Tolpa‘s Auto Parts catastrophic fire threatened to end the company. Instead of accepting defeat, they came back stronger on the shoulders of its dedicated owner and the company’s loyal employees.
By Maura Keller
Perhaps no other single issue stands out in an automotive recycler’s mind more than the safety and security of employees and clientele. Unfortunately every year we learn of devastating fires in businesses that result in deaths of people trapped inside. Considering the amount of combustibles involved and the spark-producing dismantling equipment being used, automotive recyclers need to be serious about fire safety. Many more need to be proactive in providing safety training so that their employees can identify hazards and prevent catastrophic outcomes during an emergency.
That’s the exact scenario that Bill Tolpa and his employees at Tolpa’s Auto Parts in Remsen, NY faced during a fire that resulted in a total loss of equipment, parts, and building.
On a cold, wet, icy day in February 2018, Tolpa’s shop had five lifts in which cars were housed about 40 feet apart. One employee was cutting out a car part in a lift bay with a cutout wheel and sparks were flying. At the same time, another employee who was situated about 40 feet away was dropping a gas tank down on the drain table.
“While we typically don’t do that, with this particular car it required us to take the gas tank out to cut it,” says Bill Tolpa. As the gas tank landed on the drain table, the fumes from the gas tank drifted down to the bottom of the shop floor, traveled across the shop floor and the sparks from the nearby dismantling bay lit it on fire. The flame traveled across the floor, up the drain table and into the gas tank. What followed was a horrifying experience that no shop owner or their employees ever want to experience.
“There was an explosion and there was a dismantler trapped behind the gas tank – between the gas tank, the flames and the wall. There were two other guys in the shop at the time. These guys grabbed fire extinguishers and they beat down a path for the guy in the back to get out. All three of the guys got out of the shop and no one got hurt,” Tolpa says. Because the trapped dismantler had gas spilled on him during the ordeal, his clothes did catch on fire but they were able to extinguish his clothes quickly and with no harm to him.
Salt on the Wound
After the three employees emerged from the building, the fire spread very quickly. Simultaneously, the fire alarm went off so the nearby fire department was immediately notified about the blaze. Unfortunately, winter road conditions, including freezing rain, prevented the fire trucks to gain traction on the rural road on which Tolpa’s Auto Parts is situated. Because of the glare ice, a sanding truck had to be called to sand the road all the way to the facility to allow the fire truck to gain traction and get to the fire.
“Our warehouse and dismantling shop were in the same building so the fire quickly spread to our warehouse,” Tolpa says. “By the time the fire department arrived, a half an hour later, our parking lot was also glare ice. They had to also call a tanker truck to put water on the fire. But it was a total loss by that time.”
They lost all of its inventory, racking, dismantling equipment, tools, lifts, shop equipment, carts, every motor, transmission and body part – everything that was in the warehouse, which was equal to about $2 million in inventory, parts and equipment.
“We had a couple of flare ups over the two days after the fire, which the fire department put out, but we started cleaning up a couple of days after getting a quote from the insurance company,” Tolpa says. “We couldn’t save one item out of the building, including the floor. The fire was so hot it ruined the concrete floor.”
When Tolpa prepared to rebuild the building, they essentially started from scratch. Within only a day or so of the final hot spot being extinguished, the company began housing its dismantling shop and team in a temporary building, but only doing a fraction of the business that was being done in the five lifts prior to the fire.
“It was better than nothing as it was under cover, but it was tough,” he says. “We worked on the new building for five weeks and then on the fifth week from the day of the fire, we had our new dismantling shop up and running.”
Throughout this ordeal, Tolpa was determined to keep all of his team members employed. The day after the fire, he rounded all of his employees up because they were all fearing that they were going to lose their jobs.
“I told them we weren’t going to lay anyone off. We would keep everyone on staff. They may have slightly different jobs for the time being, but we were determined to keep everyone working,” he says. And while some employees suggested he simply take the insurance money and retire and not rebuild, Tolpa said he simply couldn’t do that to his employees.
“I could have retired comfortably, but at that time we had about 20 employees and I just couldn’t do that to them. That’s just not the type of person I am,” Tolpa says. A year-and-a-half after the fire, he still has the same team working for him.
“Even the guys who were in the fire are the same three guys with us now and they are working in the new dismantling building,” he says.
Training Minimizes Outcome
A little over eight years ago, Shannon Nordstrom, vice president and general manager of Nordstrom’s Automotive, Inc. in Sioux Falls, SD, also experienced a tragic fire at his facility. Nordstrom is also chair of the ARA Certification Committee, and long-time advocate of the program.
“During our fire, we handled it well,” Nordstrom says. “Being an ARA Certified Auto Recycler (CAR), we had proper and well-stocked fire extinguishers, and our staff was trained. We had trained folks who sprang into action and were able to keep things under control, until the
fire department got here, to save our entire structure.” While Nordstrom’s did lose a substantial area, they could have lost everything if it was not for the staff’s preparedness and training.
“I would hate to think of what the outcome would have been without trained staff,” Nordstrom says. “When our original facility was built, we had the correct firewalls in place, to act as fire breaks, between our dismantling and storage areas. Also, being part of the CAR program, and making our staff aware and training them, had us in a good place at the time of crisis.”
In addition to extensive training and having the proper fire extinguishers in place, Nordstrom strongly recommends getting gas out of any building.
“When handling the fuel tank removal, use only hand tools, pneumatic tools, or now, the new brushless tools. Bottom line, do not use anything that generates a spark near the fuel tank, or when working on the fuel tank,” Nordstrom says. “Our fire was started by a ¼ inch DeWalt rechargeable impact. With spilling and fumes, and a flash point that is crazy for gasoline, stay out of that situation. Get the fuel out of the building. That is what we did with our new facility, Nordstrom’s 2.0.”
With the complexities of vehicles and dangers in dismantling, it is important as well to regularly review processes.
One thing that Tolpa learned through his company’s fiery ordeal is how complicated insurance is in the times of destruction and crisis. Luckily, having business interruption insurance saved his company and provided the necessary proceeds to rebuild. As Tolpa explains, the company’s sales volume went down 50 percent overnight, due to no longer having a warehouse of parts, and thus the business was significantly “interrupted.”
“We had really good insurance on the building and racking, although we didn’t insure the inventory such as the motors and transmissions, but we did insure the offices and computer equipment,” Tolpa says. Luckily, the company’s main building, which houses the company’s servers and computers was spared from the fire, so the company’s data was untouched. The loss of computers was specifically in the dismantling and warehouse building. Thankfully, each month Tolpa has invested in a service from Pinnacle in which he has immediate backup service in case of a disaster, so even if the office building had been lost in the fire, the company’s data would have been backed up via Pinnacle.
“That’s one of my recommendations for other business owners, consider paying a little extra every month for an emergency data backup system like Pinnacle,” he says.
Today, Tolpa’s new building is completely redesigned and reorganized to enhance productivity and functionality. “It is 100 percent different from what we had before and it is very, very efficient,” he says. “We took the time to bring the building up to today’s standards as the former building was 20 years old. We designed it so that the flow works better – from the dismantling to the warehouse to our wash bay to production and loading dock.” Since the fire, Tolpa’s business is up approximately 50 percent, which Tolpa attributes to the new building’s significant efficiency. If there is one piece of advice Nordstrom can bestow on others in the industry, it is worth repeating: Get the gasoline out your dismantling areas. “Don’t use spark emitting devices near your fuel my industry friends,” Nordstrom says. “This also was the impetus for us to begin the planning for Nordstrom’s 2.0, where we planned for flow and safety from the ground up.”
Another Element to Wreak Havoc – Water
For Billy Roberts, owner of Roberts Salvage in Moffett, Oklahoma,and past president of ARA, his company's catastrophic experience was the result of an extreme flood of his building in May 2019, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released record amounts of water from the dams on the Arkansas River. Those releases created the worst flooding on the Arkansas River from Tulsa to Little Rock in recorded history.
“The result was seven feet of water in our main offices and warehouses for 10 days,” Roberts says. “We had about three days warning and evacuated our computers, office equipment, some records, rolling equipment and some vehicles. We moved some inventory and equipment to higher elevations within the property but unfortunately, because of the record flood levels, that was not high enough.”
Roberts spent most of the remainder of 2019 in clean-up mode – having to demolish and rebuild the company’s main building and warehouse. They moved their call center and business office to another city a few miles away to answer customer calls and conduct sales.
“The rebuilding of our main building is ongoing at this time,” Roberts says. “We received no assistance from any local, state or federal agencies nor any coverage from our insurance carrier because we did not have ‘flood insurance.’”
As it pertains to flood issues, Roberts says auto recyclers should be aware that if your potential loss could occur because of “rising water,” you probably need specific flood insurance.
“All of our recovery and rebuilding efforts are self-supported and help from our dedicated employees, customers and friends,” Roberts says.
Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Maura Keller is a seasoned writer, editor, and published author, with more than 20 years of experience. She frequently writes about recycling and business-related topics for various regional and national publications.