Protecting your people and your profits—making the case for fire prevention and training.

Will Flower


Every day, collection trucks, transfer stations and recycling centers face the potential threat of fire.  If a fire does occur, it is usually extinguished with minimal damage and no disruption in service.  However, in cases of severe fire, entire buildings, multiple trucks and complete recycling systems may be destroyed.  In the wake of a large fire, managers will struggle as infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, records are lost and profits are destroyed. Because of the danger associated with fires, managers and supervisors must take precautions to prevent them and train employees to properly respond.


Fire Prevention at Facilities

Fires at recycling centers and transfer stations are challenging due to the massive amounts of material that can fuel the fire. Once ignited, piles of cardboard, newspaper and plastics can burn for days. Burning piles of solid waste inside a transfer station can be extremely difficult to extinguish.


The best way to protect a facility from fire is to conduct an overall site assessment with an eye toward fire prevention. When evaluating a facility, review potential fuel sources such as tanks of propane, acetylene, oxygen, bales of paper, cardboard or plastics. Loose material on the tip floor is another potential source of fire. Housekeeping procedures for storage of flammable materials and flammable waste (including oily rags) should be reviewed. Electrical motors, wiring and rolling stock should also be carefully checked for potential fire hazards. Fire alarm systems should be inspected to make sure they are functioning properly. Sprinkler systems should be evaluated to ensure they are capable of controlling the spread of large-scale fires.


During a facility assessment, it’s also a good idea to review adjacent properties to determine if there are any significant risks from neighboring operations or manufacturing facilities. Local fire departments should be familiar with your facility. Contact the chief of the local fire department to conduct a pre-planning event or a “walk-through” with firefighters during a non-emergency visit. During the walk through, firefighters and fire officers will identify and become familiar with the site layout including entrances and exits, sources of water, location of specific hazards such as fuel storage areas, welding tanks, on-site propane, flammable liquid storage areas, electrical systems, etc. The walk through will help in the event that a fire breaks out and firefighters are called to the facility.


Special care needs to be taken whenever workers are engaged in any operation that generates sparks or uses an open flame including cutting metal, grinding and welding. Workers should maintain a fire watch to make sure nothing catches fire.


In the event of a fire, every worker must be able to get out of the building quickly.  Fire exits must be kept clear and emergency doors cannot be blocked or locked. An emergency assembly point must be established so that evacuated employees can be assembled and a roll call taken to ensure everyone is safe. A flagpole is a good place to assemble provided it is out of harm’s way and will not interfere with fire trucks and fire engines that are arriving at the scene.


Every facility and every piece of equipment must have an adequate number of fire extinguishers.  Workers should be trained on the general principles of fire extinguisher use. Hands-on training of fire extinguishers should be part of your annual safety training program. New employees should receive emergency training as part of their employee orientation program.


Truck Fires

Many truck fires are caused by electrical issues and using a battery disconnect switch can help reduce the risk of fires. Regular inspections of the truck including batteries, cables and wires will reduce the risk of fires. Additionally, trucks should be kept clean of excessive grease, oil, garbage and recyclables. An accumulation of hydraulic fluid, grease and oil is potential trouble.  The area behind the compactor blade also should be kept clean and free of debris.


Firefighters will face unique challenges trying to extinguish a load of trash or recyclables inside a collection vehicle if it catches fire. Getting water to extinguish a fire inside the truck body can be difficult. In most cases, leaving a burning load of waste inside the body of a collection truck will result in the total loss of the vehicle. Many companies and municipalities have adopted a standard operating procedure (SOP) that calls for drivers to eject “hot loads” from the truck in an effort to limit damage to the collection vehicle and give firefighters a better opportunity to effectively extinguish the fire. When a driver notices the load is burning, he/she should immediately contact dispatch and call 9-1-1 for assistance. The driver should quickly identify an isolated area where the contents of the truck can be unloaded. Prior to unloading the contents of the truck, the driver should check for and avoid overhead wires and other safety concerns.



A truck fire or structure fire at solid waste or recycling facilities can be devastating to a company and the community that depends on its operation. To avoid loss from fire, facility managers should attempt to eliminate the risk of fire and be prepared if a fire should break out. Managers of solid waste facilities, drivers and equipment operators should always be prepared and take quick action to extinguish a fire and evacuate the area to make sure workers and the public are safe. In many cases, workers may only be able to slow the progression of a fire until firefighters arrive to extinguish the blaze. Managers should be aware that during a fire, conditions can rapidly deteriorate. Most importantly, every employee needs to know how to evaluate a burning structure and where to assemble to make sure all workers are present and accounted for during a fire or other emergency. Once outside, workers should not return to the building until the “all clear” signal is given.


Next month’s safety series will focus on the importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).


Will Flower is the Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems (Danbury, CT). Will has 32 years of experience in the area of solid waste management and environmental protection. He has held operational and executive leadership positions at the Director’s Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Management, Inc., Republic Services. Inc. and Green Stream Recycling. 


Share your safety tip. Submit your suggestions to Will Flower at [email protected] 



Is your facility safe from fire? Ask these 10 questions:

  1. If you have a fire alarm system, is it regularly tested?
  2. If you have a sprinkler system are the pipes, sprinkler heads, vales, and water pressure regularly inspected?
  3. Is proper clearance maintained below sprinkler heads to allow for maximize fire suppression?
  4. Are sprinkler heads protected by metal guards if exposed to potential physical contact with other equipment?
  5. If you have outside fire hydrants, are they unobstructed and operational?
  6. Are escape paths and exit doors clear of all obstacles?
  7. Are portable fire extinguishers available in adequate number and type?
  8. Are fire extinguishers easily accessible and marked with clearly visible signs to identify the location of fire extinguishers and fire hoses.
  9. Are fire extinguishers and fire hoses regularly inspected and recharged or replaced when needed?
  10. Are employees properly instructed in fire prevention, the use of fire extinguishers and evacuation procedures?