To avoid the devastation and tragic consequences of fire, facility managers must protect employees and communities by implementing a fire safety plan with detailed emergency procedures. The Mississauga, Ontario-based Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), conducts seminars on effective fire safety plans that are specifically designed to benefit plastics recyclers and material recovery facility (MRF) operators. EPIC and CPIA strongly encourage their members and all facilities to prepare plans and share them with local firefighters.
Fuel for thought
It’s important to understand that all organic materials (such as wood, paper and plastics) are combustible and all fires produce toxic gases the relative toxicity of which varies with each material. This relative toxicity is measured by the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) method that measures the mortality of mice exposed to various combustion gases.
Wool, for instance, has a relative toxicity of 7.7 minutes as compared to wood at 14 minutes and polyethylene (the most common plastic) at 23.1 minutes. Although the relative toxicity of the off-gases produced by a plastics fire are considerably less than some common “natural” materials, there are specific combustion issues that should be considered in plastics handling.
The high-energy value embodied in plastics means that even small plastics fires throw off a tremendous amount of heat. Polyethylene, for example, generates 19,900 BTUs/lb. while newspaper produces only 8,000 BTUs/lb.
One of the most effective ways to prevent a fire from spreading is to deprive it of oxygen. For this reason some facility managers prefer stacked storage over storage on racks as this limits access to air. Simple removal of the oxidizer (air) and cooling with water will extinguish most fires. Plastics, however, require some additional precautions. Because plastics are good insulators, they can solidify on the outside when cooling. Water might quench the fire’s exterior but the interior could stay hot enough to re-ignite if the water spray is removed prematurely.
Combustion byproducts include CO2 and other compounds, soot and smoke. The soot acts much like the activated charcoal in vent hoods or air and water purifiers; it allows byproducts to react and produce other chemical species. Combustion gases must be assumed to be toxic and the possible lack of oxygen in the atmosphere and the presence of carbon monoxide means firefighters ought to wear special protective gear for all fires.
Prepare a plan
Most regions in Canada have fire codes that are incorporated into provincial and municipal regulations. Many of these codes require a fire safety plan for a variety of occupancies. The owner (which is defined broadly) is responsible for all provisions. Noncompliance by an individual may carry a fine of $25,000 and/or a one-year jail sentence. Corporate fines can amount to $50,000 per count.
To obtain a copy of the Fire Safety Planning Guide, the Emergency Action Guide for Fires in Plastics Storage or the Guide to Fire Safety at Materials Recovery and Plastics Reprocessing Facilities, visit the CPIA web site at www.plastics.ca.
Ten Steps to a Fire Safety Plan
1. Conduct a fire safety audit A fire safety audit identifies factors that affect fire safety. The audit should cover: property, buildings, human resources, materials stored/handled/processed and fire hazards.
2. Appoint and organize supervisory staff It’s necessary to appoint and organize supervisory staff and to outline their fire safety duties. There should be back-up staff in place in the case of absentees.
3. Develop emergency procedures Emergency procedures need to be in place to ensure the health and safety of persons on the property and to protect the environment. Procedures should be clearly posted on each level of every building. They should include: sounding the alarm, notification of the fire department and evacuation of endangered occupants.
4. Fire drill procedures and training Fire drills and training are an integral part of a fire safety plan. Procedures and training should be carried out in consultation with the fire department and should be outlined in the plan. Fire drills should be conducted at least once a year and records retained for at least one year.
5. Maintenance of building facilities and equipment Fire protection equipment needs regular inspection, testing and maintenance.
6. Alternate measures for temporary shutdown Plan procedures for the event of a temporary shutdown of fire protection equipment/systems.
7. Control of fire hazards Develop a procedure for the control of fire hazards to increase awareness of potential risks to minimize accidents and prevent injury.
8. Fire department access/fire suppression information Procedures must facilitate fire department access to the property and provide information on the property and its contents.
9. Prepare schematic diagrams and site plans Schematic diagrams, site drawings and inventories are especially useful to firefighters in the event of a fire. This can often be accomplished while conducting audits.
10. Post emergency procedures and phone numbers Easy access to emergency procedures and phone numbers is critical.
Cathy Cirko is director general of Mississauga, Ontario-based Environment and Plastics Industry Council, a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.