Risk Management: Fire Prevention and Safety at Camp, Part One

by Ed Schirick

It only takes one horror story about a fire at camp to be reminded how important it is to develop and maintain a comprehensive fire safety and prevention program for your camp. The camp property fire risk is unique because most buildings are older, built of frame construction, used only seasonally, and in rural, unprotected locations. Because of these factors, when a fire starts in a camp building, the result is usually total destruction. This definitely makes fire prevention and safety a top priority.

Now is the time to review and revise your fire prevention, safety, and emergency action plans before next summer. The following information will help you identify and list fire hazards applicable to your camp and program.

Extinguish Kitchen Fire Risks

The fire risk in the camp dining hall is very high. Be sure all fire prevention and protection equipment and material is properly installed. Also, make sure all cooking equipment is properly installed, meets manufacturer specifications, and complies with the National Fire Protection Association standards (NFPA pamphlet 96, "Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations," applies). Improper installation of cooking equipment increases your risk of fire, especially where ventilating hoods and ducts pass through frame walls and ceilings. Commercial ventilating hoods must be located over all cooking surfaces and protected by a heat-activated, dry-chemical extinguishing system. Check grease filters in the ventilating hoods to confirm they are the right size and are properly in place. Never cook without the grease filters in place.

Seek professional fire safety advice
Occasionally, a camp will not have a complete hood, duct, and dry chemical extinguishing system in place to reduce the risk of fire from cooking. If your camp does not have such a system in place, install one before the summer. If you have an older installation, you may want to have a professional fire safety contractor examine it to ensure it is still providing the intended protection against the risk of fire. Although caretakers may save money and be convenient and volunteers may have some knowledge and are well-intentioned, you should pay for the expertise of a specialist when it comes to older wiring and equipment.

Identify High-Risk Buildings

Arts and crafts buildings also pose higher fire risks, especially if a kiln is used for pottery work. Other buildings at high risk for fire include garages, maintenance shops, photography labs, printing shops, woodworking shops, any building with an operational fireplace, any winterized building using a fireplace insert or stove for heating, buildings housing chemicals, and any building where smoking is permitted.

The maintenance shop has additional hazards that add to the risk of fire if welding and cutting operations are performed there. The floor should be made of or covered with fire-resistant material, and a fire extinguisher of the proper type should be kept close at hand.

Use an Electrician

Fire hazards may include improper installation of fire protection devices and worn, overloaded, or improperly installed electrical wiring. The best advice is to use a licensed electrician to inspect and prepare your current electrical service before camp opens each summer. If your budget allows, have the electrical system checked every other year by a licensed electrician. It is good risk management and worth the money.

Unplugging for safety
Check outlets and eliminate overloading of plugs in receptacles. If you don't have enough outlets, have a licensed electrician add them instead of using spider plugs and extension cords. Unplug electrical appliances after you are finished using them, especially in kitchens. If you are prone to "brown outs" because of high demand for electricity in the summer, unplug appliances to help reduce the risk of fire from power surges in the lines as demand decreases. The practice of unplugging appliances may also help reduce damage to them in the event of lightning strikes to transformers serving camp. High-quality surge protection is also important for computers, fax machines, and other sensitive electronic equipment.

Following ground rules
All outlets should be properly grounded. Ground fault interruption features are essential for certain outlets, such as those running appliances using water located near water sources or outside of buildings. This is a critical employee safety issue. All local building codes and the National Electrical Code (NFPA Pamphlet 70) should be followed when making any modifications to your camp's electrical wiring.

Store Chemicals Properly

Certain pesticides and other chemicals used in film developing, printing, and disinfection in the kitchen or in the pool require special handling and storage. Employees should be notified about the type of chemicals they are exposed to in the workplace. A Material Data Safety Sheet (MDSS) should accompany each chemical sold to you at camp. The sheet must be kept on file in a central location. Another copy must be made available to employees at the location where the chemical is used. The concern is not only for the employee's safety and knowledge about what to do if exposed, but also to ensure that chemicals are handled and stored separately, away from anything that could cause a fire or explosion, such as air, water, heat, or other chemicals.

Garages, maintenance shops, and woodworking shops are at high risk for damage by fire because of improper storage of flammables. Flammables, such as paint, shellac, varnish, wood stain, gasoline, kerosene, turpentine, and similar liquids, should be:

  • stored in approved, airtight metal containers.
  • kept only in needed quantities.
  • used in adequately ventilated areas.
  • stored away from heat and fire; smoking should not be permitted near flammables.

Only non-sparking tools should be used near flammable liquids. Metal storage lockers for flammable liquids can be purchased fairly reasonably and are well worth the money. If you don't have a metal storage locker for flammable liquids, add one to your shopping list for next summer.

Keep Camp Tidy

Keeping maintenance areas, workshops, kitchen storage areas, and other places in camp neat and clean reduces the risk of fire. Rags soiled with flammable liquids that are left on the floor may ignite through spontaneous combustion under the right circumstances. Boxes, paper, and other combustible material may catch on fire if left too close to pumps, motors, and other electrical and heat producing appliances and equipment.

Recognize Other Fire Hazards

There are other fire hazards, such as a forest fire caused by a lightning strike, campfires, campers with matches, portable cooking stoves, and arson. Can you think of other fire hazards unique to your program or location? What methods and practices can you devise to reduce the hazards or eliminate them? Take some time to consider potential fire hazards. Prepare your list of hazards, propose solutions to reduce them, and add the list to your risk-management plan.

Look for Part II of "Fire Prevention and Safety at Camp" in the next issue. The article will focus on employee fire safety issues, suggestions on how to assign responsibility for reducing fire hazards, and the elements of an Emergency Action Plan.

The National Fire Protection Association is dedicated to fire prevention and safety. Pamphlets mentioned in this article, and others that address fire safety standards, are available for purchase. Call NFPA at 800-344-3555, or visit their Web site: www.nfpa.org

Originally published in the 1998 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.