In Fahrenheit 451, one of the most acclaimed multi-award sci-fi novels of the century, author Ray Bradbury envisioned future buildings to be completely fireproof.

Firefighters are no longer needed for fighting building fires. Instead, they are entrusted by the totalitarian government to seek out and burn all books to suppress dissenting ideas. With this dramatic backdrop, the story weaves through an intriguing plot of twists and turns. Despite the ironic existence of utopian buildings in a dystopian society, fire safety is ensured, except for the die-hard book lovers who would rather be immolated with their illegal book collections than to live without them.

The novel, of course, is science fiction and not a prediction of the future. At any rate, we are as unlikely to start constructing fireproof buildings as we are to start burning books. Fireproof is not even a commonly used term in our building industry, and its meaning unclear. But we may surmise from the novel that such buildings would not burn and could not be destroyed by fire.

Nevertheless, let us indulge ourselves and imagine that we could construct fireproof buildings. Would fire safety be ensured? Might firefighting be dismissed?

The answer is no on both counts. And Bradbury has got both the logic for fire safety wrong. If books could burn and kill, so might other combustible content in buildings.

Look around the buildings we are in. You may see some books, paper and timber products, which are cellulosic materials. You will also see furniture, fabric, carpets, equipment, building materials and myriad other goods of plastics, which would burn more rapidly and release more toxic gases and heat. We need take only one square metre floor area of a typical household; burning its content could readily suffocate all in the house and boil 10 bathtubs full of water. A fireproof building might survive the onslaught, but no one within would.

But what really kills people in building fires? Fire statistics show most fire deaths were not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Fire may be the destroyer but smoke is the real killer. Fireproofing would do little to thwart the killer.

So, what must we do to ensure fire safety?

Firstly, we must understand what governs fire safety in buildings. One would naturally assume it to be the buildings themselves, but this is not true. To a large degree, it is the activities within that matters the most. They are the reasons for the source and start of fire that produces smoke that kills. Buildings are no different than other items we use in our lives. A well-built car can become a dangerous machine through neglect and careless driving.  Hence, the crux of safety boils down to two key aspects: effective design and sound management.

What is effective design? An effective design is one that enables the three cardinal fire safety objectives to be achieved:

  • safeguarding the occupants
  • facilitating firefighting
  • preventing fire spread between buildings

In Australia, solutions to achieve the objectives are prescribed in our Building Code. Limits are set for the use of materials and building layout, and requirements imposed on installation of protection systems. These one-size-fits-all, Deemed-to-Satisfy solutions have been shown historically to be effective, but they can be restrictive and costly.

An alternative is to develop solutions using engineering principles to achieve the same objectives. This is quintessentially fire safety engineering, which is a relatively young discipline that has shaped the design landscape of Australian cities over the past two decades. The custom-fit performance solutions can be very cost-effective and have yielded an estimated productivity gain of $1 billion per year for the country since its introduction.

What is sound management? A sound fire safety management is one that implements an effective process to mitigate the risks by:

  • reducing fire starts
  • controlling fire growt
  • enabling people to escape the effects of fire

It encompasses management tasks that run the gamut of maintenance audits, checks and training. Some of these tasks are mandated by the maintenance requirements of building regulations of each state and territory. However, they may also be tailored using fire safety engineering principles to effectively target specific risks associated with the buildings and the activities within.

Fire safety is the product of a happy marriage of building design and safety management. It is too easy to focus too much on the former and overlook the latter, as Bradbury did. In the aftermath of fires, we often examined the ashes and vowed for a quest against the destruction. We crusaded for the elusive fireproof buildings of Fahrenheit 451 and forgot that the best solution is to manage building activities to prevent fire starts in the first instance.

A long time ago, when I was a young engineer, one of my mentors pointed my misguided strategy when I tried to develop building designs to best withstand the impact of fire. He pointed out that if we were to design an aircraft, the primarily strategy should be to design for it not to crash, not to design for it to withstand a crash. Wouldn’t safety be ensured if it were crash-proof, I asked. It certainly would, he replied. Why, it would be so heavy it would not take off the ground in the first place.

Fireproof buildings, if at all possible, would likewise not get off the ground. Even if they did, such a solution would not be the panacea for fire safety.

We mustn’t be distracted. We must turn our attention to the crux of the matter. We must couple effective engineering design with sound risk management. This is the tenet of fire safety engineering principles. It is the only way to ensure fire safety in buildings.