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December 9, 2015

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A burning need for fire safety in building design

Should fire safety professionals be involved in the early design stages of building work? Gary Laird explains why he think they should.

As you drive along the UK’s many motorways you cannot help but notice the major growth in the development of single-storey warehouse-type constructions.

One thing that always goes through my mind is: How fire safe are they? If a fire was to start, what precautions have been taken in the design stage to ensure it doesn’t spread rapidly?

It is vital ahead of any construction or refurbishment project to establish a seamless communication link between many key stakeholders, including fire competent safety specialists.

Without their involvement some vital steps can be overlooked in the critical early designing and planning stages. During 40 years in fire safety, I have seen many changes. The reduction in fire-related deaths is to be applauded. This has come about because of proactive work from fire services, the introduction of smoke detectors and the demise of the chip pan and polyurethane-filled furniture, all complemented with legislative changes.

However, there are some new issues to look at. While deaths from fire have reduced, firefighters are continuing to put their health and safety at risk. The built environment may well be creating problems both now and in the future.

Among the issues are these warehouses. Some of these large storage units contain active fire safety measures like sprinklers, others passive. What we want to do is achieve consistency of approach across the built environment.

In all of my fire safety work, I emphasise the importance of compartmentation to avoid fire penetration and fires spreading both horizontally and vertically. We need to encourage this from contractors on new builds and those completing remedial and refurbishment work. We also need to encourage them to use fire resistant materials.

Take the fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May last year, for example. Old ventilation ducts assisted in the fire spreading into neighbouring studios and upwards through the building.

We, as professionals, need to embrace technology and provide smarter ways of working. We need to review the modern approach to fire safety and as a group we need to support our members with the provision of advice and guidance on all matters relating to fire safety.

In many respects fire safety has fallen off the national agenda, based on the reduction of fire fatalities. We can reverse this by means of raising awareness across the work and built environment. A consultation document is available to comment on: Enabling closer working between the Emergency Services.

However, my concern is that this document could compromise fire safety.

In some respects there seems to be a view that it is cheaper to let a building burn down than to take measures to stop flames from spreading. This cannot, and should not, be the case. What does the insurance industry think of this? Yes, fire fatalities are falling, but fire losses are growing at an unsustainable rate. This is one of the reasons why we need to work together.

Operational fire officers have to take a risk-based decision on whether to commit firefighters into a building. If they are called to a warehouse fire and there are no people inside, do they go in and risk themselves to save the building, one that has not been designed with fire safety in mind?

By working with partners within the Fire Sector Federation we can horizon scan the future for fire safety and resolve issues at the earliest stage. Personally, I don’t think the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order has had the desired effect and may well need to be reviewed in the near future. We need to provide tangible, cost-effective fire safety support and advice to our members in every country.

Gary Laird is chair of IOSH’s fire risk management group

 

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