FIRE!

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 mins.)

Fire is an important source of heat and so facilitates life but it can also be a killer. Fire safety is particularly important in multi-occupied buildings but essential safeguards are often not provided or when they are there, are ignored or misused. One can see evidence of that frequently in news reports and even on many occasions in one’s own life and, on a number of occasions as a manager of accommodation services, I have certainly seen examples all too often. Buildings are being constructed to greater heights than can be reached by the ladders of fire-fighters. Those responsible for lack of fire safety procedures or of violating them should face severe penalties.

Fire at tower block in Tower Hamlets in London last year. (Photo: Supplied to Guardian newspaper).

When it is being destructive, fire kills in many different ways, not just by extreme heat. Smoke inhalation is another killer, as are toxic fumes emitted by some materials when burning. People can be killed by falls when attempting to escape a fire or be crushed by falling parts of the building, beams etc. And fire can also cause explosions when it encounters volatile liquids or gasses. Whether we live, work or relax in a building, we should never be blasé about the dangers, never disregard precautions and in fact be prepared to insist on adherence.

There are various headings under which we can discuss fires safety but Prevention, Detection, Suppression and Evacuation cover most of them — to which we can add Educated Awareness.

Prevention has to do mostly safe design, use of safe materials and with safely operating systems that generate heat or produce flame, classically cooking and smoking but also many others — in industry all such procedures should be clearly advertised.

In Detection, apart from what to do when one smells burning or personally encounters flames or smoke, it is with systems such as smoke and heat detectors and alarms that we are concerned.

With regard to Suppression, although of course occupational fire-fighters may use other means, we are interested in fire extinguishers (more rarely fire hoses) and sprinkler systems and, in Evacuation, in the means of safe escape and subsequent assembly, along with indications when one should do so, which of course are linked to detectors and alarms.

SUPPRESSION

How often we see a fire-extinguisher being used to prop open a door! This is a serious misuse of a piece of fire-fighting equipment and its use in that way may mean it will not available in the appropriate place or malfunctions when required. Often too the door being propped open is very close to a staircase, with the danger of the heavy extinguisher being dislodged and rolling or bouncing down the stairs to strike someone.

International Fire Extinguisher pictogram sign (Image sourced: Internet)

Fire extinguishers in buildings are usually installed by a fire-protection company, under contract to check and service them once a year. Does that sound safe enough? In a team of which I was a member, we checked the fire extinguishers on each shift, to ensure they had not been tampered with and we lifted the water-filled ones to check, by weight, that they still contained water. Those checks were written into our work rotas and we were required to sign off on them. We had developed those safety routines as a team and I carried them forward into subsequent management roles. In the case of an extinguisher we found too light or with the seal removed, that was recorded and the urgent task was to have it replaced by the fire-protection company under contract.

Sprinkler systems should have a means of checking that they are functioning well and should be regularly checked.

Fire alarms and smoke detectors need to be regularly checked also. In the case of smoke detectors they can be checked by spraying with an aerosol and the fire alarms have a facility for testing — though an arrangement with the fire-fighting service that alerts them to a test being carried out is advisable.

Blackbird Granary fire, Oregon, last October (Photo: Statesman Journal)

EVACUATION

I’v worked in places where I never experienced a fire drill. That is terrible, when you think about it. In a good team of which I was a member we made sure we carried out drills but we also had to balance the need for fire drills with the possibility of injury during evacuation to the hostel residents, who were drinkers and many of which were infirm. We compromised by holding drills for the staff and local management while informing the residents of what we were doing. When I came to manage a hostel, I arranged to have a member of staff with a pen and clipboard follow the fire evacuation drill in action, which is when we discovered that a wheelchair-bound resident could not be got out the main door at all quickly. How had that not been noted previously? Not only that but for security reasons, the team members were not using the emergency exit. And then it was discovered that a member of staff was keeping his bicycle in the passageway leading to the emergency exit, potentially a hazard to people trying to escape a fire. Incredibly, the individual concerned was the team’s elected health and safety representative, which made for an interesting discussion with him later.

As a team, we resolved all those issues — but only because we carried out the drills and observed what happened during them.

During a fire there may be a power cut so the provision of emergency lighting is important, along with luminous signs indicating the evacuation route. That lighting too should be checked.

Worse things than obstacles in the path to emergency exits occur, when building owners or management lock or chain emergency exits for reasons of building or product security or in some cases even to imprison workers. As children some of us would “bunk in” to cinemas: one who had purchased a ticket would go to the toilet to open a nearby emergency door and admit others. The cinema management ended that practice by chaining the emergency doors shut. It is understandable that a commercial business might wish to discourage evasion of their charges but certainly not at the cost of putting lives in danger — many other means can be developed, including monitoring systems and alarms. In north Dublin’s Artane suburb, the management and owners of a nightclub had locked some fire exits and on 14th February 1981 a fire broke out during a dance attended by 841 young people, causing the deaths of 48 and injuries to 214. Exit doors were also locked in the Summerland leisure centre on Douglas on the Isle of Man on 2nd August 1973, when a fire caused the deaths of over 50 and serious injuries to 80.

One organisation I worked for had a stipulation that they would hold fire drills once every six months while another held them once every three months. As a team member I advocated them to be monthly at least and as a manager made that a requirement, marking the date for them in advance into our diary. Also, some drills should be carried out without warning and, as in the case outlined earlier, with an observer following the procedure and recording its progress.

Shift fire safety inspections should check or test the emergency lighting and emergency exits, while periodic drills should check the functioning of the fire alarm and display panel, by activating the alarm at a different location for each drill (there are keys supplied for that purpose).

Can the ladder reach?

It would be no bad thing for every person to attend a fire prevention course but it is essential for some kinds of work, in particular for people working in buildings with others or where people live. Such training not only deals with prevention best practice but also with how to act upon discovering a fire or in response to a fire alarm, what are the appropriate extinguishers in different circumstances, etc. The cost of such training (and of replacing staff while on training, if necessary to maintain the service) should be built into the operational budget of the facility.

One fire prevention course I attended had us consider what to do if we were trapped on an above-ground level of the building and unable to proceed to the fire exit. In most cases, if the fire-fighting service has been summoned (by the service-linked fire alarm or by other means), it is usually safest to retire to a room facing on to an area with a window which the fire tender can access easily enough, then close the door and stuff cloth around the bottom to limit the ingress of smoke. In the case of residents being trapped on that floor with us, we were to encourage them to come into the room we had chosen and to remain there with us until evacuated.

Speaking of evacuation, in a scenario such as the one just described, we might have to be brought out through a window by firefighters who would normally gain access to us by one of their ladders. It is a fact that the maximum ladder available to fire tenders in Dublin is 100 feet long but since a ladder cannot be used at right angles to the ground, the effective height is around 75 feet. Yet Dublin City Council and many other local authorities around the country regularly permit the erection of buildings with floors that are higher than 75 yards from the ground. How can that be allowed?

Grenfell Tower ablaze, West London 14 June 2017; 72 were killed and more than 70 injured (Photo sourced: The Telegraph)

Earlier in this article, we saw the example of a fire extinguisher being used to prop open a door. This is sometimes compounded by the door in question being a fire door, in other words a door the function of which is to retard the spread of fire. Such doors should be kept closed at all times when people are not passing through the doorway and should have automatic closing mechanisms. The should also have a slot of glass in them so that one can look through without having to open the door, the latter being an action which in some cases might have lethal consequences. The material of the doors should be such that they can resist actual flames and heat without burning for one hour but unfortunately it is not unknown for such doors to be constructed of inferior materials which might be discovered only in an emergency — i.e too late to be of use. A reputable supplier is the only safeguard against such unfortunate discoveries but their production batches should be regularly and randomly tested by State or local authorities too.

Documentation

A work team should have appropriate procedures in place to deal with contemplated dangers and with regard to fire, a separate file detailing them is recommended. As a team we developed one (model fire precaution files can be purchased also) that listed the suppliers of our alarm systems and fire extinguishers, recorded their checks or replacements, referred to daily checks, training courses attended and by whom, recorded the fire drills; as a manager I ensured our team had duplicate files, one for staff access at any time and a backup copy in the management office.

A new member of staff or management should be introduced to that file as part of their induction.

International emergency exit pictogram sign, displaying its nature and direction; these are usually lit from behind by emergency lighting. (Image sourced: Internet)

Arson

The attractions of fire are well known with children having to be cautioned about it, so much so that “playing with fire” has entered the language as a metaphor. People who live on the street, especially in ‘western’ countries tend to contain a certain proportion of mentally-ill people or others with social behavioural issues. For some of those fire holds a substantial attraction and, when in a multi-occupation building, they can constitute a very real danger. In one hostel there were a series of small fires deliberately set and we never found the culprit in the act. We did have our suspicions and some circumstantial evidence and on that basis I instructed the individual’s eviction. That seems harsh but the series of incidents indicated that we might have a very serious one eventually either because he was building up to it or through it unintentionally going out of his control. With the lives of a number of other residents and also of staff at risk I felt obliged to take that action and informed the organisation’s head office of what I had done and why. DCC’s Homeless Agency tried to force us to revoke our decision but we stuck to it. Agencies responsible for housing homeless people but without sufficient funding often try to shoehorn individuals or families into unsuitable accommodation. Of course there should be a housing option available to everyone but the one we provided just wasn’t suitable for what we considered a serious arson risk.

Similarly as workers or residents we should not tolerate behaviour of our peers that puts us in danger or neglect of laid down fire precautions. In an example referred to earlier, I could do nothing about the incredible attitude of a safety representative elected by the staff team but as a manager I could act on a member of staff endangering the team and he was of course instructed to remove his bicycle from the premises and to risk it locked on the street (as indeed I risked mine). I have heard of places where team members had a battle using fire extinguishers which is no doubt great fun but incredibly irresponsible.

Dealing with staff health and safety representatives as a manager reminds me of the time I had been such a representative myself. Wanting a bit of a break from confrontations with management, I declined nomination as shop steward and accepted nomination as staff health & safety representative instead. To my unpleasant surprise I found myself in more confrontations with the management than did the shop steward. And that was with a local management team that was quite progressive.

Owners and managers of buildings, along with companies employing people to work in them, have serious responsibilities with regard to comprehensive fire prevention, detection, suppression and evacuation procedures and should be rigorously inspected and pursued when they fail to ensure sufficient safety standards. When deaths are caused due to failure to ensure safety, the least they should face are manslaughter charges. A homeless person suspected of arson can be evicted without too much trouble but neither the owners of the Summerland leisure centre on the Isle of Man nor the Butterly family, owners of the Stardust nightclub in Artane have ever faced a single charge in a court of law.

REFERENCES

https://www.dublincity.ie/residential/dublin-fire-brigade/fire-prevention-and-community-fire-safety/fire-safety-businesses/fire-safety-advice-and-responsibilities/passive-fire

Fire Door Inspection and Compliance

https://www.thejournal.ie/dublin-fire-brigade-high-ladders-3675543-Nov2017/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stardust_fire

https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvolodzko/2019/03/05/bangladesh-and-the-fire-next-time/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/14/killed-fire-engulfs-building-southern-taiwan-kaohsiung