Fire Safety in High-Risk Buildings: Preventing the next Tragedy



    By the Marketing Manager for Eaton in West Africa, Kunmi Odunoku,

    Demographic changes mean that we are building larger, taller, and more complex buildings to live, work and spend our leisure time in. This has led to an increase in the number of buildings where a fire might result in tragedy. While it is true that fire safety has improved with the installation of devices such as smoke detectors and alarms, the impact of a fire is now potentially far more serious than it has ever been.


    There is no one-size-fits-all answer to fire prevention, suppression or evacuation. A thorough risk assessment issued on a case-by-case basis will suggest appropriate measures to be taken. It is no longer good enough to hide behind regulations or standards, which should be seen as a minimum requirement. Building owners and developers should hold themselves to a higher standard of safety and do more to prevent a tragedy in high-risk buildings.


    Incidents such as the recent fire outbreak under the Eko bridge reinforce how fires can result in serious damage or worse – the loss of life.   Such incidents often result in reputational damage for the organizations and individuals involved that may escalate to a clamor for those responsible to face charges of corporate liability or manslaughter in the case of loss of properties or lives. Regardless of the reputational risk, it is surely the moral responsibility of building owners and operators to ensure that modern buildings housing hundreds or even thousands of people are safe for the occupants.  One problem building occupants face is understanding who is responsible for their safety, and in this there is a danger of simply avoiding the issue.  So, to be clear I believe that building owners or operators must ensure that appropriate safety measures are in place.


    Simply adhering to standard building regulations is not a sufficient safety measure.  In a recent study, FM Global found that 70% of business owners feel that following building regulations will protect their property, as the organization points out “this is simply not their purpose”. Such an approach takes no account of the different risks faced in different types of buildings or by different occupants.  The only sensible approach to take is to conduct a thorough risk assessment of the building and then implement appropriate safeguards.


    Changing the nature of risk


    The nature of fire risks in buildings changes as our society changes.  By 2050 the UN estimates that two-thirds of people will be urbanites living, working, and spending leisure time in buildings designed to hold hundreds if not thousands of people.


    This means we will increasingly build upwards. There are already a staggering number of buildings in cities around the world that are over 100 meters tall.  As buildings get taller the number of mixed-use buildings will also rise rapidly. Typically, in taller mixed-use buildings, the lower floors house shops and restaurants while the upper floors are reserved for residential purposes.  This means that due to the nature of the use, lower floors are unoccupied and unsupervised in the middle of the night, while those people on higher floors could well be asleep should the worst happen.


    Risk assessment


    There is no single answer to mitigating the risks of a fire in a building and for high-risk buildings the regulations are simply not enough. We advocate a three-step process to help ensure ongoing safety:

    1. Identify the specific risks in your building. You may decide to employ or engage experts to do the risk assessment.
    2. Select and design systems and solutions addressing the specific risks identified.
    3. Test and review these solutions regularly especially if there are changes to building use.


    Having conducted a thorough risk assessment, you can then make an informed choice on what action to take.  Breaking this down further you need to think about prevention, controlling a fire, detection, how you will alert occupants and evacuate or guide people away from danger. While education and technology can help prevent the worst from happening as The Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat observes: “The only true way to stop a fire from happening is to remove the humans and the combustible materials from buildings.  You can apply good fire safety education and management, but, fires start, what happens next is what matters.” Preventing fire is about building design, such as compartmentation to help prevent or slow down the spread and also installing technology such as sprinkler systems.  Sadly, too many developers and building owners dismiss sprinklers as not cost-effective and prefer to spend their money on air-conditioning or intelligent lighting systems.


    Alerting and evacuating


    If the fire does spread, there is generally a short window to alert and evacuate building occupants.  This is made even more complicated if people are asleep or are disabled and are not aware of an alert or need assistance.


    There is a lot of technology available to alert building occupants and instruct them or guide them to safety.  The important thing is to be aware of such technology or employ someone who can advise you appropriately and above all to not cut corners to save cost. While we hope that it never happens to us, a fire in a complex building could be catastrophic if you do not plan properly. It is time to take fire safety seriously so that people do not lose their homes, places of work or worse their lives.  If you are a building owner, it is your moral duty to do all that you can.


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