January 2014

Physical fire breaks offer concrete solution to fire

With the large number of fires occurring at waste and recycling facilities across the UK, we believe that there is a growing need for firms to take a more proactive approach to their fire risk management and to develop more sophisticated disaster recovery plans.

Owen Batham, Sales and Marketing Director at Elite Precast Concrete commented…
“Current legislation and best practice is based on Pollution Protection Guidance (PPG29) which recommends using a combination of maximum stack sizes and minimum separation distances between stacks of materials as the primary risk management strategy. Written as a regulatory guide for the safe storage of combustible materials to prevent and control fire, PPG29’s aim is to provide companies with appropriate standards and to share best practice for the management of fire risk involving storage facilities. Its focus is almost exclusively on the use of specified gaps and distances between bays of stacked materials, indeed this one-size-fits-all approach is pretty much the only one offered by the guidelines which fail to consider any additional and alternative approaches that could be used.

With the prevalence of waste management, treatment, and storage sites in city centre and urban locations, where space is at a premium, adherence to PPG29 can be prohibitively expensive and not necessarily the most effective solution. Rather than simply focusing on gaps between stockpiles, I believe that we should advocate the use of physical fire breaks, as these can not only make great sense from a health and safety perspective, but they’re a commercially-astute decision too.

I’ve seen time and again, high-quality, free-standing physical fire breaks both reduce the risk of fires spreading and allow businesses to make more effective and efficient use of their sites by permitting larger material stacks and more efficient use of yard space. And use of physical fire breaks is already being received positively by many in the insurance sector too, with both reductions in premiums, and continuation of cover when there was previously some doubt being reported.

The use of physical fire breaks will allow sites to better segregate their materials and to utilise space which would otherwise have had to be left clear. By using freestanding  interlocking concrete blocks as fire breaks, not only can the costs and inconvenience of permanent footings be avoided, but the bay walls and breaks themselves can be easily dismantled and reassembled by unskilled personnel, which allow facilities to keep up with changing recycling trends, storage needs, and business demands.

My case for the extension, re-writing, or superseding of the PPG29 guidelines has been further strengthened by the prevalence and ferocity of some recent fires breaking out at plants and sites across the country. Many of these businesses followed the guidelines to the letter. They have provided the appropriate gaps between materials, have managed their stack heights, and did everything in their power to avert a disaster. Yet they still suffered not only the devastating effects of a fire starting but also the even more disastrous results of the initial fire quickly spreading throughout the premises.

Take the recent fire breakout at a plastic and paper recycling plant in Smethwick as an example. The fire was caused by a Chinese lantern which, when it landed, ignited thousands of tons of baled plastics and paper which were all destined for recycling.

It caused a massive disruption to both the local community and local businesses, and even the Environment Agency was involved because of potential pollution issues caused by the fire-fighters’ water run-off entering a local canal network. This is just one of many fires which have been in the headlines recently, and evidences better than any argument that we need to do more, be more proactive, and more sophisticated in our battle to manage risk and avert other potential incidents.

Not only are concrete fire breaks a hugely strong, readily available, and cost-effective solution, but concrete itself in no way contributes to the breakout or spreading of fires. Unlike steel or timber, concrete has the lowest rate of temperature rise across a surface, and through the cross-sections of concrete internal zones don’t reach the same high temperatures as a surface exposed to flames. Put simply, concrete does not add to a fire’s fuel load, and very few other, cost-effective materials can argue the same.

Quality precast interlocking concrete blocks also don’t omit any toxic gases or fumes, are resistant to smouldering materials, and – if properly designed and manufactured – can be described as ‘fire-proof’. We have British and European Standards to distinguish whether concrete blocks are fit-for-purpose and these very much focus on the constituent ingredients of the concrete, so you should only consider blocks which comprise of less than 1% organic constituents and recycled materials and are therefore Class 1A Fire Resistant based on clause of EN 13369.

Doing nothing and maintaining our blinkered focus on the PPG29 guidelines at the exclusion of all other risk mitigation strategies is not an option for many in the sector, and certainly for those who have suffered issues in the past. Because of the outbreak of incidents like that in Smethwick, insurance companies are becoming more and more loathed to offer cover, and they’re demanding firm evidence of proactive planning and intelligent recovery and disaster management protocols.

They’ve been steadily increasing premiums to cover the cost of payouts, and we’re hearing reports of reduction in cover, harsh terms being added to policies, enormous excesses, and even cover being withdrawn.

The time is absolutely right for new guidelines to be developed, but until then I urge waste and recycling businesses to consider the use of physical fire breaks as part of their armoury in the war against fire. Speak with your local fire safety officer, liaise with your industry bodies, and speak with your colleagues, competitors and the wider industry. We need to work together to evolve outdated guidance into something ready not only for 2014 but for the years to come.”

Founded in 2008 by a team with more than 40 years industry experience, Shropshire-based Elite Precast Concrete Limited is the UK market leader in manufacturing and supplying Duo ™ interlocking, Vee ™ Interlocking and Legato ™ Interlocking precast concrete blocks. By adopting an innovative and forward-thinking approach, both in its production processes and sales and marketing strategy, the company’s precast concrete products are now used by a wide range of national and international clients including local authorities, recycling businesses, and waste management firms, to build durable waste storage bays.

Elite is also by far the largest supplier in the UK of concrete kentledge (counterweight) blocks which are used to hold scaffolding, security fencing, hoardings, and marquees in place. We have been a proud partner in many major infrastructure projects including Crossrail, and global events such as London 2012.