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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
June 1, 2022

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The Video Surveillance Report 2022

Evacuation procedures

“Adherence to ‘stay put’ policy doesn’t work without a credible backup” – experts say at the Tall Buildings Conference

A stay put policy for high rise residential buildings should have a viable plan B, in case the building does not behave as expected in a fire and compartmentation is breached, said a leading fire engineering academic at the Tall Buildings Conference, held alongside FIREX International in May. Ron Alalouff reports from the presentation.

Participants in the debate were:

  • Professor Ed Galea, Director, Fire Safety Engineering Group, University of Greenwich
  • Phil Murphy, former firefighter and Fire Safety Management Consultant
  • Paul Bussey, Architect
  • Merlyn Forrer, Consultant Fire Engineers
  • Sarah Rennie, Accessibility Consultant & Disability Rights Campaigner

Professor Ed Galea said stay put was fine as a plan A, but a credible backup plan was needed too – something that was painfully lacking at Grenfell Tower which was a “failed evacuation”. He had carried out a simulation of the evacuation of Grenfell Tower which demonstrated that most, if not all, occupants could have got out if there was a backup evacuation plan. And if the fire service had a plan B themselves, then they could also have got almost everybody out. “Once you see the fire spread across three floors, how can anyone say you have compartmentation? That’s the point when it should have been evacuated.”

But the firefighters did what they could with the training that they had, he argued. “Every firefighter on that ground deserves a medal – they went above and beyond. But the fire service should have had a plan B.”

Phil Murphy, a former fire officer and a high rise residential building fire safety consultant, said that stay put is not an evacuation policy, and to carry on pretending that it works “is a joke”. Neither is a rescue an evacuation policy – it’s defined as a person who needs assistance with evacuation. In an average social housing block, 40% of occupants have mobility issues and 40% have stamina problems, he highlights, so in theory you will need loads of firefighters to carry out simultaneous evacuation.

At Grenfell Tower, most of the people who died were on the 21st floor or higher – the ones the firefighters didn’t reach, he said. It might therefore be better to initially deal with the people in the vicinity of the fire, then to rescue those at the top of the building furthest away from safety. “Residents want a protected escape route, but we have to be straight with people that the evacuation route will become compromised when it’s not protected.”

Architect Paul Bussey said that those who ignored the stay put policy at Grenfell Tower were the ones who survived, and that the whole concept of stay put had had its time. We should be thinking about vertical evacuation plans, he said.

Merlyn Forrer, a fire consultant who was previously station manager at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, said stay put was originally introduced based on effective compartmentation with the idea that people would stay put for a limited time until the fire was extinguished.

“But I’m not convinced that evacuation alert systems or communal fire alarms are the answer either, as people can ignore them. We need to be very careful to say that stay put doesn’t work anymore and should be replaced with simultaneous evacuation – there’s no accounting for human behaviour.”

The debate on stay put then turned to the evacuation of disabled people. Sarah Rennie, an accessibility consultant and disability rights campaigner, and a wheelchair user herself, said she sleeps feeling anxious and frightened.

Referring to the government’s announcement earlier that day that it was going to carry out yet another consultation in spite of widespread support for PEEPs in its previous consultation – as it was concerned that any solution should be proportionate, practical, and safe – she said: “It seems like everybody else’s lives are more valuable according to the government. I have a PEEP – I had to put it together myself but I’ve got my evacuation chair and people trained. But I’m not allowed to use it – I would have to wait for the fire service to rescue me.”

“It’s a shameful announcement by the government today, five years after Grenfell,” added Professor Galea. “There’s to be yet another consultation until the government gets the answer it wants. The disabled are to stay put while everyone else is evacuated? That’s not proportionate.”

 

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Charlie Houston
Charlie Houston
June 2, 2022 10:35 am

I’ve always understood that Stay-put was a strategy that could be adopted by residents who were not in immediate danger from a fire elsewhere in their building. This strategy was predicated upon there being adequate compartmentation in place. In the event that their dwelling became threatened by smoke or fire they would be able to effect their evacuation to a place of safety. In buildings of one or more storey above ground level, effective evacuation would rely on a protected staircase. So far, so good. Now, introduce a resident with a disability that prevents them using stairs, and the thought… Read more »

Simon Ince
Simon Ince
June 8, 2022 2:03 pm

I didn’t see the seminar at Firex sadly. What interests me is the cost of implementation of bespoke evacuation strategies, including setting up PEEPS. Has this been costed and if so who is paying for it?