AIBC building envelopes

London fatal fire sparks high-rise safety concerns

Canadian fire experts share insight and tips in wake of horrific tragedy
Friday, June 16, 2017
by Erin Ruddy

Update: June 23, 2017  – The London Metropolitan Police announced today it will consider manslaughter, health and safety and fire safety charges in relation to the 79 confirmed deaths at the Grenfell fire, which began in a faulty Whirlpool Hotpoint fridge freezer. Though the model was discontinued in 2009, 64,000 were sold between March 2006 and July 2009 and their whereabouts are unknown. Meanwhile the cladding containing a polyethylene core will continue to undergo an exhaustive investigation, but experts have already deemed it “unsafe and non-compliant” with current building regulations.

The fatal fire that ripped through a 24-storey apartment tower in London, England, on Wednesday, June 14th, has left the city traumatized. Deemed one of the deadliest apartment fires in recent history, the blaze in the 120-unit Grenfell Tower council housing block has resulted in 79 confirmed deaths and dozens of injuries.

As the building continues to smoulder and structural engineers attempt to secure the charred remnants in order to search for clues and missing bodies, speculation is swirling around what led to the fire spreading so quickly and why fire alarms (reportedly) failed to go off.

For residents and building owners on this side of the ocean, the horrific incident has left many wondering how such a tragedy was even possible given today’s high safety standards and strict Building Code regulations.

“These are early days and there is still a lot to learn about the circumstances of the fire,” says Michele Farley, President & Senior Code Consultant, FCS Fire Consulting Services Ltd. “However, fire separation integrity and compliance levels can’t be ruled out until the investigation is well underway.”

Safety concerns

According to several news outlets, concerns about fire safety at the Grenfell Tower came to light in 2012 when a health and safety review found firefighting equipment outdated, among other potential hazards. At that time the residents’ association, known as the Grenfell Action Group, published a fire risk assessment, which reported that fire extinguishers in the basement boiler room, elevator motor room and ground floor electrical room were more than 12 months past the test date.

Though the official cause of the fire has not yet been disclosed, even more concerning is how quickly the fire was able to spread throughout twenty-four levels. Some experts have pointed to the relatively new exterior cladding, which had been installed as part of a larger renovation in 2016. In video footage, the panels can be seen engulfed in flames, an outcome Farley points out wouldn’t have resulted from concrete or flame-spread rated solid cladding.

“If fire separations failed, it would certainly spread the fire faster,” Farley notes. “However hot weather can result in residents propping open stairwell and suite doors (fire separation doors), which would compromise the containment even where there are compliant fire separations in place. Additionally in hot weather, windows are often opened, which allows fire to escape to the exterior.”

Other experts foresee little possibility of a similar fire in a Canadian residential tower. “With our Building Code regulations and Fire Code, coupled with our proactive municipal fire services, the only way this type of large-scale incident would occur here, would be the result of a breakdown or failure of responsibility somewhere,” asserts Jason Reid, President & Senior Advisor for National Life Safety Group.

But fires do happen often enough, and typically there are common circumstances that contribute to their outcomes—poor communication and the general uncertainty around how to respond being among them. Reid calls an up-to-date Fire Safety Plan the most critical step in preventing fire-related death or injury. The vital document, which is required on-site by law, identifies building construction type, fire alarm procedures, preventative maintenance requirements, and operational details of unique life safety systems in the building.

“This document, approved by the local fire department, clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of both landlord and resident,” says Reid. “It must be current and comprehensive, and residents must familiarize themselves with the procedures outlined in the Plan. The best practice for Canadian residential property managers is to communicate fire safety information from within this plan to residents directly, at least annually.”

During scheduled outages when life safety systems are rendered inoperative due to repair and maintenance projects, it is the landlord’s added responsibility to notify both residents, and at times the fire department of the current vulnerable status. This includes unplanned outages. “Systems impairment procedures are also addressed in the building’s fire safety plan and if there’s a failure in following these procedures, and a fire occurs, the consequences could be devastating,” Reid says.

On the other hand, while it’s the landlord’s job to ensure systems are up-to-date and code-compliant, and communicate fire procedures to residents, residents need to familiarize themselves with those procedures and know what’s expected of them in the event of an incident. “Residential high-rise fire safety is a true partnership between landlord and resident,” Reid asserts. “Residents who are unaware of their roles can make poor decisions that negatively impact the entire building.”

‘Staying in Place’

Another much-discussed aspect of the Grenfell Tower fire has been the ‘Stay in Place’—or ‘Stay Put’—policy, which is commonly used in high-rise residential fire safety procedures.

“It’s an example of something that works really well provided all systems are functioning and the building is code-compliant,” says Reid. “In a typical fire scenario, the compartmentalization of the high-rise will effectively keep smoke and fire contained to the unit of origin and prevent it from spreading next door.”

This works so well, in fact, that never in Ontario’s history has a fatality in a residential high-rise unit resulted from a fire that originated in another unit. All related fatalities were the result of residents trying to evacuate and getting trapped in smoke-filled stairwells and hallways.

That said, according to Reid, still, the best thing to do in a fire is to leave the building immediately. “If residents make the decision to stay, or are unable to leave immediately, they need to protect in place. The longer occupants wait to make this decision, the more significant risk that heavy, toxic smoke will have spread into the stairwells and corridors,” he warns. “Fire Service response times for high-rise fires are estimated at about one minute per floor. If you’re on the fifth floor of the building, it’ll take approximately five minutes for rescuers to get to you. If you’re on the 20th floor, it will take an estimated 20 minutes. Residents need to be prepared to protect themselves in-suite and know how to do this prior to an emergency.”

“I believe Ontario will be following the Grenfell Tower investigation closely for lessons learned and also to monitor any role the building’s “stay in place” policy may have had on the fire deaths and injuries,” adds Farley. “It is premature to suspect the building management or compliance status until more is known, however all of us fire safety specialists will be awaiting further details to assist our clients with preventative measures from the findings through the investigation. Our hearts go out to the residents.”

Additional Grenfell Tower fire facts:

  • More than 200 firefighters worked tirelessly through the night to try to contain the blaze
  • Witness accounts suggest it took less than an hour for the fire to spread across all 24 levels
  • The renovation project completed in 2016 included installation of insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system
  • High-rise buildings in France, the United Arab Emirates and Australia with similar cladding have all been hit by fires that spread across the exterior
  • Up to 600 people lived in the 120 apartments at Grenfell Tower. The death toll currently sits at 79 but is still expected to rise.

Photo source: Wikipedia




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