It’s a warehouse, how dangerous can it be?

We live most of our lives managing our risk by reassuring ourselves that “it can never happen to us.” After years of permitting warehouses for high piled storage and code compliance it appears that many warehousers live by the same rule.

“It’s a warehouse; I am only storing products; I don’t have any ignitions sources; how dangerous can it be?” Come to find out, it can be more dangerous that you think.

According to the 2016 NFPA Research publication “Structure Fires in Warehouse Properties” by Richard Campbell, the two primary causes for warehouse fires are arson and electrical.

Arson fires are classified as intentionally set fires. These are obviously out of the warehousers’ control. So as much as they would want to avoid the risk by limiting ignition sources, they must contend with the information that 18 percent of warehouse fires are intentionally set.

The actual occurrence of a warehouse fire is relatively low. From 2009 to 2013 there were an average of 1,200 fires per year. These fires caused approximately three civilian deaths and 19 injuries per year while costing $155 million in direct property damage per year. That averages to about $129,000 in damage per fire.

That’s a big number for a risk that is outside of your control, especially when you take into account that those figures are for property only and do not include lawsuits, lost time, or other costs that may arise from the fire.

Tied for the number one source of warehouse fires is electrical. This encompasses lighting, equipment, and distribution of electricity in the building. Again, not a direct source of ignition that can be controlled by the warehouser.

Faulty wiring or equipment can arc and create an ignition source for any vapors or fumes in the air, or if it goes on long enough can ignite a solid. These can then cause a fire to start. In fact, next to flammable and combustible liquids being the first item ignited in the fire is what is called “unclassified item.”

This accounts for items that were not known, meaning something that was thought to be a Class I or Class II commodity that was actually a plastic and ignited and sustained combustion much easier than first thought. Then it is up to the fire protection features of the building to control or suppress the fire and for the fire service to fight the fire, and if the sources of fuel are not properly classified the proper protection is difficult to quantify. This leads to the high dollar losses listed above.

One might deduce that during the time employees are occupying the warehouse and following the safety procedures in place, that the likelihood of a fire occurrence during business hours might be minimal. Again, this is not the case.

The hours for the highest likelihood of fire is from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Not only that, but the second highest rate of direct property damage was also during this period. This could mean that once the fire was started, either the fire protection features were found to be inadequate or that human behavior during the fire was underestimated.

That trend is backed up by the damage costs as well. Although from 1980 to 2013 the average number of fires has dropped from 4,700 per year to now a steady 1,200 per year, the average cost of damage caused by those fires has remained steady.

The data suggests a rising cost of fire to a sharp increase, an immediate decrease, and then a steadily rising cost per fire again. This could be due to the fact that most responses to fires are reactionary. Storage configurations and other technologies change over time and may not be accounted for by the codes, such as plastic pallets and containers, HVLS fans, and other items. Once a fire occurs that is costly, the codes are amended to reflect the new technology.

So as you can see, the odds of a fire might not be that great, but if one does occur, it will likely be on your watch, and at a significant cost. Be sure to consult with your fire code consultant to see your exposure and do all you can to limit the risk based on these factors.