It was a normal day for Ronald Stearns until a maintenance supervisor told him to look at the camera system overlooking a material recovery facility (MRF) in Southfield, Michigan. As he watched, Stearns saw a small fire burning inside a drum at the recycling center.
Five minutes later, fire alarms sounded and the plant was engulfed in flames. The fire burned for two days. The 50,000-square-foot facility was a "complete loss."
“It went from a small controllable fire to enormous flames,” says Stearns, senior manager of infrastructure design at Republic Services. “The cause was never determined. The true costs I couldn't even begin to guess. The point is it’s preventable with today’s technology.”
After rebuilding the facility on Eight Mile, Stearns installed Fire Rover—a system that uses thermal detection cameras and automatic foam dispensers—at the plant as part of a comprehensive fire protection plan.
When Ryan Fogelman, Fire Rover’s vice president of national accounts, started looking into fire incidences at waste and recycling plants a few years prior, he noticed operators didn’t want to talk about fires, but were experiencing them daily. Over the years, he’s changed the dynamic of the conversation in the industry.
He says 40 percent of waste and recycling facilities experienced a fire in 2017. He notes that nearly half of the fires were caused by “traditional hazards,” while fires caused by lithium-ion batteries have increased by 30 percent over the past year. He also noticed a spike in fires in the beginning of the year due to an overload of inventory at recycling centers caused by China’s export restrictions.
“With traditional hazards, you’re able to spot those and pull them out,” Fogelman says. “With batteries, you can’t see them. You can catch fires. One thing we’ve learned is you can constantly catch them, but you can miss one and lose your whole facility.”
About a year ago, Jim Emerson, technical services manager for Starr Technical Risks Agency, Inc., inspected one of the largest losses he’s seen in his career. His task was to find out what happened and how to prevent a fire from reoccurring.
After spending days reviewing the incident, Emerson realized there aren’t specific fire prevention codes and standards for waste and recycling plant operators to follow, which led him to create what he calls a “combination approach.”
Instance after instance, Emerson has seen what goes wrong when a fire occurs, from late detection to not having a plan in place. His approach combines equipment, technology and proactive techniques, such as installing thermal cameras and an automatic foam or water dispensing system.
“It’s very important to have fire detection and the technology available now with thermal cameras reduces false alarms,” he says. “We want to make sure we have technology to detect a fire or detect a hot spot.”
Stearns says thermal cameras are installed over the tipping floor and drum at the Michigan facility.
“We have a camera that detects temperatures above a set point,” he says. “It sends out texts to people at our plant that have the ability to get there with hoses and instantly put out a small fire before it becomes unmanageable.”
Emerson suggests combining technology with firefighting foam dispensers or water nozzles that are on a rotating mount. He also says employee training and developing a rapport with the local fire department is vital when it comes to the outcome of a facility in the event of a fire.
He adds having a sprinkler system in place will protect the shell of most plants, but it won’t save the facility.
“We were completely up to code,” Stearns recalls. “Full sprinkler density, everything was in good order. The problem is sprinklers won’t put out a fire of that magnitude. It’s not going to stop a fire at a recycling plant. The point I’m trying to make if you can’t rely on a sprinkler system. You need some instantaneous protection for the first five to 15 minutes.”
Fogelman, Emerson and Stearns presented the Safety—Fire Prevention session at Recycling Today’s Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference in Chicago.