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Lessons learned from Grenfell Tower

19 October 2017

In October FSM hosted its first ever webinar, which focused on the lessons that can be learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Mark Sennett reports on the key points that were raised.

MORE THAN 1,300 members of the fire industry registered to attend this webinar, which shows just how high concerns still run following the tragic fire. The panel of experts who presented included Stewart Kidd, British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), Niall Rowan, Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) and Russ Timpson, Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network.

Stewart kicked off proceeding by saying that the Grenfell Tower fire and other tragedies such as Lakanal House have demonstrated that occupants of high-rise buildings are at greater risk during fires than low-rise premises. The problem focuses on the fact that cladding is a central feature of all upgraded social housing blocks. He expressed his confusion at how a £6million refit doesn’t currently constitute as ‘building works’ under the Building Regulations. If they did then sprinklers would have been required under Approved Document B (ADB) in any building above 30m in height. 

He explained that in the case of Grenfell Tower it’s not simply the cladding or the way that its applied that was necessarily the problem. Rather, the fact that it’s been in a tower block with a single staircase. Stewart stated that in his opinion for buildings of this height there should be a legal requirement for two staircases. 

BAFSA has published a case study focusing on a high-rise sheltered housing premise in Sheffield, which had sprinklers retrofitted. Callow Mount had sprinklers retrofitted without decanting tenants and BS9251 systems were used. The tenants welcomed sprinklers being installed after the benefits were explained to them and the cost of installation was reasonable considering the system has a 30-40-year lifespan. Each flat had five sprinkler heads installed and extra heads were placed in the bin store, communal room and office areas. The total cost was £55,134, which equated to £1148 per home.

The benefits of fitting automatic fire suppression are wide-ranging and include an immediate response to fires and they will suppress, contain or extinguish fires in dwelling units and utility rooms. They will also compensate for premises that have only a single staircase or damage to fire-stopping, non-compliant fire doors or combustible cladding/external insulation. Stewart stressed that people “don’t die in buildings with working sprinklers.” 

He concluded by saying that sprinklers will prevent a flashover even if they don’t extinguish a fire, which means that they will prevent it spreading from the point of origin. Stewart warned that nobody would survive a flashover and without sprinklers fire growth would be unrestricted. 

Passive fire protection

ASFP chief technical officer Niall Rowan defined passive fire protection as “built-in measures that protect the structure of the building and the subdivide into the areas to limit the spread of fire and smoke.”

He explained that structural steel loses half its strength at about 500 degrees Celsius and requires structural fire protection to maintain the stability of the structure and prevent its collapse in the event of a fire. 

Passive fire protection products will insulate the steel and this can include non-reactive coatings, boards and castings or intumescent coatings. Compartmentation is also important as it sub-divides a building into areas of manageable risk and provide an adequate means of escape from fire. It also provides fire separation between adjacent/adjoining buildings and protection for firefighters.  

Niall then shared an example of a high-rise premises in Birmingham that suffered a fire, which was suspected to be caused by arson, only two weeks after the Grenfell Tower blaze. The fire took place on the 22nd floor of the 32-storey building and took 22 firefighters to extinguish. 750 people lived in the tower block and 30-40 residents decided to evacuate but nobody was injured during the incident. West Midlands Fire Service area commander Ben Brook explained that there were no injures because “the building’s design, which includes compartmentalisation of individual flats, performed as expected.”

Typical issues in high-rise buildings include unsuitable fire doors, poor compartmentation, damage of passive fire protection products by residents or trade workers, poor building management and inadequate risk assessments. Niall explained that these problems are caused as there is no bar for entry for passive fire protection installers, meaning that anyone can claim to be competent to carry out work. There’s also not enough inspection or enforcement of products that are hidden once installed. 

There’s also a fixation with price and not value, which often results in poorly designed or planned work and a lack of ongoing maintenance. ASFP is demanding that nobody should be installing fire protection products who isn’t trained. It’s essential that correct products are used, staff are adequately trained and qualified and there’s a means of evaluating contractor competency and inspecting their work. The solution to these issues is to ensure the installer and the products have third party certification. All member of ASFP have third party certification.

Issues raised by Grenfell

Russ Timpson started his presentation by challenging statements saying that the Grenfell Tower fire was ‘unprecedented’ and stated that fires in buildings of this nature have been happening for years across the globe and the issues need to be addressed. Russ challenged the sector to ensure that as we continue to build tall buildings we make sure they have more resilient fire strategies, are managed by ‘competent’ people and we address socio-economic issues such as cramming and hoarding. 

London is going to have 430 new tall buildings constructed over the next three years and they are going to have challenges, which Russ warned that “we are really not up to speed with yet.” These include Building Information Modelling (BIM) and according to Russ there is a “staggering lack of awareness about how BIM is used among fire safety professionals.” 

Due to the increasing demands for new buildings and the carbon issues around their construction, he explained that we are going to have to come to terms with incorporating sustainable products such as timber into buildings. Timber products can be safe as long as building designers work with fire safety experts to limit the risk of these combustible materials. 

Russ stated that the Building Regulations need to be updated as do testing regimes as they are not fit-for-purpose. He said that there’s “no doubt in my mind that tall buildings should be adequately protected by sprinklers and this is something that must be made mandatory.” 

If buildings are going to have a stay put policy then they must have smart detection and alarm systems, which can transition into a phased evacuation process. He shared disbelief from people around the world that the current Building Regulations allow single staircase tall buildings to be built. Buildings should also be designed for non-attendance of firefighters by making them much more resilience. 

It's also essential that buildings are managed by competent people, which means they understand the fire strategy, know the design of the building, are familiar with the occupants needs and we should demand that the premises are licensed by the fire and rescue service.

Delegate questions

The webinar received more than 80 questions from delegates and a selection was put to the panel. Below is a snapshot of the questions that were answered but to listen to the entire 20-minute question and answer session you will have to watch the webinar again on-demand.

Q: What changes do the panel feel are required to the design and build model to ensure safe buildings are delivered?

Russ: “As a fire engineer I’ve always been a fan of the QDR process set out in Bs7974 where you get all of the stakeholders round a table and derive a full set of function objectives for the building. Increasingly these buildings are being partially completed and then handed over to the next person to fit the buildings out and there’s a complete disconnect. I believe that fire engineers should work on the project from its inception all the way through to occupation and this will make sure the transfer of information is successfully completed. We all know that regulation 38 of the Building Regulations, which is all about the transfer of information, has not been happening. 

Q: Do sprinklers only activate in the area of fire?

Stewart: “This is an old chestnut of a question and I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t quite believe it’s still being asked. The answer is yes as a sprinkler system is simply closed pipework with a thermal unit at the end. It only operates when the thermal unit activates and this occurs where there is fire heat and this will then allow the sprinkler head to open.”

Q: Can items like fire curtains be really termed "passive"? Do they need regular testing and maintenance?

Niall: “Active fire barrier curtains are becoming increasingly popular. They are kind of a half-way house between active and passive fire protection. Yes, they do require regular maintenance and inspection but we are talking an inspection once a year.”

Q: Do the panel believe that Building Regulations and supporting ADB have kept pace with building technology?

Russ: “No they haven’t. In my opinion this is a serious issue as we have become slightly complacent due to our national fire statistics decreasing year-on-year for a significant period of time. These statistics have helped create a feeling of its job done in terms of developing fire safety systems. I think the situation is quite the contrary as the pace of change that we will see in the way we build buildings will be at its most rapid over the next 15 years. The Building Regulations and testing regimes are not fit-for-purpose and the kind of fires we will see during this period will continue to change as people begin to live in more open plan buildings. There’s a general acceptance that we need to look again at the Building Regulations and I believe there’s a political will to do so.”

You can watch the webinar on-demand for free at http://events.streamgo.co.uk/tall-building-fires