Insights for Developing a Proper Fire Safety Plan Expert Suggests Many Pallet Companies Are Not Prepared
Expert offers strategies to craft a fire safety plan and suggests that many pallet companies are not prepared for a fire.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 8/1/2013
More than just having sprinklers and fire extinguishers, being prepared in case of a fire involves a number of variables that can be easy to overlook. The central part of any thorough preparation is a fire safety plan. This process starts with identifying hazards in a facility, and many pallet companies are not adequately prepared to handle a major fire.
With 39 years in the pallet industry along with 32 years as a professional firefighter, Gordon Hughes, president and owner of Wood Packaging Solutions, is now an independent consultant who helps pallet companies with a wide variety of needs including fire safety planning.
A number of years ago Hughes developed a fire safety manual for the pallet industry and has recently updated it to cover new rules being developed by the International Code Council (ICC). The June issue of Pallet Enterprise covered these proposed rule changes in detail.
Hughes now offers his service to companies in both the United States and Canada at an affordable price. Seeking to highlight the importance of developing a fire safety plan tailored to each individual facility, Hughes recently shared his insights with Pallet Enterprise.
Pallet Enterprise: Explain your experience and qualifications to consult with pallet and lumber companies looking to develop a fire safety plan. Is your knowledge from Canada transferable to companies in the United States?
Gordon Hughes: I worked for 32 years as a fire fighter in Toronto, which is a city the size of Chicago. My experience included working up the ranks to become a district chief overseeing multiple fire houses. In terms of the similarity, all fire departments in North America base their fire protection and prevention on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or the ICC codes. Canadian and U.S. fire fighters are all union members of International Association of Fire Fighters. The firefighters that I know in the United States speak the same language as we do in Canada in terms of enforcement practices.
Pallet Enterprise: Why is it important for companies to have an updated fire safety plan?
Gordon Hughes: It is important that all wooden pallet and wood packaging companies stay current with changes to the policy directive of the NFPA or the ICC depending on which is used in a particular company’s state. The NFPA and ICC regularly post updates that occasionally affect companies in the pallet industry. The new ICC Section 2810 includes pallet pile height, pallet pile sizes, water flow (the amount of gallons per minute of water needed to fight a fire in a particular building or area) and many other variables. All changes to the NFPA and ICC code must be evaluated by state and local fire authorities in North America. The NFPA has not included an outdoor pallet storage requirement in its latest revision set for 2015. The earliest it could move to include such a provision would be 2018.
Given the number and severity of the fires that the pallet industry has had in the past few years, you can expect most fire departments, both large and small will be considering new rules proposed for outdoor storage of idle pallets and evaluating the new standard. Many fire departments already may consider wooden pallet storage a potential safety hazard. This is exacerbated if there is a chance of extensive loss of surrounding structures.
Pallet Enterprise: What is in the manual that you have developed?
Gordon Hughes: This manual includes everything that a wooden packaging company or recycler would need to complete a fire safety plan. The manual contains more than most companies need. When a company purchases the manual, I spend time with the owner or manager on a telephone conference to consider what should be removed based on the individual parameters of each location.
Other key questions include whether a company has sprinkler protection or what types of flammable materials are on site. By customizing a fire plan it becomes easier to integrate this plan into the business plan. Once completed the plan may be presented to the company’s insurance company and local fire officials.
Pallet Enterprise: If a pallet company has added a facility or updated its plan in the last five years, does it really need your service?
Gordon Hughes: If a company’s fire plan is consistent and meets all the fire code changes for the last five years, then it may not need this service right now. A customized fire safety plan offers some additional protection for the employees. There are many issues that companies may not be aware of or have not taken enough precautions to satisfy the code requirements. This may include hazards associated within indoor and outdoor storage of pallets, paint booths, the accumulation of combustibles, such as oily rags or wood dust.
Some insurance companies may be tough if you suffer a fire loss. They all would like you to have a fire safety plan that is followed and the additional satisfaction that your company is current with NFPA policies. Some insurance companies may offer a reduction in price if there is a fire safety plan.
Pallet Enterprise: What areas do pallet companies overlook that are possible fire hazards?
Gordon Hughes: Outdoor storage, of course, and the accumulation of wood dust. With the proposed changes, piles of pallets have to be 15 feet from any building. Section 2810, if adopted, outlines the necessity for space between pallet piles, height, size of piles, etc.
There are different rules for lumber. If you pile lumber near the property line, you may be able to get closer than storing pallets along the property line.
Wood dust accumulation has become a threat in recent years. Wood dust can accumulate in rafters or corners of the building, and it simply takes a small spark to ignite a cloud of wood dust. That mini explosion could disturb other accumulated dust, which could lead to a larger explosion that could endanger even more workers or structures.
Pallet Enterprise: How are the proposed rules for outdoor storage going to impact pallet companies? (See article on page 54 of the June issue of Pallet Enterprise.)
Gordon Hughes: What concerns me with Section 2810 is that many fire departments are going to visit pallet plants in the near future and demand smaller piles with larger separations, which will drastically reduce your available pallet storage. They are going to be required to have pile heights and sizes that are way under what they can do now. And this is going to be a big problem for pallet recyclers where they have tens of thousands of pallets sitting outdoors.
The proposed ICC code changes are designed to allow quicker extinguishment of small fires and to eliminate fire from jumping to the next pile. It also requires a minimum of 24 feet on one side of the pallet pile.
Pallet Enterprise: Is there any way that changes to the storage rules could be made that address the concern but are not as onerous to the pallet industry?
Gordon Hughes: Not after the recent pallet fires that have taken place nationally. Over the last two to three years there have been a large number of pallet/packaging fires in North America that have brought attention to our industry. These were raging fires that you just don’t put out quickly and walk away. You are there three to five days until all the hotspots are extinguished. This length of on-sight extinguishment puts undue pressure on local fire departments.
The more that a company can do to show that it is trying to be compliant, the better off it will be in terms of working with local officials. If you can hand a fire official an updated fire safety plan that is compliant, that one step will go a long way in creating a harmonious relationship with your fire department.
Pallet Enterprise: Will local fire officials cut pallet companies some slack when it comes to storage or other requirements? Why or why not?
Gordon Hughes: The history of the company has a direct impact. If a company has had no fires and maintains the plant, some fire officials may offer some leeway. If a company for instance wanted to put storage closer to the property line there are certain considerations fire officials would take into account prior to making a decision.
Firefighters also have to consider the impact a pallet fire would have on nearby businesses, airports and transportation infrastructure. If you are located near an airport, and have a major fire, the smoke and updrafts could shut down air traffic or highway traffic. Time costs money. Those affected that can show financial loss will be looking for someone to be held liable.
Pallet Enterprise: What are the mistakes that pallet companies are making when it comes to dealing with their insurance provider for fire coverage?
Gordon Hughes: Typically, pallet companies are not getting enough coverage because it is expensive, and it is a cost that comes year after year, and you never use it. But when you need it, you will be glad that you have it. Many hope they will never have the need to file a claim. Clearly, if you suffer a loss, adequate coverage will protect you from losing your business. Always remember, it is the responsibility of the pallet/packaging company to have an adequate fire safety plan in place.
Pallet Enterprise: What do you need to do other than develop a plan? What do you need to do with it once a fire plan has been developed?
Gordon Hughes: The employees must be trained on sections of the plan that pertain to their safety and obvious fire hazards in the plant. If there is a fire, the owner and managers or fire wardens must understand the plan and direct employees to prevent injury and widespread loss. A manager must be consistent and maintain the plan to guarantee it is being followed.
For more information on the fire safety plan consulting service offered by Gordon Hughes, contact Wood Packaging Solutions Inc. by phone at 705/887-9631 or through email at: email@example.com.
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