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Fire in Smethwick – Should we be so Surprised?

The fire at a recycling plant in Smethwick in the West Midlands is clearly a major incident.  The disruption to local businesses is yet another stark reminder of the need to be prepared for denial of access to your premises.  I was slightly taken aback though at the surprise expressed by spokespeople from the Fire Service and other commentators: surely big fires do happen from time to time in an industrialised area like this?  

I therefore consulted the West Midlands Community Risk Register (June 2012) to see what the assessed likelihood of such events was.  I was staggered to see that the likelihood of “Industrial Explosions and Major Fires”, defined as “[Disruption] up to 1km around site, causing up to 20 casualties, some of a serious nature”, is considered to be between 0.1% and 1% annually.  I thought that maybe this was a local anomaly but looking at other Community Risk Registers (eg Cambridgeshire, Thames Valley) I found even lower estimates of likelihood, generally between 0.01% and 0.1%.

Intuitively these figures just seem to be a bit low, although I don’t have any hard data to back up this feeling.  Crucially though, how do you assess the risk from a new industry such as recycling, where historical data is so limited?  The BBC quotes a Fire Service spokesperson as saying that this is the “15th fire at a waste-transfer station in the West Midlands this year”: with this volume of incidents surely one must expect some of these fires to get very big.  Maybe Community Risk Registers are too backward-looking and some new thinking is required?