Fire crews in the West Midlands responded to a devastating industrial fire in January. The huge fire at a food business in Willenhall caused significant damage and major disruption. It was one of a series of fires in the food industry in recent years, with none of the facilities benefiting from an automatic sprinkler system.
The major blaze at the Midland Chilled Foods warehouse and production plant in Stringes Lane on 16 January required 12 fire crews with over 50 firefighters and specialist equipment including a high-volume pump, and two aerial ladder platforms from the West Midlands Fire Service to bring under control. Nearby residents reported hearing explosions and the fire sent plumes of thick black smoke across the local area.
In what is a heavily congested business area, the fire required huge resources in order to contain it and prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent businesses and residential properties. At the same time engineers from gas, electricity and water companies were also on hand to offer assistance. Like many large, local fire events neighbouring schools were also closed due to the disruption.
For this wholesale food business, all employees evacuated safely but over half of the 3,000m2 property and the entire production plant was destroyed in the blaze. This will directly impact their business operations as they seek to recover with units that were not directly damaged and seek alternative or rebuilt premises. Around 100 employees face a wait to understand what will happen next.
The fire at Midland Chilled Foods bore similarities to another warehouse fire on the 29 August 2020, when more than 100 firefighters and 20 fire appliances from Essex Fire and Rescue tackled a large night-time blaze at food distributor Kent Foods, based in Basildon. The fire and rescue service worked hard in arduous conditions but 7,300m2 warehouse was destroyed.
Under current building regulations guidance, the businesses that suffered the devastating fires were not subject to any guidance for sprinklers. People are sometimes confused by this, as they see the consequences of the fire and the claims of meeting current regulations and wonder how this can be. The fire service faced fire situations in those cases where they could only act to limit and contain the fire. Surely, buildings that are completely damaged in a fire have fire loads within them that require forms of active fire protection such as sprinklers to limit a potential fire?
The sad fact is that they do not. Some may think that the food industry has limited combustible load and therefore fires are limited. This is not supported by the spate of food industry fires that are observed in the UK and across Europe. The large fire at the Speedibake bakery at the beginning of 2020 was an even larger event than the fire at Midland Chilled Foods, destroying a large part of the bakery. The bakery is no longer operating and 160 jobs were lost.
Acting quickly to quell the spread of fire when it is first detected aids fire safety, limits damage and minimises impacts. Sprinklers have been shown to be effective to contain, control or extinguish fires in 99% of cases when caused to operate.1
Having sprinklers fitted would have protected this food business in the long run. They safeguard against potentially disastrous losses and also aid life safety. By preventing large fires, sprinklers also protect the environment by avoiding CO2 emissions, reducing excess water use by the fire brigade and eliminating water supply contamination. Above all, they maintain business continuity. In the event of a fire, many businesses with sprinkler systems find they are back up and running in a matter of hours.
For more information about the BSA visit the www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org
1 Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Economics May 2017