Physical fire breaks offer concrete solution

Written by: RWW | Published:

With the large number of fires occurring at waste and recycling facilities across the UK, Owen Batham at Elite Precast Concrete, argues 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.

Current legislation and best practice for fire risk management 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.

Adherence to PPG29

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. 

Time and time again, I’ve seen 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. The 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 use space which would otherwise have had to be left clear. By using free standing 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.

Case for superseding PPG29

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 fire breakout last year 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.

Concrete fire breaks

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 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 in the past. 

Because of the outbreak of incidents like the one in Smethwick, insurance companies are becoming more and more reluctant 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. 

Also, 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 to 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 change outdated guidance into something ready not only for 2014, but for years to come.

Fact File: Elite Precast Concrete

Founded in 2008 by a team with more than 40 years’ industry experience, Shropshire-based Elite Precast Concrete is the UK-based specialist in manufacturing and supplying Duo interlocking, Vee interlocking and Legato interlocking precast concrete blocks. The company’s precast concrete products are now used by a range of national and international clients including local authorities, recycling businesses and waste management firms, to build waste storage bays.


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