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Adam Bannister is Editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
February 11, 2019

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Fire protection

Ocado blaze: Automated warehouses create new fire protection complexities, says expert

The automation of warehouse logistics and other sectors generates understandable alarm about the implications for job creation. IFSEC Global Editor Adam Bannister investigates…

Ocado-delivery-vans-e1549628712816What it doesn’t typically raise are concerns about the ramifications for fire protection. But the issue is now getting media attention after a robot-staffed Ocado warehouse was devastated by fire last week.

The fire broke out at the site, in Andover, Hampshire, on Tuesday 5 February and, despite the efforts of around 200 firefighters, it tool until Friday morning before it was finally extinguished.

Spanning 18 acres the site is manned (though that word seems inapt) by 1,100 cuboid swarm robots, which collect groceries from crates and deliver them to a packing station.

If robots are more cost-effective than humans – requiring no pay, food or rest – then they do present a fire safety issue: electronics get hot. Furthermore, as one commenter on an Instagram post by BBC journalist Zoe Kleinman wrote, robots “can’t smell the smoke when said workplace is on fire.”

That’s not to say that electronics were to blame in this instance; the cause of the fire remains unclear pending an investigation.

At least if no people are employed, there is no risk to life when fire does break out. Nevertheless, the incident will surely cost the online supermarket millions of pounds in damaged stock (and robots) plus operational disruption.

The latest in a litany of warehouse fires in recent years, the Ocado fire shows once again how fiendishly difficult fire protection is in these environments. The high concentration of an enormous volume of flammable materials means fires take hold and spread rapidly, leaving firefighters to tackle enormous burning buildings.

“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,” said Dr James L D Glockling, technical director at the Fire Protection Association.

“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.”

The Ocado warehouse reportedly deployed a sprinkler system that has won a global award and which activated correctly.

“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,” continued Glockling.

“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 it is too early to comment specifically on the Ocado fire, Glockling said the incident generates wider questions about the challenges posed by modern warehouses.

“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.”

“Holistic design”

Glockling cautioned against assuming flawed or faulty sprinklers were to blame: “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.”

Glockling suggested that regulations have not kept pace with the growing complexity of the problem.

“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?”

Ocado, which envisions a people-free platform where the ordering, packing and delivery (via driverless cars) is fully automated, processes 65,000 orders per week at the Andover site. The Ocado model has already been licensed to Morrisons supermarket in the UK, Groupe Casino in France and the Sobeys chain in Canada.

This article was originally published on IFSEC Global.

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Steven Nagle
Steven Nagle
3 years ago

And who would have thought it, huh? A proper understanding of any automated (or other) process should be developed before they’re fully implemented. This includes risk assessments, fire risk assessments (they aren’t just documents, they’re documented evidence of a systematic examination of what you’re doing). An organisation’s physical and other forms of infrastructure should be evaluated to make sure it can cope with changed – including sprinkler systems, location of fire fighting equipment, escape routes/exits, etc. It’s not really all that difficult, but often simple things get overlooked as insignificant, or just not taken into consideration at all.

Neil Fagan
Neil Fagan
3 years ago

I well remember the huge fire at the Welsh Cold Stores Newport site in 1979, that took weeks to finally extinguish, the smell of rancid butter that had melted and run into the reens took months to be eliminated. The big problem is the energy within foodstuffs and lots of free-space within the packaging leaving lots of available oxygen, add in the modern often propane based refrigerants in cold stores and things can go pear shaped very fast, the robots battery power packs may also be a continuing fire source once ruptured. A case of too many eggs in one… Read more »