General Construction 566 views Feb 09, 2018
More must be done to protect livelihoods from fire

London Zoo. A furniture storage unit on Cranford Street, Smethwick. A block of flats on Joiner Street, Manchester. A multi-storey car park in Liverpool. Woburn Safari Park. Listers Land Rover, Solihull. What do these six seemingly disparate locations have in common? Each has been the victim of fire within recent weeks.

Fire does not discriminate and can affect any kind of building or business. There is a tendency to only concern ourselves with the most serious outcome of a fire – loss of life – though any building at risk of fire has the potential to alter lives permanently.

Thankfully no human lives were lost in the aforementioned fires, though this is not to say that no lives were affected. Seventy firefighters were needed to tackle the blaze at London Zoo alone, and many more risked their lives at the scenes of the other fires. Woburn Safari Park lost thirteen patas monkeys, a devastating loss for its drive-through enclosure, and the emotional strain on the staff cannot be understated. Drew Mullin, Woburn's managing director, said some keepers were in tears as they tried to deal with the loss.

More than 1,600 vehicles and their contents were destroyed in the inferno which tore through the King’s Dock multi-storey in Liverpool. Remarkably no serious injuries were sustained, but it isn’t hard to see how thousands of lives will be impacted, particularly at a time of year when family funds are often tight and the financial loss to the vehicle owners will sting all the more.

The fire in a block of apartments on Manchester’s Joiner Street will have rendered a number of residents in need of temporary shelter. A fire such as this in a residential building can quickly become far more serious, and many families will have lost their belongings and sense of security along with their homes.

West Midlands Fire Service confirmed that the whole of the furniture unit in Smethwick was alight. With approximately 3,000m2 of floor space, it is hard to imagine how much stock was lost or damaged. The human cost can be measured in loss of potential earnings and jobs, not only in the furniture unit itself but also in local businesses supported by those who work there.

Three cars were destroyed and a further five were damaged in a suspected arson attack at Listers Land Rover, a dealership in Solihull. No one was injured, but three emergency vehicles were sent to deal with the fire - including an ambulance, stretching burdened medical services thinner.

The causes of each of these fires will be subject to in-depth investigations, and already they serve to reinforce the findings of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recent interim report on Building Regulations and Fire Safety, which has identified that regulations are in urgent need of change.

We must always be thankful when a fire is contained and extinguished with no loss of life, but it is not enough. Lives are still affected regardless, and we must strive to minimise the effect that fire has in all circumstances. When we protect property and halt the spread of fire, we also protect lives. A properly controlled fire can be the difference between a building requiring renovation or demolition. Halting the spread of fire when it is first detected is the best way to limit damage and so also minimise costs and impacts, and sprinklers have been shown to contain, control or extinguish fires in 99% of cases1.

The tragedy at Grenfell last year offered us a sharp reminder of the devastating effect that fire can have. These recent fires – while thankfully not on the scale of the Grenfell disaster – serve to demonstrate that fire does not discriminate; whether it is a warehouse, a school, a hospital, a car park, a hotel or a shop, fires happen on a regular basis. However, they can be contained and extinguished by systems such as sprinklers to ensure that life is not put at risk and businesses, jobs and the economy are protected.

Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data, May 2017, Optimal Economics.

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