Warehouse Racking: Fire Code Cheat Sheet and Checklist

A warehouse fire is one of the most devastating events that can occur in a facility. In the 35 years I’ve been in this industry, I’ve seen the catastrophic impact that disrupted production, product destruction and worker injury can have on the well-being of a team and business.

According to the NFPA, there are approximately 1,450 warehouse fires reported annually in the U.S. These incidents result in an average of $283 million of property damage, two deaths, and 16 serious injuries each year.

The introduction and widespread implementation of fire safety codes in the 1980s lead to a significant decrease in these events. That’s why it’s critical to understand how to properly implement fire-safe pallet racking systems in your warehouse.

Let’s go over some of the key details about fire code compliance and warehouse racking. Keep reading to learn how to best protect your team and facility from fire-related incidents.  

Warehouse Design and Fire Codes

Designing a warehouse is about more than just optimizing storage capacity and streamlining traffic. Fire protection is an essential consideration not only for legal compliance but also for the safety of your employees.

Two of the most important fire safety standards to understand for warehouses are those concerning sprinkler systems and pallet racking configuration.

Pallet Rack System Design Considerations

The classification of contents stored in your facility will play a significant role in determining applicable codes and regulations for rack system design.

For example, a high-piled combustible rack—in which combustible contents are stored in multi-tiered racks—in qualifying facilities necessitates an operational permit as per the International Fire Code.

We’ll explore content classifications and specific codes later in the article. For now, let’s discuss sprinkler systems and how they relate to your racking layout.

Sprinkler Systems for Warehouses

There are two main classifications of sprinkler systems. To select the correct system, you’ll need to consider the pallet rack design in your facility as well as the types of products being managed.

Here is a brief overview of the two types of sprinkler systems:

  • Prescriptive design: these systems follow NFPA guidelines. 
  • Performance-based: these systems are custom-designed for a facility’s unique needs.

At a minimum, both designs must meet NFPA guidelines for ESFR. This includes ceiling sprinklers with a 36-inch clearance between the sprinkler head and any racks, product or shelving.

Performance-based systems are required for CMDA and can include in-rack systems for especially combustible materials or ceiling sprinklers with an 18-inch clearance between the sprinkler head and the racks, product or shelving.

All sprinkler systems are designed to minimize fire damage, but performance-based models can have a greater impact on loss reduction, which is why many high-risk facilities chose to invest in them. 

Warehouse sprinkler systems can limit costly fire damage, so it’s important to choose a system that suits the needs of your facility.

Circumstances that would require an in-rack or other performance-driven design include: 

  • Dense storage that could prevent water from reaching the product
  • Storage designs that could compromise the integrity of steel racks
  • Areas storing high-risk contents
  • Areas with certain storage and ceiling heights
  • Areas with solid shelves

The bottom line: in-rack sprinkler systems are proven to be effective at limiting loss and damage as a result of warehouse fires. But they have to be installed according to codes concerning rack height, storage density, and contents classification. 

Warehouse Fire Protection

In addition to sprinkler systems, fire codes necessitate the following fire prevention strategies:

  • Signage: Hazard communication requires proper signage as well as training for reading, understanding and responding to said signage. 
  • Installed equipment: Robust resources must be available to support employees and emergency services in the case of a fire. This includes fire detection systems, alarm systems, extinguishers and hose systems. This also includes specifications for compliant aisle width and exit design to ensure emergency services can navigate the building as safely as possible. 
  • Protocol: Fire safety protocols can include emergency plans and training, but it also includes following all OSHA requirements for warehouse design and electrical layout. This is because the NFPA has found that electrical incidents are responsible for approximately 18% of warehouse fires.

Fire Codes in Warehouses

Before investing in fire safety infrastructure, you must first determine the classification of your facility and its contents. Your classification will be one determining factor for your facility’s requirements. 

Here’s a brief overview of the different content classification systems as per the NFPA. The NFPA considers internal and external packaging as well as the pallet material when classifying contents.

  • Class I: non-combustible materials and products stored in non-combustible packaging
  • Class II: non-combustible materials and products stored in combustible packaging
  • Class III: combustible products and materials; plastics in Group C and in Group A or B in certain circumstances
  • Class IV: classes I through III products in corrugated combustible packaging, sometimes palletized, with packaging made of up to 15% (weight) or up to 25% (volume) Group A plastic
  • High-hazard: uniquely hazardous materials including flammable solids, lacquers, vegetable oil in plastic packaging or rubber tires

Plastic groups are determined by heat level and release rate while burning.

  • Group A: materials with a heat of combustion that is significantly higher than standard combustibles. Group A must have a burning rate greater than Group B plastics.
  • Group B: materials with a heat of combustion and burning heat greater than standard combustibles. Group B’s burning heat will not exceed materials in Group A.
  • Group C: materials with a heat of combustion and burning heat in line with standard combustibles.

Warehouse Fire Safety Checklist

Once you understand classification codes and how to assess the level of risk of your building, how do you use that information to improve the safety of your facility? 

Here’s a checklist for daily fire safety in warehouses.

  • Conduct annual fire safety training for all employees
  • Appoint fire watch employees and evacuation managers, and designate tasks to employees
  • Develop a safe evacuation plan, practice it and make it readily available to all employees
  • Design aisles and exits with evacuation in mind
  • Limit obstacles and debris in aisles
  • Adhere to proper materials storage, especially for sensitive materials 
  • Follow electrical safety regulations
  • Provide, maintain and regularly inspect fire safety equipment such as extinguishers, sprinklers and alarm systems
  •  Ensure nothing is stored or obstructing access to fire pump riser rooms
  • Conduct a regular compliance inspection with a fire protection engineer
  • Ensure proper signage

When designing your facility’s layout, it’s important to adhere to the following NFPA requirements

  • 18 inches of clearance between the sprinkler head and racks or inventory
  • 24 inches of clearance between ceiling and racks or inventory if no sprinklers are present 
  • 36 inches of clearance for ESFR sprinklers
  • 3 inches of space between pallets
  • 6 inches of longitudinal flue space between loads or back-to-back rows
  • 3 inches of transverse flue space between racked pallets
  • Aisles with a dead end must not exceed 50 feet in length
  • Ensure a minimum width of 24 inches unobstructed or half the width of the aisle when restocking standard product
  • Ensure a minimum width of 44 inches unobstructed during mechanical restocking

Fire Code Compliance, Pallet Racking & More

Meeting compliance with fire codes is a necessity when designing and installing your racking systems. The NFPA regularly updates its codes as new information becomes available, so it’s a good idea to conduct routine inspections, especially when new regulations are announced. 
Working with a team of warehouse equipment specialists can ensure your facility meets all building codes, without compromising storage capacity or efficiency. At East Coast Storage Equipment, we provide compliant equipment solutions that adhere to NFPA standards and improve fire safety in your facility. Contact us to learn more about how we can help.

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February 1, 2024

Hello From Indiana. If there are two rows of 12′ high 40′ long shelves that are anchored to the ground with a 12′ trough gap, is an in-rack sprinkler system required?

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Paul Parisi
February 1, 2024

Hey Barry. I’m going to have someone contact you regarding this question.


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