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Drought increases commercial property fires

Measures should be taken to ensure protection and insure property against fires.

The Western Cape drought has dramatically increased fire risks for commercial properties in the province. The current water restrictions have limited companies from conducting predefined maintenance, repairs and performance tests on water borne fire protection systems, which may see the reliability factor of the aforementioned systems affected.

The water crisis has been looming for many years in this province. Nearly 49% of businesses surveyed by the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the drought and water crisis were now a threat to their survival. Some firms have postponed or halted new investments. 

If the current water management does not improve, the consequences including financial losses will be severe. Almost 40% of all insured businesses in South Africa rely on municipal water for fixed fire protection systems supply, while almost 100% of all commercial and corporate businesses tap off a municipal supply for basic primary firefighting equipment installed as required by the National Building Regulations Act.

In some cases, fire protection systems may be connected to independent water supplies, such as privately reserved fire water tanks. The current significant reduction required in water usage implies that tanks are not allowed to be re-filled without being in contravention of the restrictions and being subject to fines and penalties. As a result, many systems may have to be left impaired and irresolute. While it may be important to have stringent compliance with fire safety regulations, and have fire risk mitigation and planning, it is also imperative that businesses have sufficient corporate insurance coverage against delivery shortfalls.

Saving water at the expense of the reliability of a fire protection system is very risky. While environmentalists, government planners and the industry work to develop solutions to the current water crisis, the way the fire industry utilises water for fire protection and fire fighting systems should also change. The days of unlimited water usage are over and finding solutions to system testing that are compatible with new water restrictions necessitates changes to the way we maintain and design
protection systems. Moreover, the issue of ageing pipework infrastructure being affected by burst water mains, which is impacting on the performance of new and existing fire systems needs to be addressed.

Short-term risk mitigation measures

The water supply requires monitoring, while deviations need to be reported to insurers by making use of an insurer specific fire protection system impairment procedure. This procedure allows insurers to work with their clients in terms of interim risk measures that need to be followed by businesses whilst the protection systems are impaired.

Businesses can take the following steps to minimise loss:

* Assign a fire watch to conduct hourly rounds in areas that are not constantly occupied or where automatic fire alarms like heat, smoke, and monitored sprinklers are absent. The fire watch should be familiar with procedures for notifying the fire department and know how to use a fire extinguisher.

*Prevent and control potential ignition sources. Prohibit all hot work (including roof work); if hot work cannot be avoided, then a hot work permit program should be adhered to. Prohibit all smoking, and critically important, conduct annual thermographic inspections for electrical equipment.

*Limit and control fuel loading inside and near the site buildings such as idle pallets, flammable and combustible liquids, and combustible residue such as dust, lint and oil as well as packaging materials.

*Conduct weekly housekeeping audits to control ignition sources and manage fuel loading.

*Discontinue any hazardous operations not necessary for operations like using flammable liquid.

*Increase portable fire extinguisher inspections every two weeks to verify all units are charged, easily accessible and in good condition. Consider installing additional extinguishers particularly in areas with ignition sources or high fuel loading.

*Ensure that employees on all shifts are well trained to use extinguishers.

*Check that all fire walls and fire doors are in good condition.

*Coordinate with the local fire department on emergency response procedures, including an invitation to tour the site for pre-fire planning.

*Keep contact with your insurer to provide site-specific loss prevention advice.

Other solutions for fixed fire protection

A water-saving effort that can be adopted is the development of permanent, sustainable, water re-use. This option calls for the installation of water recycling facilities and has the potential to take water usage savings from the creditable 75% to over 90%.

Another concept that has been successfully trialled is to collect flow meter output into mobile water tanks. This water is then transferred to a re-use facility, such as the local council where it can be added to the water supply for garden maintenance use and more. The concept of catch and cart does cost more and requires set-up costs, however the extra effort is consistent with our current times.

In the interest of property conservation, continued business, socio-economic and broad economic responsibility – businesses should act prudently and reduce their reliance on municipal services. This can be achieved by investing in independent adequately designed and installed water supplies, including water saving measures, to meet the combined total demand of the protection systems on site.

Independence ensures reliability and peace of mind in that assets are protected against losses as a result of fire. Climate change and resultant water restrictions are here to stay. Water infrastructure is outdated and unreliable, and fire protection needs to be approached from a risk management point of view and not only to meet minimum legal requirements.

Stephan Barnard is the head of Allianz Risk Consulting.

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