Business Sprinkler Alliance


Future of West Midlands food business remains uncertain following devastating fire

When a huge fire at a food business in Willenhall caused significant damage and major disruption in January, it was another in a series of fires in the food industry in recent years, with none of the facilities benefiting from an automatic sprinkler system. Six months later and what is left of the fire damaged structure is about to be demolished and the future of the Midland Chilled Foods business at this site remains unclear.

Despite the efforts and resources of 12 fire crews and over 50 firefighters from the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service to contain the fire and bring it under control, the January 16th blaze caused severe damage to this wholesale food business. The entire production plant was destroyed by the fire which started in a refrigeration unit. More than 60% of the 3,000m2 property was damaged and the continued disruption to the company’s business operations remains.   

The company has initiated the demolition of the building which is expected to start in June with site clearance taking place throughout the summer. There are no approved plans for the rebuild which is needed to restore their full manufacturing capability. This reinforces the fact that decisions to rebuild and secure planning permission following a destructive fire take time and can lead to further business interruption.

The fire at Midland Chilled Foods shared similarities to another warehouse fire on the 29th August 2020, when more than 100 firefighters and 20 fire appliances from Essex Fire and Rescue tackled a large night-time blaze at food distributor Kent Foods, based in Basildon. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the fire and rescue service, the 7,300m2 warehouse was destroyed.

Some may think that the food industry has limited combustible load and therefore fires are limited. This is not supported by the spate of food industry fires that are observed in the UK and across Europe. The large fire at the Speedibake bakery at the beginning of 2020 was an even larger event than the fire at Midland Chilled Foods, destroying a large part of the bakery. The bakery is no longer operating and 160 jobs were lost or displaced. 

When you look at the fires at the Speedibake bakery and Midlands Chilled Foods these businesses are typical of what we see within the sector. The real impact of fire, although something understandable as a scenario facing the business, only becomes apparent when it occurs. The long road to recovery even after the production facility is rebuilt and normal operations are resumed, may be further challenged by delays and disruptions. It can take time to re-establish supply chain partnerships and regain customer trust.

Acting quickly to quell the spread of fire when it is first detected aids fire safety, limits damage and minimises impacts. Sprinklers have been shown to be effective to contain, control or extinguish fires in 99% of cases when caused to operate1.

The installation of sprinkler systems would have provided long-term protection for these food businesses. Sprinklers play a crucial role in preventing catastrophic losses and ensuring the safety of lives. By effectively suppressing fires, sprinklers not only safeguard against extensive damage but also contribute to environmental preservation. They help reduce CO2 emissions, minimise water consumption by fire brigades, and eliminate the risk of water supply contamination. Moreover, sprinkler systems facilitate business continuity. In the unfortunate event of a fire, businesses equipped with sprinklers often find themselves operational again within a short period, typically within hours.   

1Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Economics May 2017

Image Credit: Google Earth