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What is Firewater?

What is Firewater?

If you look up Firewater in the dictionary you will learn that it is a strong alcoholic drink. That isn’t the kind of firewater that we are concerned with in spill containment.

In spill containment terms firewater refers to the potentially millions of litres of water or foam that are discharged to fight a fire, combined with whatever materials you may be handling on your site.

In fighting a fire water and foam from hoses, sprinklers and extinguishers are propelled into the site producing an excess runoff. This runoff is considered as serious a pollutant as any other spill if it is allowed to escape your site and it is the site owner who is liable for any clean- up costs or fines in exactly the same way that they are with any other spill.

People are often surprised when I tell them that the most likely environmental damage caused by fire at an industrial site is not a result of the fire itself, but the millions of gallons of water that can be discharged to fight it. 

Why should you be concerned about firewater?

You should be concerned about firewater for four reasons:

  1. Statistically you are as likely to suffer an industrial fire as you are an industrial spill, there are reportedly around 300 of each in the UK alone each year. 
  2. A fire will produce much greater volumes than a spill. A fire at a plastics recycling operation in Smethwick in 2013, thought to be started by a Chinese lantern, required fourteen million litres of water to contain it according to the West Midlands Fire Service. That is the equivalent of six Olympic swimming pools. What this means is that your spill containment planning should be allowing for volumes much greater than you would expect from a spill event. Clearly, the greater the volume the greater the impact on the environment.
  3. Fire water is propelled. When compared to a fire a spill is a much more passive event which relies on gravity alone to channel the liquids away. A fire hose is designed to operate at 400psi, thats a lot of pressure driving your contaminated material flow.
  4. Following a fire there will need to be an investigation which usually takes days and sometimes weeks. It could be that you are required to contain the firewater for the duration of the investigation.

So where does all of this firewater go? 

Without an effective spill containment plan, processes and equipment the drainage network becomes the main pathway for the flow taking the pollutants directly to the nearest water course in most instances.

What can you do to manage this risk?

The first thing you should do is make sure you are up to date with the latest regulations, advisories and technology. I have written a guide – Making Water Pollution Prevention Pay, you can download a copy here.

You should then develop an Environmental Management Plan and conduct a Spill Mapping exercise to make sure you know where all the drains are on your site and model where any flow is likely to go.

It is critical that you test your containment processes and equipment regularly and ensure that staff are trained in their operation. If your processes have never been tested you may be in for some surprises, we often encounter valves that weren’t specified or adjusted correctly on installation, offering no containment whatsoever. 

Over time joints and pipe work will become damaged and will need to be serviced.  If the drains become blocked, cracked, unidentified or incorrectly connected there is very little chance of preventing a pollution escape.

Of course I understand that you make every effort to avoid fires on your site and I sincerely hope that you don’t have the misfortune to suffer one. My intention in writing this article is simply to support you in understanding the risk and the opportunities to mitigate that risk so that if the unthinkable were to happen you don’t suffer the additional stress and cost of polluting the environment. 

If spill containment and CIRIA736 compliance is currently a consideration for you please do not hesitate to call 0330 223 4372 or email us, we will be very happy to discuss our solutions with you.

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