DISASTERS OF FIRE INCIDENTS – ARE WE READY?
Recent fire disasters in the world have interestingly occurred primarily in developed countries that abide by Fire Engineering rules and regulations known as “Codes, Standards, Data Sheets” or “Engineering Standards”. These rules and regulations are statutory documents and offenders found in breach can be prosecuted.
The set of above mentioned rules and regulations prescribe “Minimum Mandatory Requirements” against fire destruction of life and properties. Despite these existing standards, there have been many disastrous fire incidents recently, such as the incident at Grenfell Tower, which aroused great interest mainly due to its location in West London. This fire disaster created huge property destruction and carried an extremely high fatality rate, despite the United Kingdom being a world leader in Fire Prevention standards. More so, it is even more shocking for such an event to occur in the 21st century; a time when the United Kingdom views itself as a pioneer in advances in science, technology and engineering in fire prevention.
Before exploring details of recent fire disasters worldwide, it is important to provide a general overview of Fire Engineering.
Fire Engineering is a relatively new discipline amongst other classical engineering disciplines such as Civil, Electrical, Mechanical and Chemical. It applies technological, engineering and scientific findings developed through research on Fire Inception and Propagation by case studies, full scale fire testing and statistics. These aim to confine fire incidents to the smallest possible area, thus improving safety, reducing fatalities and minimising property losses.
Major Recent Fire Incidents
- Grenfell Tower
Location: West London, UK
Date of incident: 14th June 2017
Height: 67.3 metres/220 feet
No. of floors: 29
No. of apartments: 120
No. of fatalities: 80
No. of injured: 70
- The Address Hotel/Apartments
Location: Downtown Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Date of incident: 31st December 2015
No. of fatalities: 1
No. of injured: 20
- Torch Tower
Location: Dubai Marina, United Arab Emirates
Date of incident: 21st February 2015 & 5th August 2017
Height: 337 metres/1110 feet
No. of floors: 87
No. of apartments: 676
No. of fatalities: Nil
No. of injured: 10
- Shanghai Apartment Block
Location: Shanghai, Peoples’ Republic of China
Date of incident: 15th November 2010
Height: Not known.
No. of floors: 28
No. of apartments: 125
No. of fatalities: 58
No. of injured: 70
- Warehouse Building
Location: Fairfield, South Baltimore, USA
Date of incident: 25th September 2017
Floor area: 94,000 sq. feet / 9500 sq. metres
Goods stored: Goods fashioned from plastics
- Warehouse Building
Location: St. Louis, USA.
Date of incident: 15th November 2017
Area; app. 10,000 sq. meters.
Goods stored: Medical items and records in cardboard boxes
- Imperial Sugar Factory
Location: Port Wentworth, Georgia, USA
Cause of Loss: Dust Explosion and Fire
Date of incident: 7th February 2008
- Buncefield Oil Storage Facility
Location: Hemel Hempstead, UK
Date of Incident: 11th December 2005
Owner: Total & Texaco
Goods stored: Petrol, diesel, jet fuel
Current & Future
The skyline of Sri Lanka is rapidly changing with the increasing development of high rise buildings used for residential, hotel and office purposes. Given the country’s rapid economic development, there is likely going to be a move towards the growth of super high-rise buildings, warehouses, distribution centres, logistic facilities, factories, oil storage facilities, residential buildings and international hotels. Such infrastructure expansions are imperative for the country’s economy to keep up with the pace of local and international export demand.
In view of the above, the production processes, storage of goods in warehouses and distribution centres, activities in high rise buildings and other infrastructure facilities may increase the risk of starting a fire incident accidentally or deliberately. The most commons reasons for this is due to failure of electric systems, production processes involving combustible or flammable raw material, combustible dust emissions, hot work, cold work and inevitably, the role of human error. Unfortunately, there have been situations whereby employees and the public fire brigade alike have failed to control or confine fire using available fire-fighting resources, leading to devastating consequences of loss of human lives and property loss worth millions, if not billions.
What is our plan for the Readiness?
We need to understand that in the midst of the rush for development, there could be a situation where safety of people and properties may be compromised. Safety may not be prioritised by authorities involved in infrastructure development as it could slow the completion of construction and consequently, critical protocols regarding fire safety, and safety as a whole, may be missed.
Our experience and exposure suggest that such technical lapses and omissions occurred in major countries during rapid development and as a result, the above-mentioned fire incidents happened with greater devastation. It is also very important to recognise that those countries in which the above fire incidents occurred, have highly developed infrastructure for firefighting and engineering standards in place. Nevertheless, these devastating fire incidents still occurred.
In view of the above, Sri Lanka must start learning from the experiences of others and take action before disaster strikes. Being proactive and learning from previous mistakes is crucial in order to prevent the devastation and destruction that accompany fire accidents. It is imperative to understand the importance of firefighting internally & externally and the necessity to impose statutory requirements on fire prevention measures in various occupations, operations and activities. If existing protocols are found to be inadequate, remedial measures must be taken promptly and in a coordinated approach to ensure effective application.
Nimal Tissa Wijetunga
- Fellow of Institute of Fire Engineers, UK (FIFireE)
- Professional Member of Society of Fire Protection Engineers, USA (MSFPE)
- Member of the Institution of Risk Management, UK (MIRM)
- Certified Fire Protection Specialist, National Fire Protection Association, USA (CFPS)
The author of this article has over 25 years of hands on experience and exposure to Risk Engineering, Fire Engineering and Health & Safety through insurance companies, fire safety consultancies and the construction industry both in Sri Lanka and internationally. These have been involved in various occupations such as road side shops, high rise buildings, warehouses, distribution centres, logistic facilities, industrial and oil and gas facilities