Prevention and detection of waste management fires must take higher priority
The frequency and scale of major fires in the waste management and recycling sectors cannot go on forever
Between 2001 and 2012, the average number of major blazes at waste management and recycling sites stood at 355, revealed Environment Minister Richard Benyon. The damage to the environment, the additional pressure on the emergency services and the effect on the local community has gone on for far too long. Simon Jenkins, works in fire detection in the waste management industry, here he gives his views on this intolerable situation and what can and should be done.
A recycling plant in St Paul’s Cray, south east London, has been creating a lot of local interest, but for all the wrong reasons.
In just two years just one plant had 11 fires, which have required 550 fire engines, nearly 2,000 hours of firefighters’ time at a cost of £560,000 taxpayers money to extinguish.
The regular blazes, ten of which happened in the last nine months have reduced the quality of life of local residents, caused traffic chaos as well as unnecessary exposure to danger for already overstretched firefighters.
Local residents and politicians are not the only ones venting considerable anger at the recycling plant. The Chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority James Cleverly has expressed his unequivocal view of the unacceptable state of affairs. The fire brigade has now written to the Environment Agency urging them to intervene, fearing the current level of fires will continue if action is not taken.
Something has to be done
The vast majority of waste management and recycling businesses are more responsible in their approach. They provide much appreciated jobs and a vital service to communities and their environments.
Yet, on average there is a fire nearly every day at a waste management or recycling site in the UK, according to the Environment Agency’s own figures.
While the handling of potentially combustible waste materials and the many triggers for combustion mean that not every fire is avoidable, surely the situation has become intolerable.
Whether waste management and recycling plant owners are responsible, or of a less reputable profile, the damage, drain on vital resources and the diminishment of health and quality of life to local residents is still present.
Something has to be done. Something can be done. It is in the power of the Environment Agency to enforce responsible behaviour through procedures to a level that reduces the incidents of fires in the industry. The frequency of fires though remains stubbornly fixed.
What can be done?
The Environment Agency’s latest Technical Guidance Notes (TGN) contain mandatory instructions, many laudable, for waste management and recycling sites to retain their environment permit.
It is “mandatory” for instance to have portable extinguishers and carry out regular inspections to prevent fires. It is hardly comprehensive.
Yet, some key points are only “suggestions.” Automatic smoke detection and fire suppression systems are only installed at the discretion of the business – hardly adequate in view of the state of affairs.
The technology is there. Fire suppression in the form of sprinklers, water sprays, water curtains and fixed monitors can control fires until more substantial help arrives.
Likewise, fire detection technology has matured and is tested. Video Smoke Detection, Aspirating Smoke Detection and Infrared can identify potential blazes in their early stages and alert fire services before fires take hold. If they are successfully extinguished early then the damage to the environment, economy and the health and quality of life of locals can be largely avoided.
Perhaps higher insurance premiums driven by the costs of fires, local and political pressure and business disruption will all drive more businesses in the industry to invest in more comprehensive fire precautions. Without more legislation that wished for state of affairs is unlikely to happen as quickly as we would all want.
Simon is contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01928 706487 / 07825 684826