Reactive Fire Safety Regs Ignore Tragedies Waiting to Happen

7 Oct 2019

It’s a red herring to suggest that ‘avoiding another Grenfell’ is the reason we need stronger fire safety regulations.

Quite rightly, preventing tragedies is a priority for the ministers, the Fire Brigades Union and others using this language to criticise the pace of change, but a focus on not repeating the past exposes one of the greatest flaws of our regulatory system. Simply put, it’s too reactive, addressing individual failings exposed by disaster rather than all known risks.

This isn’t a new problem. From the Ronan Point collapse in 1968 to the King’s Cross fire in 1987, these tragic incidents leave a permanent mark on our national consciousness and act as the catalyst for change. Our challenge as an industry is to go beyond these specific incidents and remain focused on our duty of care for communities. What are the other known risks? What more can we do now?

Reactivity puts us on the back foot when developing new fire safety regulations that need to work for every fire in every conceivable situation.  

When pressed on a lack of preparedness for the Grenfell fire, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton memorably replied that she “wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle landing on the Shard.”  However, with a growing body of real-world evidence about the risks of building with combustible materials, there is no such excuse when it comes to regulatory reforms.  

Banning combustible external elements from at-risk buildings was an essential first step, as proven once again by the Barking fire which destroyed 20 flats in June. The incident was attributed to a barbecue catching fire on one of the development’s wooden balconies, which a safety inspection in January had already found posed a ‘significant hazard’ to resident safety.  

Despite this, the same scrutiny applied to cladding and the external spread of fire is yet to be visited upon safety-critical structural elements.  While legislation continues to allow for combustible structures that suffer more damage during a blaze, we are knowingly building risk into the hearts of our built environment.

The potential consequences of this oversight were evidenced by a devastating fire which destroyed the Premier Inn at Cribbs Causeway in July, causing it to collapse onto the adjacent road. A blaze which started in the laundry room burned for more than 40 hours despite the efforts of 70 firefighters.  

The fact that the fire spread quickly but also burned for so long highlights the potential dangers of building with combustible materials such as timber. Once a combustible structure becomes involved in a fire, this adds significant fuel and increases the chances of compartmentation failing and the fire spreading.

Indeed, the Avon Fire and Rescue report notes that initial attempts to fight the Cribbs Causeway fire from within the building were abandoned due to concerns over the fire’s rapid growth and the building’s structural stability.  

No casualties does not mean no problem. It was fortunate that this fire took place in the daytime when otherwise hundreds of guests may have been sleeping. Disturbingly, this was by no means an isolated incident.

Last month in Crewe, a retirement complex was destroyed by a mid-afternoon fire. The incident commander overrode the ‘stay put’ policy and evacuated the building’s 150 residents after seeing the rapid spread of the blaze, undoubtedly saving lives. Like the hotel, this is another high-risk multiple occupancy building constructed largely from combustible materials, despite the presence of potentially vulnerable residents who require more time to escape.

Meanwhile the very recent fire in Worcester Park, London, devastated a four-storey timber-framed block of flats leaving a partially collapsed frame standing, which appears, only fortuitously, to have resulted in no fatalities or injuries.

In buildings of modern design and construction, it is unreasonable and unacceptable that local fires led to such high potential for loss of life, despite seemingly being compliant with regulations designed to protect people.

The fire and rescue services attended over 73,000 fires in England alone last year. We cannot afford for building regulations to ignore the risks of using combustible materials in structures until one of these incidents becomes a tragic lesson.

Writen by - Tony Jones, principal structural engineer at The Concrete Centre