An August 17th warehouse fire that burned for six hours is being investigated by the San Antonio Fire Department. The fire shot flames and smoke into the air in a warehouse that stored approximately 35,000 plastic pallets. While firefighters were on scene battling the 3-alarm fire, explosions could be heard, possibly from the transformers inside the building and fuel tanks in nearby trucks. Crews also opened a wall on the facility to stream more water inside as the pallets burned. Fortunately, no one was injured in the massive fire that resulted in damages estimated at $9 million.

While the fire and its cause continue to be investigated, initial reports revealed at least two fire code violations. Some plastic pallets were stacked up to 18-feet high, reportedly much higher than allowed by the NFPA code for this facility. Investigators found that sprinkler riser valves were also shut off, which would have rendered the sprinkler systems inoperable.

In an article on the mySA website, San Antonio Fire Chief, Charles Hood, discussed how plastics can impact firefighting tactics. He stated that while plastics can often take longer to ignite, they tend to burn longer and depending on the type of plastic, they can burn at higher temperatures. He stated, “…a plastic spoon will melt immediately, but you take a dense plastic pallet and once it starts it will take a lot more to put it out.”

Why are Fire Codes Important?

The media coverage of this fire incident reported on the possibility that there were at least two code violations. Insufficient information was provided to independently verify this statement, but let’s consider the possibility to illustrate the relevance of fire safety codes and standards and the importance of complying with their requirements in the design, construction, and operation of buildings such as this storage facility.

The model building codes in common use in jurisdictions throughout the United States require that large general storage buildings be equipped with automatic sprinklers throughout. In most jurisdictions, NFPA sprinkler standards, including NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, are adopted into law and enforced.

NFPA 25 contains requirements to maintain a reasonable degree of building fire safety whenever a sprinkler system must be shut off for any reason. When a sprinkler system is shut off, it is known as an impairment. NFPA 25, Chapter 15 is devoted to impairment management. Chapter 15 requires that the property owner or designated representative take certain precautions to safely manage any impairment. These precautions include:

  • Tags must be attached to the shut valve and on any fire department connections describing the portions of the building’s sprinklers that are impaired
  • The fire department must be notified of the impairment
  • The property insurance company and alarm company must be notified

For an extended impairment lasting more than 10 hours in a 24 hour period, extra precautions must be taken including at least one of the following

  • Evacuation of the building or portion effected by the impairment
  • Establishment of an approved fire watch
  • Establishment of a temporary water supply
  • Establishment of a program to eliminate potential ignition sources and limit the amount of fuel available to a fire

Following these requirements increases the probability that a fire will not start during the impairment period. If a fire does start, it is likely to be a smaller fire that is more easily controlled with only a limited amount of damage resulting.

This fire incident, which involved plastic pallets reportedly stacked 18 feet high, and resulted in about $9 million in damages, is an excellent illustration for all property owners and managers of the wisdom of adhering to the safety requirements contained in the applicable fire safety codes and standards.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.