Ocado warehouse fire should not detract from the unrivalled reputation of sprinkler systems – but may ask questions of whether we are reaching the limit of what can be reasonably protected

The Fire Protection Association believes that this week’s Ocado warehouse fire should not detract from the unrivalled reputation of sprinkler systems but may ask questions of whether we are reaching the limit of what can be reasonably protected. 

Dr James L D Glockling, Technical Director at the Fire Protection Association has today issued a comment in relation to the Ocado warehouse fire in Hampshire:

The Ocado warehouse fire is a stark reminder of the instantaneous impact that fire can have on a major business, its operations, and share price. Automated warehousing facilities present significant fire protection challenges as a result of very high storage densities, limited access, electronic conveyancing systems, high racking, and cold storage requirements. With (unconfirmed) information emerging that the Ocado warehouse was sprinkler protected, this sad event will no doubt prompt a thorough investigation as to the circumstances that might have led to the protection system being overwhelmed. Sprinkler system failures are very rare events, they are specifically designed to offer levels of resilience far in excess of any other suppression technology and millions are spent every year around the world ensuring that installation and design rules keep abreast with modern day challenges and storage methods.

Although the majority of sprinkler operations result in a fire being extinguished, their design remit is to stop the development of a fire, hold it at a manageable size, and support fire and rescue service intervention (ensuring structural integrity of the building and supporting tenable conditions) for a predefined period of time until it is manually extinguished by them. With the increasing size of buildings, complexity of internal structures limiting access within the building, and the potential for fire seats (where the fire starts) to be at some height, there may need to be a need to review just how effective fire and rescue services can be expected to be within the sprinkler system design time frame.

That said, the design of any sprinkler system needs to be accompanied by strict control of the environment it is designed to protect. Any holistic design requires a passive envelop to work within and control over key parameters that might act to form sustained ignition sources or spread fire, requiring isolation of power, heat, energy systems, and conveyancing systems to name but a few. Failure of any one of these supporting systems could contribute to creating conditions that the sprinkler system was never designed to cope with.

It is the Fire Protection Association’s belief that this isolated event should not detract from the unrivalled reputation sprinkler systems have for performance and for the enormous contribution they make to the protection of the UK’s business economy, and that we learn from whatever this teaches us to make future systems better still. The UK has the laxest mandated requirements for the protection of the commercial estate from fire in Europe – allowing enormous unprotected compartment sizes. Subject to the findings of any investigation, perhaps now might be the time to review this so that the Fire and rescue Service response and installed protection systems can be designed with knowledge of an upper limit by the constraining of building proportions and compartment size to a level that assures protection performance and FRS response can work in harmony as design demands. Might it be that we are finding the limit of what can be reasonably protected?

*Note: all comments made without specific knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the Ocado fire.