Fire Rover is a fire prevention system. Fogelman discusses the role of fires in the challenging waste and recycling operations insurance market.
I began reporting fire incidents at waste and recycling operations in the U.S. and Canada in February of 2016. From 2016 to 2018, we saw an increase in these fire incidents that were due to traditional fire hazards like propane tanks and pool chemicals, but we also experienced the initial wave of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries in our waste stream. In truth, the industry was not prepared for the lithium-ion fire risks. Unlike traditional hazards, lithium-ion batteries can have a very small footprint and can overheat or explode.
From 2016 to 2018, there were about 50 insurers covering the waste and recycling industry, and by 2019, there were fewer than 10 insurers. Claims data from the Insurance Office of America showed that from 2016, 2017 and 2018, shredder and lithium-ion battery fires had expanded from a loss perspective.
In hindsight, we saw that there was an increase in lithium-ion battery incidents across the world, documented in Japan, in the U.K., and in Australia. Insurers were rightly cautious. After they identified the problem, it was time to develop solutions that included updating and rolling out proper fire prevention planning in their operations, educating the public on the dangers of disposing of hazards in their waste and recycling, and investments in fire prevention and risk mitigation technologies like the Fire Rover.
You’ve always had traditional fire hazards, and you always will. When you go to your recycling and accidently place a propane tank into your recycling bin, the operators can identify it and typically remove it during pre-sort. Lithium-ion batteries come in many shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere. In the old days when a car would come to a metal shredding operation, they would know that there were flammable hazards like gas, oil and lubricants, and they’d do everything they could to drain the car [and] do a cursory clean of the inside.
In 2018, that same car gets into an accident and there are 15 e-cigarettes inside, a pair of Apple AirBuds, a phone and other hidden batteries in all of the car’s cracks and crevices. Then they take that car and shred it, and you have these little lithium-ion batteries that can explode anywhere in the operation.
The same thing with a recycling bin. People are throwing away their phones. How many birthday cards have you gotten that have some sort of music in them? Those all have a lithium-ion battery. Most lithium-ion batteries are safe, and one in a million will actually have an issue after manufacturing, but we are not gentle with our trash or recycling, which can cause fire hazards.
There is traditionally a long lag between a fire starting and the fire department’s on-site response, which is where we saw an opportunity.
We originally started in the scrap metal industry, basically security. Fires were happening at scrap metal facilities in their auto shredder residue piles, in their in-feed piles, and in their shredder operations. In our video, we would see major fires, and we had a front-row seat until our cameras melted. One scrap metal operation’s owner jokingly said to Brad Gladstone, the founder and inventor of our solution, “Can you put the fire out next time?” Brad took it to heart, and he invented the Fire Rover.
Basically, the Fire Rover is a 20-by-8-by-8 container. It’s heated and cooled, and it has a 1,000-gallon tank inside. We have a combination of 97% water and 3% of an environmentally friendly wetting agent. It’s fluorine free. It doesn’t have the PFAS issue that everybody is talking about. All it needs is internet and minimum electricity. Our solution can be placed in both indoor and outdoor operations. We use top-grade military thermal cameras for early detection of abnormal heat in our clients’ operations.
When we identify a heat abnormality and verify the threat, our highly trained central station agents are able to notify the proper authorities as well as shoot our wetting agent onto the affected areas remotely. The biggest opportunity is identifying a fire during the initial 10 minutes of a fire incident. Sometimes, we can catch fires before there’s a flame. We can apply our wetting agent remotely to cool it and then send you a video the next morning with the highlights. Most of the time, what we’re doing is catching a small explosion or fire. As long as you catch it early, when it’s small, things are good. A fire doubles in size and cost every 30 seconds.
You’re talking about robotics and AI, and we have started to see these investments in the sorting operations of the industry. But with most fire protection, it’s an off-on switch. The issue is a flame detector doesn’t look at your fire protection from a macro perspective; it looks at, is this equipment running hot? Is there a flash here? It’s always one particular area. We look at it from a holistic approach.
The problem with the move to 100% automated systems is they cannot think. Ours is the first system that literally brings a human being back. It’s kind of like a robot with a person in it. To take one step forward with technology, we needed to take one step back and still have a brain. Most of these facilities are extremely active—you have forklifts, you have equipment that is constantly in a state of motion. When we see an abnormality, it goes back to our central station and our agents look at it. They verify it, or they clear the alarm. When they verify that there is a fire, they notify the fire department and the customer. Then we’re able to remotely apply a surgically targeted wetting agent on the hot spot.