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Fire!
One auto recycler shares how CAR certification proves to be beneficial in a crisis.
Nordstrom’s Automotive of Garretson, South Dakota, is very proud of the fact that they have achieved and maintained the Automotive Recyclers Associations (ARA’s) Certified Automotive Recycler (CAR) accreditation since 1999. We are also excited we took the next step in customer service by agreeing to the Code of Ethics and participating in the CSI portion of Gold Seal Program. Our involvement in these programs has been paramount in the growth of our business and providing amazing business opportunities doing business the Gold Seal way, and places our company on a shorter list of facilities in the country that have taken these steps.

A portion of the Certified Automotive Recycler program outlines Safety Standards that should be used as Best Management Practices (BMP) in the operation. We have consistently strived to adhere to these standards as we have grown our business in rural South Dakota from a dairy farm harvesting crops and milk to a full time Automotive Recycling facility with 70-plus employees.

Have we done things perfectly along the way? Of course not, but we have learned from the school of hard knocks, our peers, industry teachings, and numerous publications.

Fire in the Bay

At 4 p.m. almost exactly on July 25th, I had one of our staff members briskly interrupt a meeting between our leadership team and visiting business partners from out of town with the words you never want to hear; “We got a fire! It’s bad!” I will never forget the look on his face, and he was not even involved, he was just asked to run and break the news. 

Of course, our number one concern was for the safety of the lives of our team members. Also of great concern was the fact that the fire was in a dismantling area. As we all know, dismantling efforts are the very heartbeat of any recycling business.

But, this is the event you think will never happen to your company, it will be someone else, which is why I am writing this.

In our TD-08 Dismantling bay, (two of our 8 dismantling stations) two dismantlers work on a variety of vehicles. On this day, on one hoist was a 1990 Ranger being prepped for the Ewe Pullet self-service operation and on the other hoist was a 2011 Crown Victoria squad car being dissected with many low-mileage high-quality parts being removed. The dismantler of the squad car had just received assistance from another co-worker to negotiate the fuel tank away from the filler neck and lowered it onto the rubber-lined transport cart that is used to bring the tanks to the pneumatic transfer station.

This is the safe process that takes the fuel out of the building to outside storage that is in secondary containment under roof. In the process of lowering the almost full tank to the cart and working to suck the tank dry, some gas was spilled. While a small gas spill is not uncommon in the process of dismantling, this spill was a bit more than that occasional splash that will come out when removing a line or pump. As the dismantler was draining the tank, he decided to multi-task and work on removing the fuel pump from the tank. He was using an 18v brand name re-chargeable ¼ inch impact tool, not unlike a tool you will find in the hands of dismantlers across the country.

As he triggered the device for what we believe was the 8th time, disaster struck. His arm could feel the rush of the fire as it grew from the back of his tool and felt as if it was crawling up his arm. In reaction he threw his arm back and dropped the tool. As he did this, fire instantaneously traveled from his tool to the previously mentioned spill of gas on the floor and quickly engulfed the tank in a huge ball of fire in the corner of the shop. He was fortunate to be able to get away from the fire with only some singed hair on his arm.

The other dismantler also reacted quickly to get away from the fire. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Moral of the Story

Here is where my story speaks to you about how I am proud of our staff and the importance of being a Certified Automotive Recycler. I want to encourage everyone to pay attention to the things I am about to tell you.

As we quickly departed the meeting with our Assistant Manager, I grabbed the extinguisher from the wall of my office and we stopped by the maintenance shed to grab extras from the reserve units just in case. As we approached on foot, we could see the smoke and flames already making their way out of the dismantling bay. We found team members from different departments rallying together in extremely brave fashion, relaying fire extinguishers, and taking turns approaching the fire area to knock down the fire and work the side wall of the adjoining buildings. We had a gathering point and we assured ourselves that no one else was in the blazing area.

Our staff expelled over 50 fire extinguishers in the effort to contain the blaze. The staff member who had the blaze start in his hand knew from employee orientation that he was empowered to call 911, and did so; help was on the way. We worked feverously to save what we could. The fire department arrived in 14 minutes from the time of the call and was able to drive through our property on clear and open path ways to find a very good spot to set up operations.

With the help of five volunteer fire departments and 68 firefighters and an aerial ladder truck, the blaze was contained to the shop area. There was only minor damage to the connected warehouses that house countless dollars of ready-to-sell inventory. Firewalls designed into the buildings to seal the shop from other buildings in case of a fire held up long enough for containment of the blaze. Our staff knew where to find and how to use the extinguishers which were all inspected, operational, and strategically located throughout our facility; over 100 of them!

A Lesson to Learn

Why would I write to share this story? I do it because I am proud of our organization.

The CAR standards gave our facility the roadmap for being prepared for the worst. Our good housekeeping allowed for 27 fire trucks and support vehicles to easily get close to the shop area. We had the right type of fully functional fire extinguishers available. We had team members who had been trained in monthly meetings to know how to properly used the extinguishers, and understand things such as meeting points and locations of safety equipment. Our safety committee had done their job.

All in all, without the pride in our organization and proper equipment and training, staff members could have been injured, or worse yet killed; our entire complex of connected buildings would have easily been destroyed. Because of what we do on a regular basis, we were prepared with the correct equipment and what to do during a time of crisis.

Other than the mistakes that caused the fire; good housekeeping minimized potential fuel sources that would have allowed the fire to quickly spread beyond the initial area. Doors that connect the buildings were closed, not allowing for any more spreading than necessary. Our adherence to the ARA Torch Protocol that does not allow for open flame or cutting wheel in our dismantling shop had kept us fire free since we built this shop in 1999; but we learned we were not safe enough if proper procedures are not followed. We were not ready to have a building destroyed, but we were ready to react quickly and efficiently.

Thank you to our brave staff members, volunteer fire departments and to ARA for offering us the CAR program and the associated knowledge base available with training seminars at conventions. ARA University is also a huge help in preparing for accidents.

Are you prepared? Get a CAR application today and lead your staff to make CAR standards the standard for your business.

Shannon Nordstrom, Owner of Nordstrom’s Automotive Inc., is Chairman of ARA’s Certified Automotive Recycler Committee.


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