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Grenfell Tower: if you live or work in a high rise building…

Grenfall Tower fire - staying safe in a high rise building
Grenfall Tower fire – staying safe in a high rise building

The fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower in west London came at a very high cost with the loss of so many lives.

In the UK there are about 5,000 high rise residential buildings similar to Grenfell Tower as well as several high rise buildings providing office space to many people.

We suggest that anyone living or working in a high rise building should use the information below to evaluate their place of residence or work in order to understand any potential dangers.

How high is the building?

If your home or place of work is 30 metres or more in height then the building should have a sprinkler system. A sprinkler system within the building will automatically be activated if there is a fire, thereby providing a safe escape route.

Emergency exits and escape routes

An effective escape route from a burning tower block can either be external stairs attached to the exterior of the building or the internal stairwell found in most tower blocks. The latter should be fire-resistant and be designed to ventillate the shaft in order to limit the impact of toxic fumes on escaping residents.

Is your apartment fire resistant?

High rise apartments in the UK should be constructed with fire resistant material. This is important because the method of tackling fires in high rise buildings in the UK is to compartmentalise and contaain the fire. This means that the firefighters climb the stairs of the tall building to the apartment or source of the fire to try and prevent the fire from spreading to other parts of the building.

The weaknesses of this approach are obvious – it is very labourious carrying heavy equipment and hoses up the stairs to the source of the fire. The physical demands of this approach means that firefighters are slowed down and easily exhausted going up and down the stairs evacuating residents.

Does the building have firefighting lifts

Firefighting lifts in high rise buildings are designed to enable firefighters and their equipment to reach the upper floors quickly without getting tired. They have an electrical supply that is independent of the other circuits in the building, and the lifts can sometimes be used to evacuate residents.

Does the building have a Riser system for suppling water to the firefighters?

There are two types of riser supply systems – a dry riser and a wet riser. A Dry Riser is a normally empty pipe that can be externally connected to a pressurized water source by firefighters, enabling them to pump water on to the upper floors of a building. A Wet Riser is a system of valves and pipework which are kept permanently charged with water.

Have there been any modifications to key parts of the building?

Refurbishment and improvement to enhance the aesthetics of the building and the quality of life for residents and people working in a building is a good thing. However, the improvments should not compromise the safety of people in the building in any way. There are reports that the recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower included cladding material that accelerated the fire vertically on the outside of the tower block. Cladding is not a bad thing; cladding is simply covering or laying a given material over the surface of another in order to achieve a number of outcomes including aesthetics and insulation. What is key, is the type of material used for the cladding.

Does the building have a fire alarm system?

Some experts question the wisdom of having a communal fire alarm system for high rise residential buldings. The contention is that installing in residential buildings the type of alarms found in office blocks could lead to the alarm going off just because of minor things like burnt toast. However, installing the alarms and detectors on the landings minimizes the chance of false alarms and improves the survival chances for residents especially if the fire starts at night when most residents are asleep.

London Fire Service does not have a plan B

It was evident during the Grenfell Tower disaster that the fire service did not have a plan B for fighting fires in high rise buildings.

The firefighters arrived at the scene of the fire within six minutes of receiving the emergency call, which was very impressive. They expected to ‘compartmentalise and contain’ the fire by going up the stairs to the source of the fire, but their plans were thrown out of the window because the fire had jumped out onto the the external fascade of the building and raced up the building.

This left the firefighters with the only viable but ridiculous option of training their water hoses on the lower parts of the building that were not really on fire, while the fire raged in upper parts of the building.

It seemed the firefighters did not have appropriate alternative equipment to tackle the blaze externally, such as cranes and cherrypickers, as well as airbourne water carriers.

If your place of residence or work is affected by the points raised above, then you should raise the issues with the appropriate authorities. Stay safe.

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