into it, the propane could explode.
All pallet company yards have entrance and exit gates. One gate may serve as both or there may be two separate gates. A good rule of thumb is to have one gate that is big enough to let two fire trucks pass easily. This allows for quick evacuation. All gates must be open throughout the working hours or manned to guarantee quick movement of vehicles and people.
If there are two gates but the company uses only one, signage should indicate that one gate is inoperative and to proceed to the next gate.
If you use a gated area adjacent to a building for storage, do not stack raw material or finished product next to the building.
Safety in Plant
Most plants are set up to easily move raw material and finished product. Good housekeeping is paramount in any plant in order to reduce the risk of fire. If fire officials come to inspect the plant and find messy conditions, they will look hard to find fire code violations.
The plant should have two emergency exits, and they may incorporate an overhead door. Exits should have a lighted sign and a standard fire extinguisher nearby. Emergency lighting may be required, depending on the size of the plant.
The building’s power source must be easily accessible; if it is large, it should be accessible from the exterior. Oil and other flammable materials should be stored in a separate, protected room and listed in a company’s fire plan.
Owners and managers should know how to shut down all the power by turning off one or two main electrical switches or controls.
Sprinklers are not common in pallet plants. Fire officials always recommend them, but they generally are not required. However, sprinklers are the first line of defense against a total loss from fire.
Fire officials discourage storing pallets in the plant. Finished product should be outside and away from the building. Most fire officials recommend that pallets be stored 50-100 feet from the plant. If you stack finished product a good distance from the building and keep the yard clean and organized, most fire officials will pass over the exact requirements.
Fire in Rural Areas
Pallet companies in rural areas, where it takes additional time for firefighters to respond, may take steps in advance to help contain a fire until fire trucks arrive. Consider buying a portable fire pump, which could be supplied by hoses to a pond or tanker. A portable fire pump can pump enough gallons of water per minute for a couple of hoses to contain the blaze until firefighters arrive.
A rural environment may increase the response time of firefighters but also may allow additional space to store pallets and finished product and additional room between this inventory and your building. Take advantage of this additional space. Design the yard to prevent a fire from jumping from one stack to another. If you stack finished product too closely, radiating heat from a fire can ignite other stacks of pallets even if the flames do not actually contact them. The more space around stacks, the less chance of ignition from radiating heat.
Usually the company president, manager, office manager or secretary will be responsible for calling the fire department to report an emergency, such as a fire, injury or death. Prepare a concise summary in advance for the person who makes this call. The caller should provide his name, company name, address and telephone number. The person reporting the fire also should provide a brief description — what is burning and the location in the plant or yard. If it is a rural setting, provide the name of the nearest cross street or road.
When firefighters arrive, they will want to know if all employees have been accounted for. The business should have an evacuation plan, and every employee should be trained to follow it, from office staff to forklift drivers. The plan should require all employees to evacuate and rendezvous at a certain site within a specified period of time. Designated fire wardens – most likely, one each for the office, plant and yard – should have responsibility for employees in their sector and determine if they are at the rendezvous point. Once safely at the rendezvous point, employees should remain there and not attempt to re-enter the premises.
Companies should back up their computers at least daily, and the computer files should be safeguarded. A computer can be replaced in one day, but the inability to retrieve critical computer files containing financial information and other important records could destroy a business even when the actual loss from a fire or theft is small. A fire-proof drawer or safe can protect important documents from fire.
The most important partner in planning for fire risk is your insurance company. Your insurer should lead you through a mock disaster and inform you of problems you will encounter if there is a partial or total loss. The insurance company also will be a partner in helping a business recover from a fire. E&E Insurance Group, which monitors and regulates the CWPCA/ACMPC group insurance program, worked with Pacific Pallet after a fire, helping the company to relocate and resume operations quickly.
A few words of warning when dealing with fire officials. Normally they will inform a business if it is out of compliance and ask company representatives to cooperate. If the business does not comply, it will receive a formal written request with citations from the fire code. If a company continues to ignore its violations, fire officials may make additional demands for other issues that were ‘borderline’ violations. Businesses that fight compliance will be forced to come into compliance. Fire officials hold all the cards in these matters, and companies must respond to their demands.
Invite the fire department to inspect your business. Explain the movement of raw material and finished product and your machinery and ask fire officials if they have any suggestions to make your plant safe from fire.
(Editor’s Note: The 31-page industrial fire safety plan written by Gordon Hughes is available from the Canadian Wood Pallet & Container Association/ACMPC by calling (905) 426-7196 or (877) 224-3555.)