Friday, February 18, 2005

Fire, fire

In the early nineties we stayed at the Royal Jomtien Hotel in Pattaya, Thailand. A few years later, there was a terrible fire there. Over fifty people died and many more injured. It was the usual thing, faulty fire alarms, disconnected sprinklers, locked fire exits, junk piled in the stairwells.

People who live in our apartment building sometimes roll their eyes when we are going through the body corporate accounts and see how much the private fire maintenance company’s contract costs us. But I never do. I think back to the Royal Jomtien Hotel, where it could have been us who burned.

Just recently in Madrid a sixteen story office building burnt to the point of needing demolition. Fortunately no one was harmed

I guess I am a bit paranoid about it. I always check for exits in theatres, large hotels, anywhere in fact that it would be difficult to escape from if there was a fire.

Australia has very strict fire protection laws for big buildings and they are monitored to ensure compliance. However, only a fool would suggest that a building might never fall through the cracks.

I don’t know everything about our building’s fire protection systems, but you may be interested and/or reassured to hear something about what I do know.

If there is a fire alarm, the fire brigade will send three trucks (tied to the size of the building). At $1,000 per truck, false alarms are to be avoided at all costs. If a guilty party can be identified, then they will pay. If not, the body corporate pays.

False alarms can be caused by someone knocking the head off a sprinkler, workmen elsewhere opening the water main causing the water pressure in the building to drop and residents burning food in their apartment and opening the main door to the landing and letting the smoke out.

A fire alarm activates all body corporate committee members to immediately find out why the alarm went off and who can be billed for it. If nothing can be found in the building, then we go outside to see if workmen can be blamed.

The whole building, including the car park is covered by sprinklers. You are very careful when moving furniture around your apartment, in case you hit a sprinkler head. More modern buildings have them concealed in a better manner. If you do happen to knock the head off a sprinkler, you will get very wet. Someone with a surfboard once did and it was a comforting volume of water that would put out any blaze. The drop in water pressure caused by a sprinkler going off, will set of the fire alarm.

As well as sprinklers in your apartment, there are mains wired, battery backed up smoke detectors. Five years after the building was finished, all the batteries started going flat and the beeps pleading for replacement could be heard on nearly every floor. These smoke detectors are not wired to the fire alarm system. The stove hotplates are gas, but if there is no heat from flame, the gas goes off. The supplied clothes dryer has a very sensitive heat protection system.

On each landing and throughout the building are smoke detectors that are wired to the alarm system. The affected floor can be identified in the fire control room. The alarm on the appropriate floor will sound, along with a couple of floors above and below. If the whole building alarm system went off and everyone tried to evacuate at once, then chaos would ensue.

The fire brigade will be immediately notified via a separate, secure telephone line. Should the main line fail, there is also a back up line. In each lift and on every floor, as well as around the rest of the building are sockets for firemen to plug phones into should they need to communicate.

All extractor fans in the carpark are activated and the stairwell pressurisation system will start. This pushes filtered air from outside into the stairwell with the idea that it will remain smoke free because of the positive air pressure. It is quite a draft and causes doors to slam. All emergency lighting is activated.

All water, whether through sprinklers or fire hoses, is propelled by large independently operating pumps in the fire control room. The room also contains the fire control panel for the building.

Once a week the fire protection company attends the building. They turn on the pumps and run a wasteful amount of water through the system. It is alarming if you are in the shower as the pressure momentarily drops and you jump out of the way expecting a blast of hot or cold water. They check all hoses and fire phones. They test the phone lines to the fire station.

About four times a year, an ‘essential services’ person attends and checks all exit and emergency lighting, that the bin chutes are sealing, that the stairwell doors are closing fully and sealing, that the stairwell smoke detector on the roof is working, that the car park exhaust fans are working and correctly set, that all public smoke alarms are functioning and probably stuff I don’t know about.

There have only been two alarms since we have been here, both false. Interestingly only about 5% of the occupants took any notice and made there way downstairs, although the floor alarms can’t be heard very far away from the affected floors.

So do I feel safe in a high rise building. Yes. Do I trust all the companies who maintain the fire systems? No, but I trust them a lot more than I would the equivalent in most countries.

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