A couple of years ago, the setting was in the Southern Hemisphere at the Melbourne suburb the Docklands.

Fast foward to December 31, 2015 where a fire broke out in the lower section of the 63-storey Dubai building and then with gobsmacking alacrity ripped up the side of the building. It was remiscent of the Docklands residential skyscraper fire where the blaze, ignited by a discarded cigarette, snaked its way onto external composite panels and scorched its way up the side of the high-rise.

In both cases, there was no loss of life but British-based fire consultant Phil Barry of CWB Fire Safety, an expert who frequently consults in the Middle East when talking about the Dubai inferno, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “it was only a matter of time before there were major fatalities caused by flammable cladding fires.”

Thermoplastic cladding is a cladding or wall panel that has a thermoplastic medium sandwiched between aluminium sheeting. The polyethylene composition combines with elements that are supposed to have fire retardant qualites. Depending upon the cost, source of manufacture and compliance capabilities the fire retardant virtues are variable. There are different types of thermoplastic panels such as alucobest and alucobond, the latter being somewhat dearer. Those who are fiscally motivated may be inclined to use the cheaper product if the legislature affords them such latitude.

Thermoplastic panels have been around for close to half a century, but in recent times the uptake of this product has spread globally, especially in the high-rise paradigm.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the fire retardant capabilities of the polyethylene component of the certain thermoplastics are being called into question. This is not surprising when recalling a prominent fire engineer recounting to me that the science of fire engineering was a “dark art” and still in its infancy. This mentality is somewhat reminiscent of the saying about economists: “what works in theory may not work in  reality.”

Fire spread hypotheses are heavily dependent upon fire engineering modelling and lab testing, and these “predictors” don’t always marry up with actuality. Hence the inherent universal conservatism of the BRT brigade, the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way, when contemplating new and “enlightened” systems and products at play in the deadly theatre of fire containment.

Alarmism is increasing because of the increase in rapid vertical fire migration incidents in high-rise buildings in the developed world. It should be noted, however, that not all thermoplastic cladding fires spread upward.

In 2012, a fire broke out in the upper stories of another Middle Eastern high-rise, but the fire migrated downward. Expert consensus was that the fire’s rapid passage was abetted by the tower’s thermoplastic exterior panels. There were parallels regarding the cause of this fire with the Docklands fire, as in both cases discarded cigarettes were the catalysts for the blazes.

Against a backdrop of public and informed concern about the dangers posed by product that harboured the potential to generate unintended consequences, Dubai amended its Fire and Life Safety regulations in 2013, whereupon fire cladding had to be fire resistant in all high-rises above 15 storeys. However, there was – presumably on account of the exorbitant retrofitting costs – no retrospective application of the new regulations, so buildings constructed prior to the proclamation date still come within the somewhat uncertain previous regime.

A worst case scenario

If Barry’s prediction is correct, it is a matter of time before human life is lost and this could occur in any number of countries where thermoplastic panels have been used that are not fit for purpose. The worst case scenario would materialise were there to be a sprinkler malfunction in a high-rise location and emergency egress was compromised.

Egress could be compromised by the sheer number of people having to use fire escapes and lifts in densely populated high-rises. Were a fire to travel horizontally – and this cannot by discounted – a section of a building could become enveloped in flames, toxic emissions and smoke. This fire-induced incarceration and involuntarily cording off could generate toxic asphyxiation and severe lung damage at best and death at worst, either by suffocation or burns.

The UK began to regulate against the vagaries of  non-compliant thermoplastic cladding in the 1980s, so the heritage of utilitarian regulation in this paradigm has some maturity. There have now been a number of thermoplastic-related high-rise fires, and on account of the universal uptake of this medium, the potential for more of like encounters is not geographically constrained.

In a  globalized world where construction product is sourced and utilized universally, why hasn’t there been trans-jurisdictional cooperation to develop a universal thermoplastic best practice building standard?

Why are policymakers embracing “silo-centric policy provincialism?” Why hasn’t there been cross-jurisdictional dialogue by governmental policymakers to adopt international best fire engineering safety practice? Were this to have occurred, potentially billions of dollars of retrofitting could have been avoided and the latent risk of loss of life could have rendered nil.

The need for a global best practice standard is an imperative. Developed countries and regional cooperatives such as the EU, the Americas and the trans-Tasman duality that is Australia and NZ need to harmonise and adopt the same building standards. The regions also need to accredit and certify compliant product and render illegal the importation and use of non-compliant product. The standards need to benchmark and the legislature needs to regulate. If myopia coexists with a lackadaisical approach to enlightened fire retardant building regulation in given jurisdictions, the prophecies of the doomsayers will actualise.

The developing nations likewise must have regard to codified harmonisation, for such is the risk of compromise and expediency in some parts of the world that unscrupulous manufacturers may be inclined to use “open-minded” regimes as a dumping ground for non-compliant product and yet again the poor and the underprivileged will pay the ultimate price.

In the mid-1990s, I spoke at a fire engineering conference in Melbourne. A highly regarded American fire engineering co-speaker, a doyen as it were, said that a property entrepreneur’s prime motivation in a property development doesn’t tend to revolve around the driver of “how does one increase the benchmarks of public safety.”

Rather, he said, the motivation is usually economic – to to build as quickly and cost effectively as possible. That doesn’t mean that the entrepreneur is indifferent to maxims of public safety in the as-built environment, and one should be loath to make that quantum leap.

But if public safety isn’t top of mind, then who will assume the role of public-minded paternalist? It has to be the legislature and the civil service, does it not? Regulators, please do your thing and regulate. Civil servants too should pick up the ball and implement, and developers and building practitioners must adopt and embrace. Officialdom, please enforce, as enforcement and compliance is your raison d’etre.

If all that happens, then maybe the policymakers can save us from the nightmare scenarios that are foretold by the mounting chorus of very concerned global citizens.