We spend billions of dollars on fire safety in buildings, sprinklers, fire alarms and fire walls etc. We also spend billions of dollars on fire departments. I would like to discuss in this article the lack of knowledge building designers and managers have in relation to firefighting tactics, as well as the gap in knowledge that firefighters have in relation to the in-built fire systems they can use during a fire. For this article, I will concentrate on high-rise buildings.
I have visited many fire services, Sydney, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Macao and many others in the region. A look at our region shows that the firefighting equipment and procedures in the developed Asia/Pacific region are similar. The buildings, building designs and fire regulations are also very similar.
Therefore, this issue is also similar in many countries, solving the problem in one country may help all.
I will not touch on every aspect of high-rise firefighting but, enough to start the discussion on what can be done.
Sprinkler and Hydrant systems
Let’s look at a small part of a sprinkler and hydrant systems, the booster connecting. These are there for firefighters to increase the flow of water to the fire floor, if inbuilt pumps fail and/or the water requirement at the fire is greater than the design flows for the building.
Firefighters want, easy and safe access to the boosters, and a water supply to pump into the booster system.
Building designers, not understanding the operational needs of firefights and like to limit costs select a location that meets their needs. They are not aware of some of the problems this causes:
- Narrow lanes that may be blocked by parked cars
- Narrow lanes that fire pumps cannot access
- Narrow lanes that allow smoke build up
- A location that would allow debris from the fire to fall on the pump operators
- A location that makes it hard to find the boosters
One of the other problems is that firefighters often do not connect into the booster as part of the initial set up, (even when they are in ideal locations) diminishing their operational ability.
Fire Alarm systems
Everyone agrees that early detection of a fire will ensure a rapid response to the fire so that a small fire can be extinguished before it grows.
The building regulations mandate an alarm system in most high-rise buildings.
The building owner has many choices:
- Put in a basic system that meets the regulations or
- If the risk is high, install a sophisticated system with all the added extras. and
- Many options between
A basic system is usually installed in line with the countrie’s standards. These standards are written to meet the requirements of a theoretical building;
However, every building is not the same, therefore the basic alarm system may meet the requirements of the regulations but have some functional problems that relate to the specific design of a building.
For firefighters, this will mean continual false alarm or worse a fire that is not detected.
The more advanced systems are usually designed for the specific buildings needs and don’t have the false alarm issue to the same extent. However, they have many add-ons that enhance the system, addressable alarm, data flow to the fire service, recording fire build-up, online test facilities, Wi-Fi and blue tooth connections plus many more. There are many different alarm manufacturers, with many variations on what the alarm system will do.
A firefighter now needs to understand many complicated alarm systems and have receiving equipment in the truck or command centre that matches the alarm systems networks. They also need to understand many different alarm panels and what additional information is available for them to base their operational decisions.
The building manager now must manage a complicated system for the life of the building with continual upgrades that firefighters may not know how to use.
The unfortunate result is that these alarm systems, basic or sophisticated don’t work at their optimum level, and firefighters cannot access all the information available.
Passive fire protection
Many dollars are spent on passive fire protection for buildings, (fire walls, fire doors, fire stairs etc.) however, very soon after completion, people start drilling holes in the fire walls to put cables and pipes through, fire doors are taken out and smoke control is compromised.
The building owner has put in systems that will not do what they are designed to do.
The building manager is continually rectifying problems caused by tenants, and most likely not seeing all the modifications.
Firefighters should be able to operate on the assumption that the fire will be contained to the compartment of origin, therefore being safe to operate on the floors above and below the fire.
This does not happen, because experience has shown that no fire separation is guaranteed in building older than one year.
I have several examples of people ignoring evacuation alarms even though it is a very clear warning, the sirens are sounding and a voiceover is saying “evacuate’. Experience shows that without continual emergency drills most people will not leave a building until they see danger or others start moving and they follow.
The building evacuation system could have been designed following computer modelling that assumes the reaction was faster than what is happening in practice, if this is true the assumption of an orderly evacuation will not occur because people will eventually react and move as a group, clogging the exit paths. These exit paths are the same routes that firefighters need to enter the build creating an impossible situation for firefighters wanting to get to the seat of the fire.
The building manager may have been very good at keeping the building tenants aware of evacuation procedures but experience shows that people will not move until they finish their phone call. Or they finish their drinks at the bar.
Building designers and firefighting equipment
I will use aerial ladder/platforms as an example
Many designers have asked for a decrease in fire safety equipment because the tax payer has paid for large ladder/platform vehicles that will be able to extinguish a fire and this would be a duplication of resources.
They assume several things, the most common is that a 40-metre platform can operate freely at 40 metres.
We must teach them about the field of operation and that in most cases we are lucky to get 20m with obstacles like power lines, parked cars and the building shapes.
Secondly, pointing out that even if we had free access to the building we couldn’t do anything because of the sealed nature of the building preventing rescue and water streams getting near the fire.
These examples show how little some designers know, but is that their fault or has the fire service failed in educating them?
Firefighters are supermen/women
There is a perception that firefighters will respond to a fire on the 30th floor put on breathing apparatus, grab a hose, go up to the fire floor and put the fire out. Unfortunately, this myth is perpetuated by TV programs, movies and firefighters.
The truth is something that building designers should understand.
- Breathing Apparatus only lasts 35 minutes
- If you have to climb stairs you may only have 5-10 minutes of firefighting time
- Entering the fire floor is sometimes impossible because of the heat within floor impeding extinguishment and rescue.
- Opening the fire floor makes it very difficult if not impossible for civilian evacuation
- Fire hoses and water also compromise civilian escape
- Exhaustion occurs rapidly,
- Firefighters cannot get near the building because of falling glass
- And many other issues
It is not a sin to let people understand firefighters are human and can only do human tasks.
Firefighters, building officials and owners/tenants are all part of the solution.
Two issues to be solved
- Make sure the many dollars put into buildings for fire safety is used to continually protect occupants.
- Make sure the many dollars put into building for fire safety assists firefighters to extinguish or contain fires.
- I have recently looked at recruit programs and with the large amount they must learn there is only a short time allocation to building systems.
- Even at officer level a detailed understanding is not covered in the curriculum
- A detailed understanding is not gained until officers are qualified and spend time in the building departments of their fire service.
We have specialists for, hazmat, rescue, USAR, and many others, however, when it comes to high-rise buildings we use a generalist approach. Most firefighters will only see a few high-rise building fires in their career.
Buildings are becoming so complicated that it’s time we started using specialist squads.
Building designers and engineers
There are many courses producing architects and engineers. However, to call yourself a fire engineer in most countries you do not have to know anything about firefighting.
Universities cannot add this to their curriculum without support from the fire services, that have the infrastructure for fire training. Fire services should seek out universities offering courses in fire engineering and offer a unit in firefighting tactics.
How to assist building management
This in my view is the hardest problem, because owners/occupiers often unwittingly compromise fire safety.
There are not enough people to inspect all buildings and even if there was, many of the problems are hidden.
Public education appears to be one of the tools to assist building managers deal with the thousands of people in their buildings.
We do it for many other community issues, health, litter, earthquake, wildfire etc. but not for building fires.
We spend billions of dollars on fire safety, with built-in fire protection, firefighting equipment and firefighters. They should work to complement each other and not impede each other.
I have only offered a couple of solutions in this paper so please share any ideas you have.
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