Anthony Rago + Moriel Kaplan

Here's why automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) pose special fire protection challenges

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Warehouse fires in recent years have drawn attention to the significant fire risks and fire protection difficulties posed by automated warehousing facilities. High-storage densities, limited access, electronic conveyancing systems, high-racking, overpacking and over-stacking can elevate fire risk, making warehouse fire safety design more challenging.

Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), and specifically compact ASRS, are also not without significant potential fire safety risks. Rapid development of these systems has outpaced the current building and fire codes and associated referenced standards. Several factors should be considered when a compact ASRS is being selected and constructed.

The Shift to Compact ASRS Design

To facilitate the movement of products through the supply chain quickly, retailers have shifted from manual pick processes to Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). Although ASRS has been around for decades, compact ASRS are being introduced to process smaller products. Compact ASRS are lighter-weight storage retrieval machines (typically less than 350 lbs) designed to handle smaller loads, such as cases, totes and trays. Compact ASRS are particularly useful as they reduce warehouse storage space and maximize throughput at each facility.

Fire Protection Standards For Compact ASRS Projects

The compact nature of storage and risk of fire requires robust warehouse fire protection systems. Unfortunately, limited fire protection standards are currently available to protect compact ASRS. While NFPA 13 provides options for protecting standard storage configurations, it does not provide specific protection requirements for compact ASRS projects. However, schemes for standard storage arrangements can be adapted and applied to a shuttle-type compact ASRS design.

Insurance carrier FM Global has developed FM Global Data Sheet 8-34, Protection for Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems. However, it only provides sprinkler system design criteria for compact ASRS tested by FM Global. Independently, ASRS manufacturers have initiated large-scale fire testing to determine product-specific fire protection design schemes. These manufacturers use their test results and NFPA 13 and FM Global requirements to develop system-specific fire protection designs that may become listed or approved. Of course, care should be taken when designing to or extrapolating from third-party data or test scenarios.

Designing Solutions To Address Compact ASRS Protection Concerns

Fire protection strategy will vary depending on the type and footprint of ASRS selected, storage height, and type and quantity of commodities being stored. The system must also consider bin tote/type, building use group protection infrastructure (e.g., office vs mercantile), flow and duration of available water supply, types and costs of upgrades to the existing sprinkler system, and space available for in-rack sprinklers, and firefighting access.

Common concerns the fire department raises when reviewing compact ASRS design include access to the ASRS system, site-specific firefighting capabilities (e.g., perimeter platform, remote water nozzle, video and fire detection), safe evacuation if conditions become unsafe and adequacy of water available to fight a fire until extinguishment. Additional considerations may include testing and maintenance schedules, automatic and manual shut-off, and hazardous materials assessment.

Designing solutions for these concerns is imperative for a successful project. A warehouse fire safety and protection strategy for compact ASRS requires:

  • Understanding the needs of the end user, specifically the commodities and quantities intended to be stored within the ASRS.
  • Communicating with major stakeholders while understanding the fire protection design requirements requested by the insurance carrier and/or property owners.
  • Validating the fire protection design requirements based on the available standard or conducting customized fire testing for the specific system.
  • Analyzing the fire protection infrastructure at the ASRS installation location to ensure that the location can supply the required fire protection features.
  • Creating a fire safety plan/strategy with the responding fire department to ensure the tools required for firefighting are available.

As compact automated storage and retrieval system projects become more common, additional codes and standards will be developed to provide prescriptive protection requirements. Until such time, the protection scheme for each ASRS system will be unique based on the project and its specific location. Learn more about our building fire and life safety services and how our experts can assist with designing state-of-the-art, cost-effective fire protection systems.

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