Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
January 1, 2020

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Fire Prevention

A very modern tragedy… preventing self-storage facility fires

A year on from the Shurgard fire in Croydon, Hunter Seymour examines the concerns over fire related incidents at self-storage facilities.


Image courtesy of Business Sprinkler Alliance

Exactly a year ago, on New Year’s Eve and throughout New Year’s Day 2019, a catastrophic fire in a Croydon self-storage facility – Shurgard – destroyed every item stored in over 1,000 rented units. The toll of this devastating fire resulted in irreplaceable belongings being lost, whilst according to claimants, many small businesses also depended of these storage units, whose grim fate – with thousands of pounds worth of stock destroyed – forced many into bankruptcy.

So, the implications for fire risk management are grave. That is why we’ve asked leading UK fire risk policy-makers and policy-stakeholders to consider the current state of emergency preparedness in the self-storage sector and to offer pointers in counselling best practice. It’s a multi-faceted view, yet bound by a common concern for due diligence in public safety.

As it is, the fallout from this one tragic example is powerfully symbolic of the socio-economic challenges of our times. It’s not only the impermanence of the gig economy and the growth of the start-up e-commerce marketplace that has stimulated demand for low cost personal storage or storing of stock, but also the number of individuals in short-term accommodation who are regularly needing to upsize or downsize, dependent on current circumstance.

It’s a trend that prompts two related questions. Is faith in the security of these self-storage facilities misplaced? And does current regulatory guidance specifically address the threats of fire posed by these facilities when we attempt to regard them by their unique frame of reference – namely, ‘self-service warehousing’.


Informed comment on self-storage fires

Clearly, the principal authority on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order is The Home Office, who emphasises it makes “guidance available to support compliance with the Fire Safety Order. The guidance for factories and warehouses, including storage warehouses, is available. See publication: Fire Safety Risk Assessment – Factories and Warehouses.

The very latest response on the Shurgard fire from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) states: “The cause of the fire has been recorded as undetermined.” The Met Police also states: “The extent of the damage to the building has made it impossible to establish the cause of the fire . . . (the Met are] satisfied there is no cause to suspect a criminal act.”

The LFB further advised: “We would recommend that all self-storage sites look at the possibility of retrofitting sprinklers if they do not already have them fitted. Sprinklers are the only system that tackles the fire immediately and they protect people and properties. Following the fire, Senior Fire Safety Officers liaised with the responsible person for the Croydon Shurgard facility and found the building to be broadly compliant with fire safety legislation.”


Verdict of the Self Storage Association

The SSA (Self Storage Association) is clear about structural provision in self-storage facilities “to allow rapid detection of any fire”.

“The primary focus on self-storage fire protection is to ensure that any people in the store have adequate time and means to exit the store safely. This is why we have 60-minute fire rated mezzanine floors, fire rated stairwells with fire doors for emergency exits and a maximum distance from every self storage unit to a fire exit amongst the other fire protection and warning systems.

“In the case of the Shurgard fire, there were people in the building when the fire started and they all exited safely following the fire exits. There have been two significant fires pertaining to self storage buildings in the UK since the industry began over 30 years ago and one more that was in an industrial complex that included self-storage. In all three cases the fire departments were confident that the building had been evacuated and chose to fight the fire externally rather than have their crew enter the burning building when no lives were at risk.

“Self-storage buildings by their nature contain a range of materials, some of which are combustible; this is not dissimilar to a warehouse that the RRFSO risk guidance also applies to.  The main difference is the large number of small rooms and corridors, which does make fighting the fire internally more challenging. Each self-storage unit would have a gap above the walls so that smoke and heat can escape and set off fire alarms and allow rapid detection of any fire.

“The standard self-storage contract prohibits the storage of certain items, including flammable and explosive materials. There is signage to this effect throughout the stores and in the reception area [. . .] Self-storage staff will also keep a look out for people storing flammable items when they move in and when inspecting CCTV footage. It is very unusual for customers to be storing flammable items; mostly it is things like petrol lawn mowers that have not been emptied, or occasionally old paint tins that are identified.

“Industry standard is that you must show two forms of ID including a photo ID and proof of address to take out a self-storage contract. This deters criminals from using the stores and helps ensure the store has accurate contact details for the customer. Many stores also require registration of all people and vehicles entering the store for added security.

“The Shurgard fire was a tragic event [. . .] Unfortunately the cause of the fire was never determined [. . .] What is clear is that all alarms and evacuation systems were in working order and the people in the store were effectively evacuated before the fire took hold. The relevant fire walls and compartments appear to have held for their designated times.”


Gerda Boxes

The SSA also states: “There have been no recommended changes to the industry from the insurers following the [Shurgard] fire. One item that was raised by the Fire Brigade was the content of the Gerda (High Security Premises Information) boxes [. . .] The association has advised [. . .] on a standard layout of the Gerda box contents so that the fire department can find appropriate information quickly when they arrive on site.”


Mezzanine floors in storage facilities

Specialists in Beam and Flame detectors, FFE Limited, consider the case for protection of mezzanine floors to be determined by storage unit height. “The type of detection would be based on the clearance to the roof in the storage area.” In this particular case, “Beams might not be suitable due to the fact that they could be blocked. ASD [aspirating smoke detector] would be the likely choice. A Beam will be suitable for an application if the Beam itself will not be blocked by any obstruction as part of the day to day running of the site.”

As to grating flooring, FFE advises that: “Depending on the size of holes in the grating, it may be deemed that this is effectively a floor/ceiling and extra smoke detection equipment (i.e. a Beam) will be needed. Any obstacle which impedes the passage of smoke should be considered during a Fire Risk Assessment and the area divided by the grating may be deemed to be two separate areas needing their own protection, rather than the area be treated as just one area.”

Learn more from FFE here, or at FIREX 2020 in September where the company will be exhibiting.


Call for regs to be “tightened as a matter of urgency”

At the time of the Shurgard fire, the insurance industry, represented by the ABI (Association of British Insurers), made clear the hazards for claimants finding themselves underinsured and unable to replace their belongings. “If you have fallen victim to the blaze at the Croydon Shurgard self-storage facility you should have taken out the necessary contents insurance (which will cover fire damage as standard) at the start of your contract, as this is a compulsory element of the use of their facilities.”

However, with regard to inadequate insurance, Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, has pressed government to consider cases where “more emergency support is available for the people facing real hardship and crisis as a result of the fire.” In his objections, he also pointed out that if the self-storage facility “was fully compliant [with all UK fire safety regulations] those regulations need to be reviewed and tightened as a matter of urgency.”


Vulnerability of unsprinklered buildings

The BSA (Business Sprinkler Alliance) stated that the Shurgard tragedy brought into sharp focus the wider impact of fire and the vulnerability of unsprinklered buildings. “Whilst thankfully no lives have been lost, there are many that will be affected by this fire,” said Iain Cox, Chairman of the BSA.

“There will be hundreds of insurance claims for lost possessions . . . the cost and environmental impact of this will be significant. Sprinklers are a proven method of controlling fires. They allow fire crews the time to safely gain access and extinguish fire and we welcome their consideration as a way of ensuring that properties of all types are adequately protected.”


A sector under scrutiny

As we have seen, the Home Office insists that the publication ”Fire Safety Risk Assessment – Factories and Warehouses” meets the case. But it’s clearly on a case-by-case basis. And, as one fire risk expert reminds us: “It’s all in the interpretation and thereby lies the conundrum.” Therefore, self-storage facilities should certainly make the attempt to condense what may be considered as the guide’s pertinent advice into a checklist, as timely reminder of best practice for preparing for the year ahead.


Fire risk checklist for self-storage facilities

Here is a provisional list of actions, with reference to the RRFSO, to refresh your overview of typical risks:

  • You should conduct a fire risk assessment to re-evaluate the construction and layout of your building; an informed examination to see if there are any easy paths through which smoke and fire may typically spread. Remember, your fire risk assessment should be ongoing to reconsider any changes in facility usage or customer behaviour.
  • Review fire-extinguishing devices and systems.
  • Reassess fire exit signage and fire alarm alerts for optimum emergency response.
  • You should re-evaluate facility management training and safety routines. Regular patrols of the facility can detect, by sight or smell, breaches of users’ Terms and Conditions (e.g. leakages, spillage or fumes from prohibited flammable substances).
  • Retraining if somebody’s job changes with new duties.
  • Overnight safety routines should include removal of vehicles parked adjacent to the storage facility. It is not unknown for parked cars to spontaneously burst into flames. Similarly, wheelie bins should not be kept adjacent to the facility.
  • Special consideration should be given to the secure siting of fire detection or fire protection equipment to avoid interference from goods transferred to and from storage units. (For example, loaded trollies have been known to smash break-glass manual call points and trigger the false callout of emergency services.)
  • Your CCTV, fenced perimeters, site lighting, and surveillance routines should be regularly reassessed to identify inefficiencies.
  • Rigorous, scrupulous ID checking safeguards should be regularly reviewed to counter misuse of photographic identity or misrepresentation of storage unit ownership. Common cases involve domestic disputes, with false claims of shared ownership of property to gain admittance to storage unit rented by single key-holder.

Cautionary note: The potential criminal use of self-storage facilities is well known. In 2003, aided by false ID registration, a murderer hid the corpse of his victim in a Brighton self-storage unit. His arrest and conviction was due to the suspicions of vigilant staff who alerted the police.

Clearly, with the focus on fire safety and site security in this sector intensifying, then all concerned practitioners in fire and security risk will be joining the conversation at Europe’s only dedicated fire safety event, Firex 2020, which takes place 8-10 September, ExCeL London.

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Do you know the legal requirements for sprinkler systems? Do you know when and where should they be used? Download this technical guide from Barbour, coveirng the types, design, maintenance and – most importantly – the  legislation surrounding sprinkler systems.

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