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BAFSA issues detailed response in wake of Luton Airport car park blaze

16 October 2023

THE BRITISH Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) has issued a detailed statement in the wake of the fire that took hold on Level 3 of the multi-storey Car Park 2 at London Luton Airport. BAFSA believes the blaze serves as a “regrettable reminder” of precisely why the organisation continues to call for sprinkler systems to be fitted in all modern multi-storey car parks.

Photographs: Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was called to attend the scene at circa 8.45 pm on 10 October. The fire duly engulfed at least half of the car parking spaces and eventually resulted in significant structural collapse. The fire was declared a major incident at 9.40 pm. It’s reported that anything up to 1,200 vehicles may have been present in the car park at the time of the fire, with many of them suffering substantial damage as a result.

Firefighting operations were undertaken to control the blaze and protect nearby buildings, vehicles, aircraft and the new Luton DART rail shuttle service that runs between Luton Airport and Luton Airport Parkway train station.

At the peak of the blaze, there were 15 Fire and Rescue Service pumps, three aerial appliances and over 100 firefighters on scene. Fire colleagues from Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and the London Fire Brigade along with officers from the Bedfordshire Police and staff of the East of England Ambulance Service afforded their support.

As a result of the fire, access to Luton Airport was severely restricted and both inbound and outbound flights were cancelled until mid-afternoon on 11 October. An estimated 25,000 passengers were facing disruptions due to flight cancellations and delays.

By 9.00 am on 11 October, firefighters were left dampening down smoldering remains, working in conjunction with Luton Airport’s own in-house Fire Service team members. Thankfully, the casualty list was light, with only five people – one member of Luton Airport’s own staff and four firefighters – having to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Some commentators had initially surmised that the fire had probably been started due to a failure in an electric car, perhaps as the result of a damaged lithium battery. Such a belief was premature. Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has subsequently confirmed that the initial vehicle involved was, in fact, a diesel-powered car.

An investigation into the blaze is now underway. Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s fire investigation team is working closely with the Bedfordshire Police in order to gain a better understanding of what happened and why.

Modern vehicles

“Almost all modern cars are significantly larger and contain much greater amounts of plastic than ever before,” observed Ali Perry, CEO at BAFSA. “They produce fires which are larger and propagate much faster than was previously possible.”

Drilling down into specifics, Perry noted: “When electric vehicles catch fire, for example, they can produce intense horizontal flames that may ignite adjacent vehicles and create large conflagrations that can eventually result in structural failure and collapse of the building concerned, in turn making it difficult for firefighters to control the fire.”

Current guidance on fire precautions in the construction of car parks listed in Approved Document B of the Building Regulations for England and Wales and Scottish Technical Standards doesn’t require the installation of sprinkler systems.

On that note, Perry explained: “It’s BAFSA’s opinion that this advice does not fully take into account the greater fire load of modern vehicles. This is precisely why BASFA is once again calling for automatic fire sprinkler systems to be fitted in all multi-storey car parks.”

Three-year project

Back in 2006, the Building Research Establishment was commissioned to carry out a three-year project looking at the problems associated with fires in car parks. The research provided valuable information for designers and other building professionals about the hazards and risks associated with modern cars.

The research results were issued in 2010 under the heading ‘Fire Spread in Car Parks BD2552’. This work confirmed that the fire load of a car had indeed significantly increased (due to increased size, mass and use of plastics) since earlier research. Now, of course, there’s the additional issue of electric vehicles, which harbour their own fire risks.

In 2017, a similar fire occurred at the Kings Dock multi-storey car park in Liverpool. That blaze led to the loss of over 1,150 vehicles. The building was so badly damaged, in fact, that it had to be demolished.

As a result of its investigations, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service said at the time: “Designers should seriously consider sprinkler provision to avoid multiple vehicle fires, resulting in huge insurable losses and the possible loss of life.” This car park has since been rebuilt and is now protected by sprinklers.