Our thanks to Rennie Shafer of the Self Storage Association UK for this update and response to the devastating Shurgard fire in Croydon.

On December 31 the Shurgard self storage store in Croydon, London, was completely destroyed by fire. This was a devastating event for the customers of this store, many of whom had stored belongings of a personal nature that can never truly be replaced. While initially the police arrested 2 people on suspicion of arson, they have since been released without charge. The police have now issued a report stating that the severity of the fire means the cause could not be determined and that they have no evidence to suggest it was deliberately lit. At the time of writing there has been no statement from the fire brigade to the cause of the fire. When the fire brigade arrived at the store, their assessment was that the fire was significantly established, and as the building had been successfully evacuated and there was no risk to life, it was appropriate to fight the fire externally rather than send firefighters into the building.

What has become evident since the fire, is that a number of customers had either declined to take insurance for their goods or had been underinsured. Some of these customers have now formed an “action group” and have made a number of allegations against Shurgard and threatened legal action. They have also lobbied their local MP to investigate the industry. Shurgard have repeatedly stated that their store was fully compliant with all building and fire regulations and there was no indication of any electrical fault that caused the fire. The fire brigade have not indicated that the building had in any way failed fire regulations. Since the fire, the London Fire Brigade has audited a number of self storage stores and the feedback provided to the industry association (SSA UK) is that there have been no significant issues found. This is the first time a fire has started in a self storage building in the UK and caused large loss of customers goods. There have been a few other fires causing major losses, but these were all a result of fires that started outside the premises and spread into the self storage store. Considering that there have been self storage stores in the UK for over 30 years and there are now around 400,000 people using self storage in over 1000 stores, the recent fire is a very unusual event.

The issue of underinsurance of customers is something the industry is attempting to address. The challenge is that it is the responsibility of the customer to insure their goods as only they know the value of the goods. While self storage operators can insist that customers insure their goods, FCA regulations prevent self storage businesses from forcing people to use their insurance. Customers can also choose to take the minimum cover even if the value of their goods is considerably more than that. Shurgard did have a minimum level of insurance in their offering and despite staff explaining the importance of correctly insuring their goods it appears some customers have just chosen to take the minimum cover. Of course, if these customers never make a claim, as most don’t, then they have saved themselves money on premiums. However, in the rare case that a customer’s goods are completely destroyed, as in the Croydon fire, these people have not only lost all their personal and valuable possessions, they also receive minimal compensation for this loss in the form of insurance. Removing minimum coverage may encourage more customers to correctly value their goods which is why the Self Storage Association is considering changing their advice to members as such.

The SSA UK is meeting with a number of enforcement agencies and politicians, including the London Mayor’s office, to discuss what practical measures can be taken by the industry to prevent such tragedies occurring in self storage stores in the future. Sprinkler systems are being discussed, but these pose their own complications in terms of servicing inside storage units, which the business does not have access to, and also damage from customers moving their goods into units with sprinkler heads in them. The recent Ocado fire, which completely destroyed a warehouse with a sprinkler system in place, also demonstrates the complexities of installing an effective sprinkler system in buildings like self storage and warehouses with concentrations of combustible material. Having CCTV data streamed directly to the internet for storage offsite immediately is also being considered. While this would not have impacted the outcome of the fire, it would have helped with the investigation of the cause and potentially help customers with their emotional trauma by providing closure as to the cause of the fire.

This fire was a tragic event for all those that lost their belongings. Even if the exact cause of the fire is never known there will still be lessons the industry can learn which can further minimise the risk of such an event occurring in the future. The SSA UK is committed to work with the relevant authorities and the industry as a whole to make self storage even safer than it already is and reduce the incidence of underinsurance within the industry.