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by the NFCC

Control measure

Appropriate intervention: Biological agents involved in fire

Control measure knowledge

This control measure should be read in conjunction with Appropriate speed and weight of intervention.

When deciding how to tackle a fire in a biological research establishment, the decision needs to be based on the biological agents present and the best method to ensure these agents do not leave the confines of the building.

Most biological agents will be killed by high temperatures – many die at temperatures exceeding 60C – and the temperatures in a fire may exceed this temperature. Allowing the fire to continue within the enclosed area will subject these agents to the fire and destroy them. However, if attempts are made to extinguish the fire, then the biological agents may not have reached the temperatures necessary to kill them before firefighting water is applied. This would mean the ‘live agent’ may contaminate the run-off water from applied firefighting media or the smoke plume, effectively spreading the biological agent.

Premises which work with materials such as hazard Group/Class 3 and 4 agents use high-security containment systems, comprising filtration systems and air-lock door systems. These areas are often intentionally not connected to the sprinkler system, so that any fire will consume everything in the area, including the agent, and then burn out due to oxygen starvation. The filtration and containment systems are designed to ‘run to destruction’ and will not shut down in fire situations.

It should be recognised that the biohazard symbol (shown below) is regularly used by many industries and the risk the symbol is referring to at the site in question should be established as early as possible. For example, soiled laundry from a hospital may display this symbol, meaning a controlled burn would not be an appropriate tactic, but a HG/Class 4 pathogen may also carry the same symbol and a controlled burn could be an appropriate tactic.

Biohazard symbol


Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Ensure premises where biological agents are located are visited regularly and that the fire engineering is observed and recorded

  • Liaise with responsible persons where biological risks exist and establish operational tactical plans including control burn options, fixed installations and location of risks on site

  • Ensure emergency planning information for biological agents is recorded and available for the incident commander attending any incident

Tactical actions

Incident commanders should:
  • Ensure early and regular contact is maintained with on-site specialists who have knowledge of both the biological agent risks on site and the filtration/containment systems in operation

  • Consider a controlled burn where there is no life risk, as an option for minimising the risks posed by biological agents

  • Make themselves aware of any fire engineering systems to control biological agents within the building, including those facilities to support a controlled burn

  • Use minimal water to attack a fire involving biological agents

  • Consider appropriate intervention to deal with fire involving biological agents, as chemical protective clothing (CPC) cannot be worn in fire situations