Staying Put in a Burning Building

In your place of work, in the hotels where your family take holidays, in the cinemas and venues where you are entertained and in your own home, the fire action plan is quite straight forward: in the event of fire get out and stay out.

If you remain in a building that contains a fire you are not going to be entirely safe from it. The only place of real safety at that time is outside the building.

If it's an older block of high rise flats the building design will likely have been drawn up with reference to the primary guidance at the time, Codes of Practice, written in 1948. It was non-prescriptive and it was guidance only, so interpretations will vary. 

Design elements in the structure are there to support staying put. A primary supporting element is compartmentation; arrangement, construction techniques and specific materials are used to restrict the spread of fire and the products of combustion (smoke and toxic gases) for a given time. Simultaneously some of the same aspects provide protection for the means of escape, from a fire that might occur in a flat, as well.

In a flat-fire situation, as the blaze takes hold and protection of individuals in dwellings (staying put) deteriorates, it's likely that the protection of the means of escape are deteriorating as well. The protection of the means of escape has openings at every level, a breach of any will quickly render the atmosphere on the stairs entirely unbreathable and useless as an escape route. If you can't see and can't breathe it is no longer an escape route, it is an environment that will kill people very quickly.

The rate of the deterioration, in a fire situation, of protective measures depends on a complex range of factors including fire loading, any alterations that deviate from the 'as built' drawings, planned preventative maintenance routines and the standards of fire stopping to name a few. All of these factors and more will affect the amount of time available to get to the fire and extinguish it.

There are another series of circumstances, outside of those alluded to, that are significant when it comes to the speed with which a fire is extinguished in this environment.

  • Access: getting the firefighters and equipment to the right location with haste. Is the route relatively clear and are the necessary arrangements respected in the area surrounding the block? For example, a fire engine needs to get within a certain distance of the building (to minimise the time taken and maximise water flow efficiency between the pump on the emergency vehicle and the riser water intake at ground floor level.
  • Water provision: There will be a fire hydrant within a given distance of the block. Getting a hydrant working relies on not having a car parked over it, that the lid is readily removable and that it functions entirely as expected. The positioning of the fire engine should also allow for a minimum length of hose between the hydrant and it. Speed and efficiency of water provision are absolutely crucial to firefighting operations.
  • Water flow: a certain water flow rate is required from the water main and through the hydrant to the fire appliance to provide enough water, at the required pressure, through the dry riser pipe and up to the firefighting team. If there are any faults with the riser inlet points, or the outlet points, or if it leaks or if any of the outlets are open when they shouldn't be, there may be serious problems getting enough water to the floor of the fire in good time.
  • Limited supply: fires in more than one compartment will quickly see the maximum water supply that you can put through the riser become exhausted. At least two hose lines are required for each firefighting team. If you can safely and adequately supply water through the riser for two firefighting teams you're doing quite well, three is probably beyond the limitations of the riser.
  • The height and the pump. New buildings over 50m (approximately seventeen storeys) now have to be equipped with a wet riser (one that has an adequate supply tank full of water inside the building) due to concerns surrounding the pressure a pump needs to generate to push adequate quantities of water at an adequate pressure, beyond that height.
  • Automatic and manual forms of ventilation: operating efficiently, according to the engineered specifications and predictably. 
  • Active fire protection measures such as the emergency lighting system, failure of it will negatively affect visibility internally including the scene of operations and the stairway(s).

That's just a taster. The full list of things that can negatively impact firefighting operations is in fact much longer than this. All of those things negatively impact the tenability of staying put.

What I'm striving to illustrate here is that a multitude of factors feed into the viability of staying inside a building that's on fire. Passive fire and active fire precautions are knitted inextricably together into a single system. Many aspects are not fail-safe and rely on a suitably intrusive FRA carried out by an adequately qualified fire engineer and a level of knowledge on the part of the building manager. All underpinned by high a degree of quality assurance.

If anything isn't up to standard or malfunctions or doesn't work, the only safe thing to do is to err on the side of caution and safely evacuate the building while it's still possible to do it. There are risks in evacuation and they can be mitigated. A good fire detection system for example, with phased evacuation intelligence, will do most of the work deciding which sections of a building are most at risk and should be prioritised for evacuation. Fire Alarms that do this are far more widely used in the US, it's time we started to utilise this proven and relatively inexpensive technology in blocks of flats here too.

If a landlord doesn't know with certainty that the building fire precautions are compliant and as designed and that the building managers have maintained everything to a high standard they have absolutely no right to expect anybody to stay put when there's a fire. Least of all those people most at risk from fire, the less ambulant amongst us such as elderly people, single parents with more than one small child and disabled people included. Their inability to self evacuate places them in a small but risky niche, they are the only people in our society that have no real choice but to stay put when the building they are in is on is on fire. How would that make you feel, to have to sit, and wait, and hope, as the building burns?

Even if everything is absolutely as intended there will always remain the remote possibility of rare and unforeseen circumstances. That's why an escape strategy for every single person in every single building should be an inalienable right. 

Is it too much to ask, to have a Plan B to fall back on when things go wrong? 

 

And I haven't even mentioned fire doors.