Freelance journalist

Author Bio ▼

Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
February 2, 2022

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Can we do more to learn from major fires in other countries?

Ron Alalouff investigates the lack of examples of international action following fires in other countries, posing the question – can we do more to learn from major fires on a global perspective? Ron also highlights one initiative which does aim to break out of national silos from the International Fire Safety Standards Coalition.

GrenfellWe are all aware of the action that the UK government has taken in response to the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 in which 72 people died – the highest death toll in a residential building fire since the second world war.

A plethora of Government actions since the fire includes:

  • Funding to replace unsafe cladding on high-rise residential blocks (18m and over)
  • Banning the use of combustible materials on new high-rise blocks of flats
  • The passing of the Fire Safety Act 2021 to clarify responsibility for fire safety of external walls and front doors to individual flats
  • The wholesale review of buildings regulations guidance in Approved Document B
  • The introduction of the Building Safety Bill which, when enacted, will put in place a far-reaching regulatory regime for high-rise residential buildings.

But with devatstaing fires such as Grenfell, do other countries take note of what has happened and take the necessary measures in terms of new regulations, guidance or remediation? In other words, do governments and stakeholders learn lessons from serious fires in other countries, or are we still working only within our national borders?

One initiative which aims to break out of our national silos is a set of common principles for saving lives and safe buildings, published by the International Fire Safety Standards Coalition in October 2020 and subsequently adopted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

International Fire Safety Standards: Common Principles (IFSS-CP) is designed as a high-level overarching performance framework based on common principles for fire safety engineering design, construction, occupation and ongoing management. The objective is to prevent death and injury from fire in the built environment and minimise the impact on communities and the environment.

Beyond national borders

IFSS-CP starts out by asserting that “the complex interrelationships between fire and mankind transcend international borders and disciplinary boundaries. The science of fire knows no geographical or political limits.

Over time we have learned fundamental fire safety principles for preventing fire events and managing their impact [prevention, detection and communication, occupant protection, containment and extinguishment] that can be consistently applied internationally.” It goes on to say that it often takes a tragedy before legislative changes are made, but to continue in this way is a serious dereliction of responsibility.

IFSS-CP sets out what it believes are common modern day fire safety challenges including:

  • Greater urbanisation with more people living in higher density housing
  • A growth in people living in high rise developments containing numerous uses and occupancy types
  • Urban spaces encroaching on wildland spaces creating increased areas of risk for wildland-urban and semi-urban interface fires
  • New and emerging technologies that could start fires in novel ways
  • New building materials and systems which lack sufficient assessment of their performance in a fire.

The document highlights the proliferation of insulation products with higher thermal properties, together with the push for more sustainable construction. While novel construction products, processes and technologies can reduce costs – and increase efficiency, environmental performance, sustainability and the predictability of delivery timescales – they bring with them new fire safety challenges.

Fire safety knowledge sharing

While much is known about the phenomena and effects of fire, as well as what needs to be done to protect people, buildings and the environment, this knowledge is not shared as effectively as it could be. A connected and more consistent approach will yield significant benefits and improve the ability to respond to events, monitor ongoing developments, anticipate future threats and opportunities, and learn from past failures – and successes.

The introduction to IFSS-CP goes on to say that the many contrasting approaches and requirements around the world have resulted in significant variations in the design, approval, construction methods and operation of buildings – due to local architecture and traditions and responses to local disasters. A disaster experienced in one area does not necessarily result in changes to codes and standards in other areas.

In some cases, certain regions or nations may not have their own building regulation and may depend on international references, such as the International Building Code or NFPA codes. While this is a valid approach, caution is necessary to ensure that fire safety issues are addressed in the local context.

“Sharing knowledge of the principles of fire safety that have been adopted around the globe represents an important opportunity to educate stakeholders and improve protection for people and buildings from the risk of fire, and could help drive improvements in safety in both developed and developing economies.”

IFSS-CP is not intended to replace existing fire safety related codes, standards and regulation. Instead, it is designed to provide a framework to contextualise and guide codification in each jurisdiction. It will “aid jurisdictions both in ensuring that their regulatory framework provides a comprehensive web of fire safety, and in guiding future code development towards achieving that goal”.

Property protection and critical infrastructure

Future editions of IFSS-CP will seek to address wider issues, such as building preservation and critical infrastructure. In addition, its authors will seek to provide a directory of existing fire safety related codes, standards and regulatory instruments, and demonstrate how they fit within the framework by meeting and satisfying the document.

In the preface to the document, Gary Strong, Chair of the IFSS Coalition, said: “The overall objective of [IFSS-CP] is to prevent injury and death from fire in the built environment and minimise the impact on communities, society and the natural environment. We recognise that the past and current practices and application of fire safety standards across the globe would benefit significantly from consistency in terms of a set of common principles.”


READ: IFSEC Global’s exclusive interview with Gary Strong, Chair of the IFSS Coalition


Last October, the International Fire Safety Standards Coalition launched its Global Plan for a Decade of Action for Fire Safety. Building on the work undertaken in IFSS-CP, the plan envisages the stabilisation and then reduction of the level of fire fatalities, injuries, economic cost and environmental impact around the world by 2032, despite a rise in global population. Its five “pillars of action” are:

People: actions to help individuals and groups understand fire, and what they can do to increase their understanding

Products: actions to reduce fire hazards associated with appliances, contents and building components

Structures: actions to reduce fire hazards associated with structures including planning, design and operation

Infrastructure: actions to help enhance firefighting infrastructure

Communities: actions to facilitate sustainable and fire resilient communities.

Speaking to IFSEC Global, Gary Strong added: “We’re on a long journey. We need to keep our foot on the pedal to make sure governments adopt the IFSS-CP, then we need to look at things at a more granular level, and that’s where the Decade of Action comes in.

“One of the advantages of the IFSS Coalition being made up of design and construction professionals around the world is that we can adopt these principles into our professional practice, and not have to wait for governments to change national codes. Following these principles can improve on minimum national requirements.”


Another example of a global learning initiative comes in the form of the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Conference, taking place at FIREX International each year. Find out more about the 2022 event, where speakers from around the world will provide expert insight into their perspectives on tall building fire challenges, here. 


 

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The eBook also features an exclusive foreword from the Fire Industry Association's Ian Moore, and a look at how the sector embraces systemic change in attitudes to risk and safety.

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