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Researchers in the line of fire to cut waste site blazes

Put on your safety specs and get the microscope out – fire prevention in the waste industry is going all CSI with a series of high-tech controlled burns.

And if that isn’t Hollywood enough, the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) is keen to try fanning the flames of waste fires to create fire hurricanes. A lot has transpired in the past 12 months.

In October 2014, the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum issued its guidance, Reducing Fire Risk at Waste Management Sites, particularly with reference to waste storage. This was followed by regulatory guidance fire prevention plans published by the Environment Agency (EA) in March. But behind the scenes more work has been going on. As WISH chair Chris Jones says, “the first thing we needed to do was some tests”.

Jones explains that the information the industry has on safe storage of materials, such as distances between stacks, mysteriously appeared during the 1970s and nobody knows where or when the primary research was carried out. This information – controversial at the best of times – could even be best guesswork, so it needed revisiting urgently.

The industry has been collaborating through the WISH Forum with the FRS and EA to work through a three-stage series of fire tests. In the first instance, a selection of 11 waste materials was burned under lab conditions to gain an understanding of their burn characteristics – in other words, their heat output and mass burn rate.

Some of these early results are interesting. As Jones points out, one might assume that, in the event of a fire, a bale of paper would act the same as a roll of paper and burn very quickly: except the tests prove that it does not. In fact, baled paper burns around the edges very slowly and actually provides some insulating qualities.

The second stage of this testing is taking place during the summer, and involves burning stacks in more ‘real world’ conditions to gain an understanding of the sorts of variables at play. These include whether the material is baled or loose, and what material the waste is baled in. “Burning one cube of waste is one thing but, when stacked up, waste burns in an entirely different way,” says Jones.

Then there are other considerations such as ‘brands’ otherwise known to non-fire experts as ‘little sparks’. So while baled paper may appear as if it might be contained easily because it burns slowly, it does create sparks which could carry the fire to other parts of the recycling and waste facility. “It’s a really complicated problem,” says Jones. “If it was an easy problem we would have fixed it by now.”

Another element of testing is leaving material stacked up to monitor self-heating and its effects. Make no mistake, says Jones, “what we are doing is ground-breaking. The revised guidelines [in the next WISH Forum guidance due to be published in spring next year] will be the first document on fire prevention firmly rooted in science.”

A third stage to these tests will involve the fire service investigating innovative ways of putting out waste fires using foams, for example. A phenomenon that has been witnessed by fire fighters that could help tackle waste fires is the ‘fire vortex’. This is usually witnessed in open rural areas, such as the Australian bush, where fires have taken hold. Such fires are extremely hot, and suck gases and ash upwards to create a tornado-like effect.

Mark Andrews, strategic lead at the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), explains: “When we come across these significant waste fires, it can take millions of litres of water and hundreds of fire fighter hours to put them out. Or we can consider doing a controlled burn but that can take many weeks.

“We will be trialling using positive pressure fans to increase the rate at which these fires burn [creating a fire vortex]. This would cause it to burn more quickly and more cleanly – it’s an innovative approach and one that requires a significant amount of research.”

This situation would create a fast and clean controlled burn, and the smoke and gases produced would be drawn straight up into the stratosphere rather than being blown around a local neighbourhood. This would reduce the health effects on residents but may be detrimental to the wider environment. The EA will be looking at the positives and negatives on the environment and local communities.

It is also hoped that the phenomenon can be fine-tuned so that it could become more strategic, although Andrews is extremely coy about talking about this and warns that much more research would be needed to use it as a reliable tool.

In theory, the fire vortex or fire hurricane created could be used to rip off the outer char layer of a fire. If this could be done, it would allow access to the burning material inside the fire, and fire fighters could then use water or foam to put it out. The char protects the fire so that water or foam cannot easily get to the burning material underneath.

But as with all good CSI dramas, in order to use the science effectively you need to be able to understand human behaviour – and waste is no exception. Jones argues that there is still a lot of public awareness work that needs to be carried out. The number of small fires spikes, he says, after a sunny bank holiday as people wrap up their still smouldering disposable barbecues and place them straight into the waste bin.

There is also evidence emerging of a growing danger from lithium polymer batteries. The number of batteries finding their way into the waste stream is growing, despite take-back schemes, as people want smaller phones and devices and need smaller, higher powered batteries to cope. Jones has been told that such batteries have been found at the heart of some of the bigger waste industry fires. He has also received reports of batteries exploding underneath the wheels of forklifts on landfill sites.

Jones has a video from the Belgian fire service showing the results of a pierced lithium battery (see stills and the video at MRW. The video shows someone stabbing at the case with a knife to get through the outer plastic coating, which causes a short circuit within the battery. After three or four attempts the battery casing is breached, the battery sparks and it goes up in flames in moments. The airline industry has already banned some forms of lithium battery following concerns that they can explode and cause fires onboard.

Pallet recycling facility fire_2

Safe disposal of these batteries is paramount, Jones argues, and that is where an attitudinal and behavioural change is needed.

“We can handle these items but they need to be separated out,” he says. “If you are a manufacturer, you go to great lengths to tell your supplier what you are buying and you expect to operate to those standards. But people expect to give [the waste and recycling industry] anything they like – it’s really quite a challenge.”

But attitude and behaviour change within the industry itself already appears to be bearing fruit. There is consensus that the industry is talking seriously about fires and fire prevention.

A year ago, insurers were pulling out of the industry and there were concerns that waste and recycling sites would not be able to get any insurance. Yet now the number of insurers offering coverage appears to have increased, which is thought to be down to improved risk as companies install equipment such as CCTV in processing and storage areas, along with heat and smoke detectors and fire suppression units.

Damian Hayes, managing director, retail division, of industry insurance broker Waste Insure, says: “The main issue last year was capacity, so there were not many insurers prepared to insure waste and recycling facilities. During the past 12 months, the industry has become more attractive to insurers and there are a few more companies that have come on the scene. There is a lot more choice and, for the right risk, the price is coming down.”

Fire detection and suppression equipment is advancing and can offer considerable security and peace of mind. Companies such as FireVu, for instance, offer cameras with smoke and thermal imaging. This sort of equipment should help to prevent fires from starting, or at least provide an early warning, which is what insurers are looking for.

Hayes adds that, in order to attract good deals on insurance, firms also need to demonstrate awareness of fire prevention across the business – from the top layer of management down through to all employees. Here, some of the work that the FRS has been doing with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) in developing fire prevention qualifications may be useful.

“If you want to manage waste sites you have to be technically competent, but there is no competency for fire prevention,” says Andrews. “We are going to draw up a framework of qualifications and competencies that can be applied for. We are consulting about what the qualifications would look like but they would probably be one or two levels of qualification.”

Huge strides in improving site fire safety have been done through collaboration with the FRS and the EA.

“A year ago we realised that there was a gap in the regulatory framework; fire services do not have any direct influence on this framework,” says Andrews. “In London, we signed a memorandum of understanding where all of the high-risk sites in the capital have been shared with the London Fire Brigade (LFB) by the EA and inspected by us also.”

Following inspection, the LFB writes to the EA noting all the fire prevention requirements it has observed at each visit. The EA then writes these into the waste permit. Andrews says the initiative has been really successful and the plan is to replicate the model nationally: “A memorandum of understanding is due to be signed at the end of September, and we now have a strategic CFOA and EA six-monthly standard meeting in place.”

The CFOA has also been liaising with so-called local resilience forums, which plan and prepare for emergencies such as a large fire or a terrorist attack. These comprise category one responders such as the fire service, police, ambulance, hospitals and transport network. The CFOA has been encouraging these forums to put key waste sites on the resilience list so that an emergency response plan is formulated in the event of a disaster such as a large fire.

This has proved to be a big success, and Andrews says: “It looks like we are going to have waste sites recorded on the local risk registers nationally.”

The resilience forums have been an opportunity to discuss how well the agencies work together during a waste fire emergency in order to extract lessons to be learned. The FRS is undertaking an internal review to align fire fighting practices in tackling waste fires across the 46 fire and rescue services in England and Wales. National Operational Guidance is currently out for peer review. It is due to go out for public consultation in October.

It is clear that the waste and recycling industry is taking fire prevention more seriously, and that knowledge and understanding within it is improving. And there has been some high levels of co-operation across the industry and agencies involved.

Chris Murphy, CIWM deputy chief executive, says: “By its very nature, the management of wastes carries risks, and it is essential as a professional and responsible industry that we adequately understand, manage and mitigate these risks. Both the EA and the waste sector have been working hard to address the issue of waste fires, and this work will continue as additional learning and detailed technical understanding.

“Operators are already benefitting from both a clearer regulatory framework from the EA and the additional guidance and good practice that is provided through the WISH Forum. These efforts should help to reduce the risk of fires in the future – but given news of two incidents [at the end of July], it is clear that there is still more to do.”

Jones argues that one more thing to do is stop the 100,000-tonne type of waste stacks around the country. Businesses that do not clean up their act should face closure, he says. “These huge stacks will go up [in flames] eventually and you are not going to be able to put them out very quickly. The day of the mega-stack is gone.”    


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