On September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London was started in a bakery in Pudding Lane.

It spread quickly in hot, dry conditions and burned for four days. During that time, it destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings, displaced over 200,000 people and caused over 1.72 billion pounds of damage in today’s terms.

Subsequent inquiries led to new building regulations. These included requirements for separation distances between buildings and use of non-combustible construction.

But should this disaster have been foreseen?

This month of September marks the 356th anniversary of the fire. It provided a suitable backstory to the National Fire Protection Month, launched by the Governor-General David Hurley, Patron of the Fire Protection Association, Australia (FPAA) with a reception at Admiralty House in Sydney on September 1. The Governor-General spoke about the importance of all fire protection professionals along with the need to develop the skills and knowledge to minimise the risk of tragic fires into the future.

This question of tragic fires and whether they were foreseeable was also raised several times at the recent Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) conference in Adelaide. There were two brilliant presentations. The first was given by Russ Timpson from the Tall Building Fire Safety Network in the United Kingdom. He spoke about “High Rise Fire Safety Challenges for Today and Tomorrow”. The second was given by David Crowder, a Partner, DCCH Experts, UK. He presented a paper entitled “Fire Kills, and Tombstone Legislation is Not the Answer”.


IFE Presentations

Russ Timpson spoke about the horrific Grenfell Building fire in London in 2017 in which 72 people died – nearly half of which were children or disabled persons. Timpson highlighted the fact that in the period leading up to this fire, there was a major cladding/façade fire somewhere in the world occurring every six weeks. He therefore concluded that the Grenfell fire was foreseeable. He suggested that in the UK fire statistics were showing fire fatalities and losses reducing over time, which led to many people to believing that such a serious high-rise fire was highly unlikely. This led to a weakening of regulatory controls.

Similarly, David Crowder, ex-head of fire investigations at BRE, formerly the British Research Establishment but now privatised, spoke about the Grenfell fire for which he was an expert witness at the Public (Coronial) Inquiry. He indicated that during the post-fire period, new government grants for fire research have been provided to the value of GBP 10 million. However, this amount is dwarfed by both the GBP 250 million spent on the public inquiry and the Building Fund of GBP 5 billion established for cladding rectification.

Certainly, in Australia, many fire safety professionals would have judged that a potential serious fire event was foreseeable. This is particularly the case in light of the Grenfell building’s 24 storeys with residential occupation, a single stair, no sprinklers, combustible cladding and a “stay put” strategy.

Likewise in the Great Fire of London, serious fires were inevitable and foreseeable in light of having timber buildings located very close together (in some cases almost touching distances across streets) with no effective fire protection measures or responding fire brigades in 1666. This was particularly so given the number of similar cities which had burned to the ground over previous history.

Crowder, like Timpson, asked whether more fire research is needed and whether or not funding should to be provided to look to future horizons and try and anticipate problems before they occur. This idea of “horizon scanning” research was discussed further in a break-out session led by Bronwyn Weir.

Timpson raised concern about so called ‘ply scrapers’ using mass timber construction which are gaining in popularity on account of their sustainability credentials. Other concerns were raised about future fires involving buildings and infrastructure which may eventuate with electric vehicles, various new battery types, large battery banks, hydrogen vehicles and storage. The risk with ‘green walls’, now popular with building designers, was also raised. Given the green plants often sit on a polymer frame and have PVC piping for water reticulation, fire tests have shown they can burn. This is particularly the case if water is turned off during drought or low water supply conditions.


Horizon Scanning for Fires of the Future

‘Horizon scanning’ was first developed as an idea in the mid -1990s in the field of information technology. It is often described as a form of ‘future studies’ or ‘foresight planning’. The aim is the early detection and assessment of emerging technologies or threats for policy makers. The concept has been used across agriculture, environmental studies, health care, biosecurity, and food safety. It is a process for collecting and analysing data and information as evidence for making informed policy decisions by governments and other major organisations about future threats or risks to communities.

Given that we should seek to avoid very costly impacts of fire on people and the built environment (such as has occurred with the cladding crisis in Australia), we should invest in ‘horizon scanning’ research now in relation to fire safety before some serious new threats overtake us.

One problem identified by Crowder at the IFE conference is that we in the fire protection industry need to stop talking just to ourselves. Instead, he suggested that we should engage in much greater effort to educate architects, other design specialists, developers, building owners, regulators and others on matters of fire safety and fire safety engineering. In light of that, any horizon scanning of future fire safety threats needs to be led by a top fire research team but should encourage input and embrace consultations with a broad range of built environment players and professionals. This extends to providers and suppliers of technology and materials.

Not all fire scenarios and risks are foreseeable. But equally they are not all “unknown unknowns”. Some so-called innovative technologies, materials and systems may constitute threats which are clearly foreseeable if we look together with real purpose using a properly structured research program with a broad level of consultation.

Who should lead this? It would seem that the Australian Government through the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) might be one candidate. The Fire Protection Association, Australia (FPAA) as the peak body for the fire industry might be another option. Regardless, it is going to take some serious investment and industry leadership to make this  worthwhile.

September 2022 has been the inaugural ‘Fire Protection Month’ as designed and promoted by FPAA and its Patron the Governor-General.

It would be good to look back in a few years and see that dedicated and committed thinking saved Australia from some potentially serious but unrealised catastrophic fire threats.


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