Tall Building Fire Safety Conference 2019

From Hyde Housing to Deepwater Horizon: Insights on tall building fire safety

Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
September 12, 2019

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Last year saw the construction of a record number of skyscrapers over 300 metres high around the world.

Of the 18 built in 2018, 11 were in China, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) annual report. Another 143 buildings over 200 metres high were completed globally (88 in China).

London’s hitherto comparatively low-rise skyline is heading skywards with a record 76 tall buildings due to be completed this year. And buildings above 20 storeys high that are planned or under construction in the capital number 541 – also a record.

With a growing global population increasingly concentrated in cities we can expect this trend to continue.

There are several obvious fire safety challenges around high-rise buildings, not least how to safely evacuate occupants, the applicability of stay-put policies and the widening range of flammable materials used in construction.

The Tall Building Fire Safety Conference, which gathers some of the world’s most renowned fire safety experts to address these and other issues, could hardly be more necessary.

Taking place alongside FIREX International as it does every June, the sixth annual edition also examined, among other things, what a ‘fit for purpose’ testing regime for tall building facades might look like; whether tall timber is a good idea; the latest developments in computer modelling of tall building fires; the role of drones in fighting fires; and firefighting best practice for high rise fires.

Below are some notable insights from three of the presentations, delivered at ExCeL London in June.

Presentations from the Rockwool-sponsored conference can be found here.

Hyde Housing Fire Safety Task Force: Brent O’Halloran, director of asset management, Hyde Housing

An undoubted highlight was the Hyde Housing case study, delivered by Hyde’s director of asset management, Brent O’Halloran.

Fresh revelations of neglect in our built environment are all too frequent, with housing providers understandably a prime focus in the wake of Grenfell.

However, some developers and housing associations have responded proactively to the worst residential fire in modern history – often at eye-watering expense.

Hyde Housing is perhaps the most impressive exemplar. The housing association found fire safety problems in all 86 of its tower blocks when it inspected them following the Grenfell Tower fire.

Hyde’s chief executive Elaine Bailey told Inside Housing that “every single building that had a Type 4 on it had got issues coming out of it. It could range from a couple of fire exit signs missing, up to a £7m or £8m refurbishment and everything in between.”

Problems included “serious and widespread compartmentation breaches”, “flammable and/or sub-standard cladding installations” and “missing or poorly installed fire stopping and fire breaks”.

The association is now undertaking “thousands of remediation actions” based on fire risk assessments.

In one case a removed HPL panel bore the stamp ‘NON-FR GRADE’ (‘not fire-grade’ – see image below).

O’Halloran set out how Hyde was adhering to its post-Grenfell mantra: Would I be happy if I had a loved one living in this building?

The project comprised:

  • A dedicated fire safety taskforce of 12 staff who work on nothing else
  • A fire safety taskforce board comprising staff from across the organisation
  • Their chief executive as project sponsor
  • A monthly update to EMT and regular board updates
  • An inspection and remediation programme
  • Fire risk assessments involving invasive inspections
  • Tenancy safety audits
  • Cladding checks including configuration
  • Building safety compliance audits (certs)
  • Joint inspections with fire and rescue services
  • Commissioned expert advice from fire engineers, fire consultants, cladding manufacturers

He also showed numerous photos demonstrating substandard passive fire protection found among Hyde’s 50,000-home stock (one example below).

Hyde, he said, had drawn the following lessons from the project:

  • To act now rather than wait
  • To have the courage of our convictions
  • To take a systematic approach to inspection
  • To not unsee what we have seen
  • To prioritise based on highest risk
  • To keep focused on the programme
  • To quickly adapt to the new normal

View full presentation

A PDCA Central Line for fire risk management: Dr Kathryn O’Brien, University of Central Lancashire

Using TFL-style maps Dr Kathryn O’Brien showcased her vision for turning data into usable information in the fire safety context. Taking the example of climate change, she said that 100 years of temperature readings are data, but this data becomes information once organised and analysed to find that global average temperatures are rising.

She cited a definition of information by Sir Robert Francis QC, made in 2013 when he chaired the Independent Inquiry into  care provided by the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust:

“Information is the lifeblood of an open transparent and candid culture. All professionals, individually and collectively, should be obliged to take part in the development, use and publication of more sophisticated measurements of the effectiveness of what they do, and of their compliance with fundamental standards.”

Why do we need data, asked O’Brien? Because information can be compared against a recognised standard or indicator to measure the following:

  • Regulatory compliance
  • Position in the national /local fire risk space
  • Knowing how we are doing
  • Continual improvement

But are we measuring the right things? She cited two examples of bad practice in this regard.

The Baker Report into the 2005 explosion at the BP Texas City refinery recommended that BP overhaul its SPIs by considering proactive measures and monitoring its process (rather than personnel). BP senior management were criticised for placing too much emphasis on its low LTI (lost-time injury) rate.

She suggested attendees who wanted to know more should consult the Health and Safety Executive’s recommendations issued in the wake of the Baker report.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which caused 11 deaths, might have been avoided had the lessons of previous spills and fires on the oil rig been heeded. The US Coast Guard issued 18 pollution citations between 2000 and 2010 and investigated 16 fires and other incidents.

Such incidents were admittedly common among oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, but one incident, in 2008, was potentially salutary. The platform had listed and began to sink after a section of pipe was accidentally removed from the ballast system, prompting the evacuation of 77 people.

Internal BP documents showed that BP engineers had expressed concerns in 2009 that the metal casing specified for installation might collapse under high pressure.

In March 2010, problems were identified including mud falling into the undersea oil formation, sudden gas releases, a pipe falling into the well, and at least three instances of the blowout preventer leaking fluid. The rig’s mechanic said the well had exhibited problems for months and that the drill repeatedly kicked due to high gas pressure providing resistance.

A confidential survey commissioned by Transocean just weeks before the explosion notes concerns expressed by workers about safety practices and fears about reprisals for being whistle-blowers.

Ironically, BP vice president of drilling Patrick O’Bryan was present on the platform two hours prior to the explosion to mark seven years without a ‘lost-time incident’.

Download full presentation

Cladding system toxicity study: Dr Jim Glockling, technical director, Fire Protection Association & director, RISCAuthority

Toxic fire effluents are responsible for most fire deaths and a growing majority of injuries, driven by the widespread and growing use of synthetic polymers, according to Anna Stec and Richard Hull of Lancaster UCLAN. Dr Jim Glockling also noted their observation that a focus on cutting the rate of heat release, in order to prevent ignition and reduce flame spread, had come at the cost of neglecting fire toxicity.

The toxicity threat comprises many troubling elements, said Glockling:

  • Loss of visibility which may hinder escape
  • Substances irritant to the eyes and lungs which may hinder escape (hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde)
  • Poisons that cause asphyxiation (preventing oxygen getting to thebody) by preferential combination with haemoglobin (carbon monoxide) & by inhibiting cytochrome oxidase which prevents the use of oxygen by the body’s cells (hydrogen cyanide)
  • Gases that stimulate respiration thereby increasing impact of other toxicants (carbon dioxide)
  • Reduced oxygen availability as it is consumed by the fire
  • Substances that exhibit longer term toxicity to humans (particulates, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors)

The working assumption has always been that toxicity sources stem from the furnishings and contents of an occupied space.

But do the experts still believe this is true? Do regulations protect those inside a building well enough from building materials on fire outside it?

Dr Glockling outlined five salient, worrying issues around the risk of occupants’ toxic exposure from burning building products:

  • There is no toxicity limitation criteria for building materials
  • There is no requirement to fire-stop services penetrating the building’s external envelope
  • The impact of penetrations on cladding fire performance is not assessed
  • Fire can spread faster in the cladding void than some reactive cavity barrier devices can operate
  • It is vital to understand how toxic threat is adjusted by the burning scenario

On the legitimate breaching of the cladding system by devices that are not fire-stopped, Dr Glockling noted:

  • The external envelope of a building is not considered a fire compartment boundary and as such there is NO requirement to fire stop penetrations
  • There is NO requirement to understand how penetration of the cladding by ducts and vents will impact a fire test (BS8414)
  • We know from our testing of ETIC systems that this has the potential to radically alter test outcome.

On the performance of cavity barriers Dr Glockling offered two recommendations on boosting the capability of intumescent cavity barriers in vented rainscreen systems.

First, BS8414 is unsuitable for the evaluation of cavity barrier performance since the current configuration allows for pre-heating through the rain screening without direct flame impingement. Second, a separate test should be considered that matches performance to the ignition properties of the materials they separate including membranes.

Dr Glockling examined several other dimensions to the problem before concluding with his three most important observations:

  • BS8414 testing neither looks, nor allows, for an understanding of occupant toxic thread potential
  • Regulations are inadequate for the separation of occupants from toxic harm from external building materials
  • The toxic threat from materials burned in an oxygen-starved environment (such as a cladding void) is many times that of its free burning value

Download full presentation

The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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