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November 20, 2019

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Bolton flats fire: Students & experts respond

On Friday evening (15th November), a major fire broke out in a block of flats housing students from The University of Bolton.

Image courtesy of @kade_walters on Twitter.

The Cube, as the building is known, saw 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines tackling the blaze, while students were evacuated and crews had to rescue one person using an aerial platform. Two people were treated by paramedics at the scene. The building is  managed and owned by Urban Student Life (USL), rather than the university itself.

In a statement, USL said that will be working with the University of Bolton to provide temporary accommodation and emergency supplies for those affected.

“Valeo USL is deeply sorry that the fire in the Cube building it operates in Bolton has displaced all of the 221 students that were resident in the building and is of course concerned about the distress and disruption that the blaze has caused to the lives of those students.

“Valeo USL’s first priority has been for the safety and security of the students who were resident in the building and Valeo USL’s on the ground team led the evacuation of the students and assisted the fire and rescue services throughout the night and today. Thankfully it appears that the prompt response of our staff and the amazing work of the emergency services has meant that the residents have remained safe.”

Cladding

Once again, the event will raise concerns over the safety of high-rise buildings and blocks of flats – an issue continuing to undergo scrutiny since the Grenfell tragedy in 2017. It would appear fears over the safety of the cladding have once again been highlighted, though an investigation into the event is already underway.

While the cladding was different from the aluminum composite cladding (ACM) material used on the Grenfell Tower, Greater Manchester’s Mayor commented that the material “raises issues that will have to be addressed”, in a press conference on Saturday.

Tom Roche, a Fire Safety Engineer with over 25 years’ experience in the field, added that: “The quick spread of the fire, injuries, the need to help evacuate people and the damage caused should rightly prompt renewed concern about the performance of numerous buildings in the face of fire.

“The high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding used on The Cube was clearly combustible. The discussions around the height of the building and whether it was within certain parameters of the building regulations guidance may be important from a technocratic perspective, but to all those watching the end result was the same; the fire clearly spread up the building. It did not matter whether it was 17m or 18m, it failed to stop the fire from spreading across its external surface, making both the property and its inhabitants extremely vulnerable to a fire.

“This failure highlights the importance of properly testing building materials for their intended use, irrespective of height. Most importantly, there is a need to ensure that those involved in designing and refurbishing buildings have a sound understanding of building and fire science. This should drive the proper selection of materials.”

Fire Protection Association (FPA)

The FPA has highlighted that the incident provides a stark reminder that the problem facing UK fire safety is the result of many issues, and not just Grenfell style ACM cladding. A number of key concerns have already been raised, such as the part played by high pressure laminate (HPL) and timber cladding components on the building, the fact that combustibility bans should be based on risk of buildings rather than height, and changes to the regularity of tests being carried out on high integrity alarm systems – students commented that alarms go off almost daily, so it did not raise immediate concerns.

Jonathan O’Neill, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association, commented: “The fires at the Bolton student block, Worcester Park in London and the Beechmere care village in Cheshire, prove we cannot be housing people in buildings made from combustible materials. This issue needs to be addressed urgently; it simply cannot wait. We urge this issue to be a priority for the new Government.”

The FPA is particularly concerned with why fire and building regulations have to solely be related to height – ‘risk is a combination of many factors, of which height is only one’.

Student responses

In the wake of the event, student leaders in Scotland have written to the Scottish Government to review all student accommodation and ensure it is safe. According to the BBC, the letter has been signed from student representatives from numerous universities and colleges, raising concerns over the safety of privately-built student halls.

With student halls taking many different forms – from high-rise buildings to privately owned rented properties – the concerns raised by representatives aren’t exactly surprising.

Keep an eye on this page for further developments and responses from the industry.

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Anonymous
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Anonymous

First we must appreciate students, staff and emergency services for the taking action immediately. Every time it won’t be like this, They must take more safety measures especially at High-rise apartments.

David Sugden
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David Sugden

We should all appreciate that the height of building is an artificial boundary and that it confuses the issue. Recent Clarification in ADB could really be serving to confuse rather than clarify. The actual basic “Requirement” of the Building Regs is where perhaps should start. B4 says: External fire spread B4. (1) The external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building. (2) The roof of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the… Read more »

Leslie Dodd
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Leslie Dodd

Whilst the external fire spread is of concern, the problem of the fire alarm going off daily leading to the residents becoming complacent about responding to it. The B.S requires a weekly test by a suitably qualified person, this test must be recorded in a log book. ( 1 ) Was this being done (2) Is the alarm suitable (have smoke detectors been installed in cooking areas, this would account for the daily activation) (3) were the daily activations reported. The evacuation of the residents proved valuable as only 1 person needed rescueing.

michael floyd
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michael floyd

I agree most of your point but it is a common misconception that weekly testing has to be done by a qualified person – it can be the user and its function is to promote familiarity with the fire alarm signal. (as opposed to other alarms which might be in that building) The fault lies with the designers, commissioning agent and servicing agent who must all play their part, along with the user in reducing false alarms below the BS maximum permitted levels. Most of these problems, as you hint are incorrect choice and siting of devices – proving persons… Read more »

michael floyd
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michael floyd

How can the Cube management company have the brass neck to claim their first priority was safety when they had a NON – COMPLIANT fire alarm! We all know the term ‘cry wolf’ and this is enshrined in the alarm standard with tight limits for false alarms and action levels. These agents often employ non-third party assessed firms to carry out such work, as everything is based on cost with no proper accountability for the result

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