Alan Cox

Fire-safety consultant

Author Bio ▼

Alan started his fire and safety career with Warwick County Fire Service in 1963 and served as both an Operational and Fire Safety Inspecting Officer. In 1976 he transferred to the West Midlands Fire Service until 1978 when he moved to the NHS as the District Fire Safety Officer for West Birmingham Health Authority where he was also the West Midlands Regional Health Authority Fire Advisor. During his NHS career he worked and studied for six months in the USA looking at different approaches to fire safety. He was also responsible for developing a computerized hospital fire evacuation program that was used in many major hospitals. In 1994 Alan moved to HSBC as its Senior Fire and Safety Officer responsible for the 80 countries in which the bank had a presence. During his career with HSBC he established a global approach to fire safety, organized many international fire and safety conferences, and developed a standardized method of protecting computer areas from fire. In 2005 he set up his own Fire and Safety Consultancy. During his career he has published a number of books on fire safety and made many specialist technical videos on subjects such as hospital evacuation, fire protection of electronic data protection areas, fire doors, and mail room safety. He has been awarded a Brooking NHS Travel Fellowship, Rospa Safety Professional of the Year (twice), FPA Premier Fire Safety Award, and The Prime Minister's Quality Initiative. He also contributes to many fire and safety journals including Fire, IOSH, Fire Surveyor, and Health and Safety Journal. He is a fully qualified Fire Service Inspecting Officer, member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Managers (MIIRSM), Tech IOSH, and Qualified Fire Investigator. Alan has advised many large companies including the National Trust, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Kings College, Cambridge, Briton Hardware, BUPA, British Antarctic Survey Expedition, Chubb, Central Television, BBC, Radisson SAS, and the Falkland Islands Police.
October 31, 2016

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Royal Clarence Hotel fire: the questions that need answers after the destruction of the UK’s oldest hotel

The fire that destroyed Exeter’s Royal Clarence Hotel – the UK’s oldest hotel – on Friday is believed to have started at about 5am in a building on Cathedral Green.

It then spread to other buildings including the hotel, a historic landmark in the city centre that dates back to 1769.

How can a fire that started in an adjacent building have spread and caused so much damage? This is the question many people will be asking and to find the answer we need three questions answered:

What was the cause of the fire?

We know from media reports that 18 Cathedral Yard, where the fire is believed to have started, was in the process of being converted to high spec luxury flats.

So was there any hot work carried out the day before? Was any electrical equipment left on overnight? Was the site secure and were there any special fire safety measures in place due to the nature and age of surrounding buildings?

These and many more questions need to by looked at by the investigation team.

At one point it was reported that “all visible flames had gone” – so how did the fire manage to spread from the building of origin to adjacent buildings when the fire service was present?

Why did the fire spread to adjacent buildings? 

At one point it was reported that “all visible flames had gone” – so how did the fire manage to spread from the building of origin to adjacent buildings, including the Royal Clarence Hotel, when the fire service was present? The explanation at the time appears to blame hidden voids, which is the reason given for many fires in this type of building.

As this was foreseeable, why were special precautions and investigations not put in place to identify and protect these areas? This question is a very important one because it could have an impact on other densely populated historic city centres together with how fire safety precautions are put in place and how firefighting operations are undertaken.

The spread of fire between buildings is something that has been recognised for many years – even earlier than the Great Fire of London in 1666 – and there have long been regulations in place to stop fire spreading between buildings, especially at roof level – so what was in place here?

It is thought that fire spread through hidden voids but a lot of technology is available today to detect voids, such as thermal imaging, ultrasound, as well as by visual inspection and even drones

Were there any firewalls in place between buildings or fixed installations to protect openings? Were there any special precautions to prevent fire spreading between adjacent roofs, or did we just think that it would never happen?

Given the historic nature of this area we must ask why fire safety precautions appeared to fail and why this problem was not foreseen before the fire.

Did the local authority building inspector require any active or passive fire safety measures? Did the fire service identify the problem previously, given the number of similar incidents around the country?

And did any of the fire risk assessments identify any problem? Very important questions that I think need answers.

From photographs it can be clearly seen that there are many similar features with previous fires in Dartmouth, Hereford and Chester – so what did we learn from these?

As stated previously, it is thought that the fire was able to spread through hidden voids but a lot of technology is available today to detect voids, such as thermal imaging, ultrasound, as well as by visual inspection and even drones. So had any of this been carried out prior to the fire and had any special precautions been put in place?

Some reports also highlight a lack of water as a problem, but this should have been apparent before the fire and plans should have been put in place for such an eventuality.

So what can be done to prevent similar fires?

A great deal of research has been done to highlight this problem and many detailed investigations into past fires have detailed the problems and what can de done to protect our heritage and history. Many people highlight cost and disruption as being a reason not to invest in the protection of our heritage, but if we continue to accept these reasons we will continue to see these buildings go up in flames.

There is little doubt that this fire is a serious failing of fire safety arrangements for the protection of historic buildings. The only positive to come out of this is that no one appears to have been injured, but all of these failings should have been foreseen.

So we need to ask the question: How did this happen and what can we do in the future to prevent it happening again? Sadly, this is not the first time the question has been asked and I suspect it won’t be the last.

When I looked at the Clandon Park Fire I stated: “What of course we do know is that if fires start in these old buildings the results can be devastating and sprinklers would certainly have helped, but there is a reluctance to install these types of systems in buildings like this due to cost and disruption.

“There have been tremendous advances in fire detection and warning technology and there are systems that can detect very small shouldering fires and alert the occupiers and fire service in minutes.

“In addition to this, there are materials and methods available today that can improve the fire resistance of doors and structures without detracting from the overall appearance – so were these installed here or were they too costly as well?”

 

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Alan Cox
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Alan Cox

If anyone wishes to see the BBC Inside Out programme on this fire it can be seen on http://bbc.in/2e6ukE9 but it will only be available for the next 14 days.

Alan Cox
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Alan Cox

I have just been looking at some of the comments on social media that I thought were interesting: 1. i wonder if anyone who was there could answer if health and safety played a part in the spread of the fire ?? – as we know the old “get in there and sort it ” days have gone in most cases – where as years ago there would have been crews climbing all over that place activly seeking out fire spread – nowadays it seems that the first priority is making sure no one can possibly take any risks – so… Read more »

ZIP PANELLING
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ZIP PANELLING

Alan I have noticed over the years that with new building materials, sustainable timber as an instance, used in internal walls and more and more in timber framed housing, it takes little to catch fire and spread, even the Chief Fire Officers Association are showing more concern. Developers see it as a quick fix and speed build option and with the Government wanting 330,000 new houses per year the problem will become greater. In November 2 new housing developments, 1 in Manchester the other in Scotland were burnt to the ground and I believe took other houses around with the… Read more »

Alan Cox
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Alan Cox

ZIP PANELLING David, I cannot comment in detail about Zip Panelling as I don’t have a great deal of experience or knowledge about the product. Clearly, if the product is as good as it is claimed, is easy to work with and is cost effective then then it could be a positive step in the right direction. One of the problems with new products is that there is generally a lack of history about how it will perform in fire situations and this can make companies a little wary about using it. Clearly, the recent fires in timber framed buildings… Read more »

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