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How Industry Pros Deal with Fires at MRFs

TAGS: Safety Haulers
The incidents are increasing, with one large problem being an influx of batteries as electronics become obsolete.

Shoreway Environmental Center’s MRF is a month away from relaunching after a four-alarm blaze ravaged the Santa Carlos, Calif. Facility in September.

Rebounding from the casualty, likely caused by a lithium-ion battery, comes with a near $10 million price tag, according to Hilary Gans, facility operations contract manager for South Bayside Waste Management Authority, which owns the MRF.

­Big blazes like this happen infrequently, but small, smoldering fires are not uncommon and can spread fast.

Fire Rover, a national fire protection service, estimates there were 244 fires in U.S. recycling facilities from February to November this year. It says the frequency of incidents is increasing, with one large problem being an influx of batteries as electronics become obsolete.

“But almost all materials entering MRFs are flammable. Additionally, you have dust, hot machines and other heat sources, in a confined space. This combination is a recipe for fire,” says Brad Gladstone, CEO of Fire Rover.

More MRFs are investing on the front end to prevent disaster. They are focusing on employee training, educating vendors, and partnering with municipalities and fire departments to make their facilities safer. Some operators are investing in technology like infrared heat-sensors working in tandem with automatic fire suppression mechanisms.

One of the biggest challenges is keeping a daily pulse on what is processed …especially items that should not be in the stream, says Michael Hughes, corporate safety director, Casella Waste Systems. And it’s easy for what does not belong to make its way on to the tipping floor and beyond.

Housekeeping is key to preventing fires, says Tony Hargis national safety director, with the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA).

“You’ve got materials moving through the facility with lighter weight materials floating off that need to be contained with vigilance.”

Municipal MRFs often face the toughest challenges. On the private side, federal agencies like OSHA and EPA provide strict regulations and develop safety systems. But municipalities are not as stringently regulated and have less guidance in implementing safety management systems.

NWRA is partnering with American National Standards Institute and National Fire Protection Association to provide more guidelines. And the association recently had its first joint safety meeting with the Solid Waste Association of North America to share best practices.

In the meantime, Hughes encourages operators to work closely with public works to advise on what does not belong in loads and to inform them of appropriate disposal resources.

Training and awareness

“Equipment operators must be trained to review hazards in a load … they are the closest to this,” says Hughes.

New employees and those changing jobs should have fire prevention orientations as well as ongoing formal education.

“Have clearly marked no smoking signs in multiple languages. Also mark the scale house; it’s the first point visitors and vendors come to,” says Hughes.

Even with prevention measures, MRFs should be prepared for fires. Evacuation plans are critical, as are documents addressing the plans’ components.

The evacuation strategy should include a system to track who is in the facility and their exact locations. A good plan includes live fire drills to ensure employees know where to report and that the accountability component is accurate, says Randy Ellert, Waste and Recycling corporate safety office manager for Cincinnati-based Rumpke Waste & Recycling.

Employees should be aware of additional exits and practice simulations with a blocked exit to determine if they know how to react.

Working with vendors

Vendors, especially welders, should be brought up to speed on MRF’s unique safety rules. Operators should ensure welders have proper hot work permit programs and that they are aware of potentially problematic conditions, like excess dust and paper, says Hughes.

Ellert encourages companies to invite local fire departments to observe their fire drills and to provide feedback.

“This builds a good relationship with first responders, pre-incident, and allows them to obtain important information about the company and evacuation plan.”


Options in technology include battery disconnect switches, commonly used on mobile equipment. Some MRFs are investing in thermal imaging cameras, with lenses pointed at a specific spot to detect elevated temperatures.

The latter is especially handy during inspections before closing.

“You can look at an entire pile on the tipping floor, conveyor belts or any equipment to make sure it’s not heated before you lock the doors,” says Hughes.

Fire Rover’s technology takes this monitoring concept further. Their system, which monitors for abnormal heat 24/7, triggers an alarm to their central station where live-operators remotely activate an onsite suppression system at the MRF.

As Gans and his team recoup from the Shoreway facility fire, he reconfirms prevention—and not just via technology, but through a comprehensive plan—is what’s most critical.

“Prevention is much cheaper than the aftermath of a fire.”

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