Fire Protection Challenges with High Piled Storage

Fire Protection Challenges with High Piled Storage

High piled storage…it is not just an issue that fire officials in large urban communities need to be concerned with. With the price of land rising, developers and architects are constantly thinking of modern design options to meet their customers’ needs while trying to keep costs down. In some cases, it can be more cost effective to construct a building vertically (or taller), as opposed to making the footprint (square footage) larger; the owner does not need to purchase as much land to construct their building. However, as buildings get taller, so do storage heights of the product being stored. Engineers are constantly coming up with new technologies and methods to store different materials.

One such method recently brought to the United States is an oxygen reduction system in storage warehouses. Designers use one or more nitrogen generators to displace the oxygen in the space below the level that supports combustion. If oxygen levels are reduced to an unsafe level, that is obviously something the responding fire department will want to be aware of. The goal of each designer is to make storage buildings more efficient, practical, and economical. But as buildings, and storage go higher, the fire service must be prepared to address these issues and adapt and evolve their response procedures as needed.

What challenges do high piled storage occupancies present from a firefighting and firefighter safety perspective?

Are you prepared for a high piled storage fire in your community? To answer this question, you need to know what the problem is. From large cities to small rural towns, high piled storage is probably already in your community in one form or another. If you are of the opinion that high piled storage is an issue fire officials in only large urban fire departments need to be concerned with, you may want to think again. Fire officials everywhere need to be prepared to respond and be ready to fight fires in high piled storage warehouses. Fighting a fire in a high piled storage building equipped with multiple fire sprinkler systems and smoke and heat vents is much different than fighting fires in single family dwellings or other commercial occupancies. Unfortunately, the number of fires occurring in high piled storage occupancies is growing nationally.

Is your department prepared to fight a fire involving high piled storage when the alarm rings in your community?

The priority for every fire official should be to prevent a fire from happening in the first place. Fire prevention is every firefighter’s responsibility. A proactive fire prevention program not only saves lives, but it also goes a long way towards firefighter safety. First and foremost, are you aware of what is being stored in your community?

Hopefully, the high piled storage warehouses in your community are protected with an automatic sprinkler system. Fire sprinklers truly are a firefighter’s best friend! The specific fire protection requirements in warehouses depend on several factors, including what is being stored, the square footage of the high piled storage area, and if the high piled storage area is open to the public or limited to employees only. But know, as a fire official, you may have the authority to retroactively apply fire protection requirements to existing high piled storage occupancies. Having a proactive fire prevention program in your community and applying the fire protection requirements from the fire codes will save employee lives, improve firefighter safety, and may even have an impact on lowering insurance ratings in your community.

Taking a proactive approach to fire prevention in your community

You may be saying to yourself, “I leave the code enforcement to the state fire marshal.” However, the benefits of an active fire prevention program far outweigh the negatives. If the concept seems too hard, or you are not sure where to begin, one recommendation is to start small. Begin a pre-plan program in your community that looks at businesses from a fire response and firefighting perspective. For clarification, a pre-plan inspection is different from a fire inspection. Fire inspections are typically looked at from an enforcement and compliance perspective. Pre-plan inspections are typically looked at from an educational perspective. Different objectives, but they share similar goals. The goal is to create a safer environment for employees and responding firefighters. If you have a business storing large amounts of hazardous materials or reducing the oxygen percentage below a survivable level, you probably will want to know that for firefighter safety.

Other pre-plan considerations include:

  • Where is the high piled storage in the building?
  • Where are exit doors and can firefighters use those doors to access the high piled storage area?
  • Where is the fire department connection and main sprinkler riser in the building?
  • How about key boxes and access to the structure?

You will have little control over what is being stored in the building. However, an experienced chief officer will evaluate all potential hazards, conditions, and scenarios and make changes when necessary to their response procedures to ensure the safety of their firefighters.

In conclusion, if you are having trouble knowing where to begin, start small. Try not to overthink it. Focus your efforts on the businesses in your community that present the greatest risk to employees, the public, and responding firefighters. Act now so you and your firefighters, can live out the motto, “everyone goes home.”

For more information on issues affecting the fire protection industry, reach out to the NFSA’s Codes and Standards Department today! For more information on high piled storage, visit the IFC’s page here.