While the immediate impact of any fire will be devastating, it is the way an organisation responds afterwards which can make a real difference to future business continuity and recovery. From post-fire clean-up and decontamination, to disposal of hazardous waste and preventing pollution of nearby water courses, the clock starts ticking as soon as the emergency services have left and safe access to the building is allowed.
By their very nature, disaster-led activities demand a quick response, and in the aftermath of a fire, the top priority – aside of course from the health and wellbeing of the people involved – will be a focus on the future.
This will include the need to work out a plan of action for the safe and secure disposal of all fire-damaged fixtures, fittings, equipment and stock; and – presuming the premises are still standing – to instigate a deep clean and decontamination to make them ready for refit and a return to productivity as soon as possible.
For some businesses that may be more challenging than others. A fire in a chemical warehouse will most likely pose far more hazards than a fire in a bakery and that’s why it is important to plan ahead for the worst-case scenario before it happens.
Ideally, any organisation should have a disaster recovery plan (held off site by the management team) which includes the following:
- A readily available COSSH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations) assessment and a list or manifest of any likely hazardous chemicals or items used or stored on site
- Details of where these chemicals will be found and how they can be accessed
- Contact information for professional decontamination and hazardous waste experts who offer an emergency-response service, including over-the-phone advice before arriving at the scene
Pre-planning and the sharing of information are the most important gifts anyone can give an emergency response specialist.
Timing is critical, because the longer a premises is left post-fire the more damage can be done, not just to the premises but also to the nearby environment and/or water courses.
Ideally, an organisation should aim to have such professional fire decontamination and clean-up experts on site within two to three hours of the blaze being under control. This will enable decontamination plans to be put in place, together with an initial assessment and survey, as well as implementing any urgent action required to control potential pollution issues.
Aside from calling in the experts, two further essential calls also need to be made:
- The first is to the insurance company, who will want to be involved in the appointment of the decontamination and clean-up specialists before decisions are made or money is spent
- The second is to the Environment Agency, who should be made aware of any likelihood that liquid or solid waste may find its way into local groundwater or streams etc.
The appointment of an on-site project manager who can liaise with the owners and managers of the building/business/insurance company/waste experts/facilities teams etc., will ensure good communications and help ensure practical and efficient decisions can be taken to move the project forward as quickly as possible.
Weekly meetings are recommended – make sure all instructions and procedures etc. are logged in writing in the event that you need to show evidence at a later date. It is also important to remember to keep adjacent building owners/occupiers up to speed with developments.
The number-one priority will be to avoid any potential for transferring contaminants outside the immediate area and exposing either people or the wider environment to hazardous materials.
This will include the potential hazard of fumes being released into the atmosphere and the identification of other hazardous wastes such as asbestos, aerosols or batteries.
During the decontamination programme, the team will put in place necessary health-and-safety and security protocols; for example, safeguarding adjacent properties and/or the need to give individuals ongoing access to other parts of the building or block which may have been unaffected by the fire. Clearly this will depend on the severity of the incident and the size of the building.
It will also be important to consider the conditions of the building (temperature/humidity etc.) and draw up a checklist of contents and actions required.
The checklist will range from the fire-damaged infrastructure of the building, such as lighting, furniture and electrical equipment, to identifying, assessing and removing any hazardous waste/chemicals.
With older buildings the added danger of asbestos contamination may be a factor that needs to be assessed and managed.
Specialist equipment may be required to ensure all materials are safely and compliantly removed. Even the most ‘innocent’ of items, such as a fluorescent tube, can cause unexpected problems because it will contain mercury which may have leaked out. A specialist mercury vacuum cleaner can be used.
Particularly sensitive is the storage and containment of any chemicals on site. While these may have been stored separately in order to avoid any potential reaction in the case of spillage, a fire may well have compromised the situation leaving unlabelled and/or damaged containers. Qualified industrial chemists should be brought in to identify and analyse all chemicals on site, with immediate steps taken to ensure the contents are safe and secure.
During this exercise, the chemists will also identify and screen out unsuitable wastes, identify any substances within the waste that may interact with other reagents or affect the disposal and treatment process; or indeed, which may be unaffected by the treatment process.
From experience, the containment of both fire water and rain and the washing of contaminants into the surface drains should be a key area of focus, spill booms should be installed to contain any chemical spillages which could cause a potential environmental disaster.
Disposal of hazardous waste
The collection and disposal of hazardous waste is highly regulated and complex – hazardous waste takes many shapes and forms and includes asbestos, waste electrical items (fridges, IT equipment etc.) cleaning products, aerosols, waste chemicals, batteries, paints/solvents, pesticides and the like.
Hazardous waste must be transported by specialist vehicles which comply with ADR (Carriage of Dangerous Goods) transport regulations and taken to a fully permitted Hazardous Waste facility, and all waste-management companies have to operate to an Environmental Permit, issued and regulated by the Environment Agency (EA).
Just because there has been a fire does not mean these regulations can be ignored and before any waste can be removed from the location, it is essential that the ‘waste producer’ has a qualified industrial chemist characterise the waste and produce a compliant list of the waste. This enables the waste contractor to confidently secure permitted disposal routes for the waste material identified either direct with end-point disposal facilities or through a designated and permitted Hazardous Waste Transfer Station
In today’s environment, it is essential that every effort is made to push materials up the waste hierarchy, ensuring that as many different products as possible are recovered, recycled, reprocessed or sent to hazardous waste permitted Energy from Waste facilities where they can be used to generate green energy.
Asbestos deserves a category of its own and quite often post-fire asbestos will be found in the roof or cladding of a building. Although it may not have been used as a building material for many years, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos continues to kill around 5,000 workers a year.
Left undisturbed, it poses no threat to life but when moved or damaged – such as in a fire – asbestos fibres can be released into the air and potentially cause serious, and indeed fatal, diseases.
The safe containment, collection and disposal of asbestos in particular is therefore of real concern, and there are clear government regulations around its management and disposal, with companies needing to be assessed and licensed by the HSE for its removal.
The regulations are not to be ignored, several companies have received fines for the unregulated removal of asbestos and a prison sentence is also within the power of the courts for this offence. And although there are many different types of asbestos, all are classed as hazardous waste.
The big clean-up
The time it takes to get the property (structural issues aside) to the point where refurbishment experts can move in and start fitting it out for business to begin again will, of course, depend on the extent of the damage.
Employing a specialist contractor who can provide a project-planned solution to cover all areas – from initial survey to the final hand-back of the area when it becomes ready for refit – will be worth its weight in gold.
For more information, go to www.grundon.com