The high-rise cladding fires in Australia at the Lacrosse and Neo200 buildings as well as the Grenfell fire in the UK have highlighted challenges confronted by firefighters during major building fires.
This raises questions about how well building designers understand the impact of building design on firefighting operations in rescue and firefighting.
For fire safety engineers, the Building Confidence Report (BCR) made a strong plea for greater consultation with fire authorities.
Recommendation 8 stated that:
“We recommend that, consistent with the International Fire Engineering Guidelines, jurisdictions require early engagement with fire authorities on designs which include performance solutions on fire safety matters.”
The authors went further, suggesting that: “There is consensus that, at a minimum, fire authorities should provide comment on, or consent to, performance solutions that involve fire performance requirements that relate to fire brigade intervention. However, fire authorities will sometimes want to consider, and may object to, broader aspects of the fire engineering design.”
Given the shift to holistic design principles, I believe there should always be a referral to the fire brigade regardless of the mix of performance or deemed to satisfy (prescriptive) solutions.
In addition, a number of performance requirements in National Construction Code (NCC) Volume One require explicit consideration of fire brigade intervention. This provides a further reason why fire safety engineers and building designers need to understand fire brigade operations.
For all projects, fire brigade operations must be integrated into the fire safety strategy and design.
Fire Safety Engineers and FireFighting
A question arises about how well the average fire safety engineer and other designers understand fire brigade operations and what fire and smoke conditions are really like in a large building fire. How can designs best support firefighters to render an incident safe?
This was brought home to me just a few years ago when I undertook – for the first time in my career – a one-day course with fire fighters at the Scottish Fire Training College outside Edinburgh with staff and students from the University of Edinburgh fire engineering program. We were fitted out in full fire-fighting gear including protective uniforms, boots, gloves and breathing apparatus. We were taken into the flashover simulator and participants were given an opportunity to use a fire hose to control the flames above their heads (mostly unsuccessfully). It was extremely hot. Putting my glove to my ear nearly burned it off. We were put into the smoke tower, where visibility dropped to zero and wayfinding was only available by touch. By the lunch break, when we took off our fire-fighting gear, we were desperate for water to rehydrate. It was a new experience for me.
The immediate thought was why have I come nearly to the end of my career as a professional fire safety engineer before having this actual experience of firefighting?
As fire safety engineers, we must improve our understanding of fire brigade tactics and real fire behaviour on the fireground. We should also not be involved in projects where matters are configured or disguised to avoid having to refer the design to fire authorities.
All fire safety engineers need to think carefully and design with care to address fire brigade intervention issues.
- Arrival points on site and hardstand areas for attending fire brigade vehicles/appliances
- Clear internal access routes and a prominent location for fire indicator panels in order to determine the seat of the fire and suitable location for staging operations
- Clear and simple information about the building occupants, different tenancies, types of fire protection equipment/systems installed, with site specific information, etc.
- Location of and access to external hydrants and boosters and reliable water supplies
- Stair construction and protected routes for evacuation of occupants and fire fighter access to each floor
- Location of internal hydrants and sprinkler systems controls
- Design of a fire control centre if one is required
- Adequate fire resistance levels that are suitable for the occupancy type and number of occupants to ensure no structural collapse
- Clear instructions to operate of smoke control systems, particularly complex ones
- Information on any special hazards, such as combustible materials, electric vehicles, battery banks, electric recharging facilities and others
- Sufficient ventilation in larger buildings (i.e. warehouses, manufacturing, process etc.); and
- Emergency lighting and exit signs to assist in wayfinding.
Performance Based Design
A concern sometimes expressed by fire authorities is that with the performance based NCC Building Code of Australia, which has now been with us for over 25 years, there is no uniformity of fire protection facilities in any buildings.
This, however, is simply the reality. Some 80-90 percent of Class 2 to 9 buildings in Australia are expected to have a number of performance solutions and substantial variations from the prescriptive DTS Provisions.
These may include but be not limited to:
- Use of lifts as well as stairs for evacuation
- Early childhood centres at upper levels of buildings
- Mass timber construction
- No hose reels
- Additional non-required sprinkler systems
- Complex or non-standard smoke control systems
- Extended travel distances
- Extended distances between exits
- Reduced fire resistance levels of walls, floors or structure, and
- Extended fire hydrant coverage
For fire safety engineers and other designers, it is important to be involved in early design processes. It is also important to engage with fire authorities on these and other fire safety matters to ensure that all firefighting operational requirements are reflected in the design.
Following this, a complete fire safety strategy should be developed. This should be documented in a form that is readily accessible and easily understood when firefighters arrive onsite, gain access, and decide how to approach the fire.
For the fire authorities, the challenge has been to employ and train a sufficient number of fire safety engineers and firefighters to review all or most high-risk building and infrastructure designs and to provide advice in a timely manner. Some form of independent peer review may be part of the solution to the resource constraints, however finding fire safety engineers with sufficient firefighter experience to undertake the role of the fire authority in some form of peer review may not be feasible. In addition, the ever-changing building and construction environment presents new and evolving risks that require fire authorities to review and adapt their firefighting policies, procedures and tactics.
Given the variability of building designs and their fire protection provisions, fire authorities should also have crews conduct regular familiarisation visits and pre-planning – especially for higher risk buildings. This is important so that where an incident occurs, crews are able to quickly interrogate the fire indicator panel, better understand the fire threats, appreciate how the building design can best assist their efforts and commence operations more quickly.
As part of this, fire crews can raise awareness among building owners, managers and occupants about the importance of fire prevention, the need to keep access routes and exit paths clear and free of obstructions, and the need to maintain all essential safety measures in accordance with Australian Standards and regulatory requirements.
In order to effectively evacuate occupants to safety and suppress any fire in a timely manner, fire fighters rely on sound building design and construction as well as reliable, well designed and well-maintained fire protection systems.
For this to happen, fire safety engineers and other system designers undertaking the development of the fire safety strategy must collaborate with fire authorities.
Through a sharing of knowledge and experience, buildings can have more robust fire safety designs that benefit not only occupants but also firefighters in an emergency.
The contributions of Nages Karuppiah (SAMFS) and Mark Whybro (FPA Australia, ex-FRNSW) in providing review and comments on this article are gratefully acknowledged.