Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fire in London

A couple of years ago I made mention of the fire on the flammable external cladding at a building in Docklands, here in Melbourne.

Oh, this building. I did not realise until we were nearly past. See on the far end where there is what looks like a colour change to yellow. It is the Lacrosse building where a fire started on a 10th floor balcony because someone put out a cigarette in a plastic container sitting on a timber table. Flames developed and shot up the side of the building from one balcony to another, fed by a non approved cheap Chinese building material called Alcubust. Fire procedures worked quite well with no one injured but the building had to be evacuated and no one could return to live there for some time, that is some 400 people.

After the terribly graphic vision from the London fire, it looks to me like a similar cladding material was used. Sadly, I feel the death toll will be very high, but why?

The vulnerability of residents to fire in high rise buildings is well known. A hotel we once stayed in at Pattaya, Thailand,  some years later burnt with a terrible loss of life. There was little fire protection and escape routes were blocked and or locked.

The London high rise residential tower still on fire as I type was built in 1974. It has recently had a makeover, when perhaps the external cladding was installed. If its fire systems were not upgraded to current standards, then there really will be a terrible loss of life.

I have seen the movie Towering Inferno, and I have no intention of watching it again. We smugly lived in a house then.

So what happens in our 1999 constructed 22 storey building in case of fire? This is as best I know it.

Two things trigger a fire alarm that results in a response from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. One is if a smoke detector in a public area detects smoke. They are on every floor, all over the building in fact but not within apartments where there is separate apartment smoke detector. The other is a drop in water pressure, indicating that a fire sprinkler system has been activated. The whole building including apartments have sprinklers. In the above mentioned Docklands building, that the installed sprinklers performed far better than their minimum rating probably saved the building.

So, the activated fire alarm happens and the fire department will be on their way, with lights and sirens in two or three appliances.

Alarms bells go off, but these are progressive alarms. If there is fire on floors above us, the alarm on our floor probably won't sound. I don't know why this is so, but I guess that it is not to overload escape routes from the building unnecessarily.

All doors that require operation of remote control to open will release to manual opening. The front glass doors open. The garage gate opens. The car park extraction fans come on at full power, I guess to clear any smoke.

And of course, in the area where the fire is, sprinklers go off. They are activated by the heat from a flame breaking the mercury filled? glass, or by being knocked by a surfboard, as has happened here. My Tradie Brother once broke one when working on renovations in our major department store and yes, full fire response and many people became quite wet.

What if the power is cut? A diesel pump in the basement will kick in and power the sprinkler system.

Emergency lighting will come on, on every landing, in stairwells, in lifts and all public areas. The lighting has been upgraded to LED since 1999 and is very bright as is the emergency exit lighting.

Then there is the stairwell air pressure system. All stairwells are highly positively air pressurised if the fire alarm is activated, to expel any smoke and give you a safe passage out from the burning building. I have experienced air pressurising in the stairwells during fire system testing, and it is a case of slow dampened door closing to door slamming strength. It is extreme.

On each floor and within both lifts is a fire telephone socket for communication between fire brigade members within the building. There are notices to never use the lifts in case of fire.

Four times a year, the whole fire system is checked, including the fire room on the first floor, where there is a large fire control panel where firefighters can see all sorts of information about what is happening with the fire protection system within the building.  The private testing company presents a check list to the body corporate manager which is subsequently included in body corporate minutes.

In spite of all of the above, do I trust that all these protection systems will work in a fire crisis situation? No. Our whole system is dependent on people doing their jobs and they don't always do so properly. I doubt any highrise building built since our building was built would have anything less than what we have. I imagine there are similar standards in Britain, external cladding excluded perhaps. Our external cladding is concrete and granite.

In the course of time the details of this still unfolding London crisis will come out, along with the building's fire protection system. For mine, a building of that size should have no less than what we have in our building, and if it it a public housing building, perhaps even more.

Apologies for any typos etc. Published without review or editing.

Later edit: Hours later, it is clear that there is a large loss of life in the building. After reading this, a blog by the building's residents' group, someone should go to gaol over what has happened. https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/kctmo-playing-with-fire/

And one thing I forgot to mention was fire proof doors in public areas. They are taken seriously and doors have been replaced when required.

14 comments:

  1. It certainly sounds like your high-rise is well organised in the event of a fire that hopefully will never happen. I was wondering, until you explained, how often the system was checked.. four times a year is pretty efficient. I have a fire fighter post today.. you should click the link.. nice 😀 but I did read that it was the cladding on the building in London that caused the fire to spread.. someone's head should roll!

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    1. I so agree about heads, plural, rolling, Grace.

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  2. A couple of years back, I was visiting the Columbia Road flower market in east London when a fire broke out on the 8th floor of a high rise building behind Columbia Road. The fire brigade arrived literally within minutes and thankfully contained the blaze to maybe 3 floors without loss of life. It was nevertheless a dreadful sight with lots of screaming and chaos. People throwing their stuff out of the windows, toys and books and clothing. Kids running in all directions. I'll never forget it.

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    1. Thanks Sabine. I think it is something you have to experience, or at least see as you did, to know the true horror.

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  3. All the safety features in your high rise sound excellent, I had no idea all of those features even existed (like air pressure in stairwells, etc.).

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    1. Terra, and this building is nearly twenty years old. I imagine, well hope, that protection is even higher now in new buildings.

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  4. I have just spotted your post. The fire in London today should not have spread like that in an advanced state like the UK in the 21st century. It is sickening to think of those poor people. It seems residents were banging on about the risks for ages. If someone has been cutting corners, they deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. Your place sounds very well protected!

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    1. Mike, it has quickly become clear why the fire spread so fast and so tragically. It is at least to say, alarming.

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  5. This tragedy makes me very glad I live in a two storey building, not 32 or 52. All of the unit blocks here are two storey only, any of us only has to crash through a window or door and be safe.

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    1. River, it is always something I am conscious of and in any large building, I mentally noted what protection there is.

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  6. Those images of the building alight were awful to view.

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    1. As I watched Victor, I just knew so many would die and extremely moving was reading of how people said goodbye to loved ones on phones and in social media.

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  7. It's a terrible thing, the London fire, and with the dozens killed, a number that will rise, it gets so little press compared to terrorist attacks.

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    1. Strayer, it has had quite heavy coverage here, perhaps because of the horrific pictures.

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