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October 16, 2009

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Fire safety guides from FIREX International

Forgiving the management

[

Should we ever rely on higher levels of management in a building in order to reduce physical fire protection measures, or should we build ‘forgiving’ buildings which more than compensate for operational shortcomings? Colin Todd sets out the arguments.

BS 9999 is the first standard to set levels for management of fire safety. ‘Management’ is increasingly being seen as a vital component of fire safety design. However, should we ever rely on fire safety management to such an extent that other fire precautions can be reduced? Have the quality and reliability of fire safety management increased, such as to enable us to do so, or is it simply that those who, in the past, poured scorn on management solutions were too conservative.

Prescriptive fire safety solutions, such as those set out in Approved Document B (and equivalent guidance in Scotland and Northern Ireland), assume an adequate level of fire safety management; neither an unrealistic level of excellence, nor a cavalier disregard of fire safety by those who manage buildings, but something of an acceptable ‘norm’. While the quality of fire safety management well above the norm will inevitably result in a safer building, there is no ‘trade off’ in the physical fire precautions prescribed. Equally, reliance is placed upon current legislative controls, such as, in England and Wales, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, to ensure that the quality of fire safety management does not fall greatly below the assumed norm.

That this approach ‘works’ is indisputable, both evidentially (e.g. in the form of national statistics on fire deaths) and anecdotally. In terms of the evidence, fire deaths in non-domestic buildings have, for some years, levelled out at around only 20-30 a year.

All fire safety practitioners can recount anecdotes of incidents in which inappropriate behaviour by occupants, in association with serious shortcomings in fire safety management, led to… absolutely nothing, other than the disapproval of the fire and rescue service and, (ever increasingly since the reform of fire safety legislation) prosecution.

My favourite case history in this respect is one involving a large London office complex in which, around the start of work one morning, the staff restaurant chef discovered a fire in the recently ignited deep fat fryer. Rather than operating the fire alarm system, the culinary clot took the lift to inform his boss of the incident, initially taking the lift to a higher floor than intended and then descending back to the intended floor. Unable to find the missing manager, our hero returned to the canteen, where he found the manager and, of course, the continually developing fire, with associated copious quantities of smoke.

At this stage, no one had yet operated the fire alarm system or contacted the fire and rescue service. Nor did they do so when the dynamic duo contacted the building’s security control, who merely dispatched a security officer to join the fun. When inappropriate fire extinguishers (the appropriate type were probably not visible in the smoke) failed to deal with the fire, the tenacious trio descended to ground floor, where the chef decided to operate the fire alarm system, which was programmed to sound an alert (rather than evacuate) signal throughout the building. Happily, the spread of smoke encouraged occupants to evacuate the building, and the fire and rescue service were ultimately summoned (an estimated 20+ minutes after discovery of the fire).

The point of this tale of potential disaster is simply that the potential never came to pass. The only casualty in the entire farce was the chef, who lacerated his hand when using it to smash the glass of an old-style break glass manual call point.

Built-in redundancy
If, as I believe to be the case, incidents of this nature are not uncommon, why is the number of fire deaths in non-domestic buildings almost negligible (certainly compared to other causes of accidental death)? The answer is almost certainly the ‘forgiving’ nature of traditional fire safety designs, the vast majority formulated in accordance with prescriptive codes of practice. Traditional fire safety codes may be unduly restrictive in some cases, and may, in some cases, ‘over-engineer’ the fire precautions, but they do have an unqualified amount of ‘fat’ that will save the day when management standards slip.

Why then do we place major emphasis on the role of fire safety management in the overall fire safety ‘package’. Quite simply because of the lessons of history. Many fire disasters demonstrate with horrible eloquence the effects of (usually multiple) shortcomings in the management of fire safety. The vast majority (some might suggest all) of serious multiple fatality fires in non-domestic buildings in the last half century or so have been associated with failures in fire safety management, sometimes with few, if any, failures in physical fire precautions. While we ‘get away’ with poor fire safety management in the majority of cases the corollary is that, statistically, if the poor standards are allowed to continue, one day luck will run out and another Summerland, Woolworths, Stardust, King’s Cross or Bradford will occur.

Moreover, we know from history that this can occur even in what might be regarded as a low risk situation and a fully code-compliant building. Arguably, the fire at Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast in 1984 was such a situation, when six people died in a short period of time on the ground floor of a local authority leisure centre, designed in accordance with relevant building regulations. Associated factors included an inappropriate fire procedure, inappropriate response by occupants, inadequate staff training and inadequate arrangements for liaison with the fire service on their arrival.

More generally, serious fire disasters often share many common aspects, such as:
– Failure in fire prevention (resulting in the fire)
– Inappropriate fire procedures and preparedness for fire
– Delay in operation of the fire alarm system
– Delay in summoning the fire and rescue service
– Inappropriate response by occupants, including delay in evacuation
– No one taking proper charge of the incident (certainly at an early enough stage)
– Failure to manage the evacuation process
 

It is not only the traditional codes of practice that expect a reasonable standard of fire safety management, while offering no benefits for enhanced standards. The so-called ‘advanced’ approach of BS 9999 (which is itself, of course, a form of prescriptive code) specifies the level of management that should be provided for each ‘risk profile’, but affords no benefits for higher levels of management than those specified. (One of the many anomalies in this standard is that, in an early section, it promises, quite specifically, that an increased level of management of fire safety will, in a later section, permit variation in travel distance and door and/or stair widths. Happily, the promise is not fulfiled, and no such variation is offered in the latter section!). Indeed, the Level 1 management specified in the somewhat quasi-academic approach adopted in BS 9999 is such that it is impracticable for many organisations – particularly large, centrally managed groups where local premises are effectively managed from a head or regional office – nor do some of the Level 1 parameters afford any enhancement in fire safety.

There are, of course, now three different approaches that can be adopted in fire safety design, namely:
– The general approach (e.g. that given, in England and Wales, by Approved Document B)
– The advanced approach (namely that specified in BS 9999)
– A fire engineering solution (using BS 7974 and its associated published documents)

It is only in the third of the above approaches that there is potential for management to form the major (or even the sole) basis for departure from the recommendations of prescriptive codes of practice. However it is, perhaps, appropriate to question whether designs that rely heavily on a management solution afford the equivalent level of safety to that afforded by a code-compliant solution.

Nothing new
The concept of management solutions is, of course, not new. While we often regard the attention now given to fire safety management (quite correctly, given the lessons of history discussed above) as very modern thinking, it is worthy of note that the syllabus of the very first fire engineering higher education in the UK (at Edinburgh University) in 1975 incorporated fire safety management as a significant component of the MSc syllabus.

A very simple example of a long accepted management solution is the time-honoured problem of the inward opening exit door. In premises where occupant numbers would normally demand an outward opening door, the accepted management solution has always been to fasten doors open at the times such numbers are on the premises (or even provide a doorman, ready to open the doors).

This simple example demonstrates a positive aspect of management solutions, namely the flexibility they can afford the designer, particularly in circumstances in which compliance with a prescriptive code would be impracticable, unsympathetic to the character of the building or unnecessarily expensive. Whereas the inward opening door can be pinned or unpinned according to circumstances, the door cannot be re-hung several times a week!

However, there is a worrying trend for fire engineers, often with little practical experience of how buildings are managed (or mismanaged!), simply to incorporate assumptions or even bold assertions into their designs, with the objective of varying (downward) the physical fire precautions specified in traditional, proven prescriptive codes. This, in itself, is not necessarily detrimental to fire safety, provided the assumptions and assertions are realistic and, where the end user is known, the capability of the end user in terms of management is properly researched. The extent to which this important caveat is unfulfilled is the cause for concern.

Perhaps this is the result of inadequate practical education of fire engineers, who appear to leave some degree courses capable of performing advanced mathematics and CFD modelling, but without a good understanding of building management. Equally, given that degree courses provide by definition education rather than training, it is possibly because of the shortage of qualified fire engineers that those with little experience of practical fire safety are permitted to run before they can walk.

When I first graduated in fire engineering, we lived in a world of almost total prescription. (I was rejected for my first job application by an ageing ex-fire officer for being unable to recite the travel distances for various occupancies, he being totally unimpressed by my mini ‘lecture’ on how Einstein claimed not to remember the speed of light, as he could look it up in a book.) Endeavours to circumvent prescriptive codes with academic ideas, based on inexperience, were given short shrift by the traditional old enforcing officer, be it a building control officer or fire officer.

We now appear to have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous in that enforcing authorities appear reluctant to challenge any solution designed by a fire engineer, provided it is described as a fire engineering solution. This includes solutions with major management components, provided as compensation for reductions in physical fire precautions.

What’s the objective?
Is the attraction of the ‘management solution’ to the fire engineer born of a desire to achieve a safer building in these cases? In my experience this is seldom the case. Often, the management strategy is born of an inability to resolve a design issue. This may be because of genuine constraints in the building design but may also be to suit a client’s requirements for use of the building, to create more lettable space or otherwise save costs or increase revenue. Worse still, I have known cases where the management solution is a last minute ‘fix’ to a design shortcoming identified at a late stage in a project.

If the fire engineer is only involved in the design stage, without any ongoing involvement in the building once occupied, it is just too easy for he or she to set unrealistic, impracticable or uneconomic management requirements. These are sometimes formulated in ignorance of the client’s managerial capability or the likely behaviour of the building occupants. These requirements may be not only uneconomic but, worse still, unachievable by the building occupier.

It is bad enough that these ‘quick fixes’ may result in a high cost of operating the building, but it may transpire that, in practice, the requisite standard of fire safety is not achieved because of unachievable assumptions in respect of occupant behaviours (e.g. pre-movement time), change of management, or long term frustration of management with operating arrangements they regard as impracticable.

Whereas a reduction in physical fire precautions subsequent to occupation would be a matter that would require approval under building regulations (and would be readily identifiable on inspection of a building), subtle reductions in management standards are less obvious and can hardly be described as building work that is subject to control.

To put these concerns into context, often the management solution is applied to complex buildings, such as shopping centres and public assembly buildings in which a high standard of management ‘goes with the territory’, and they may well lend themselves to a workable management solution. Equally, even in such premises, management can change and the buildings are those that potentially present a high risk to life. Moreover, there is a clear tendency by some fire engineers to take the same approach in less complex buildings (even small shops, offices, education buildings etc.), in which an unrealistic management solution may have a short lifespan.

Is there not a danger that we are forgetting the lessons of history in the face of client demands? The major single lesson is this: Far from relying heavily on management, given that history shows that this is a very vulnerable component of the fire safety package, should we not design ‘forgiving’ buildings which, as would appear to be the case in traditional design, allow many managerial shortcomings without the occurrence of a disaster?

I know many will regard these as the thoughts of a fire safety dinosaur, so I end with these thoughts for those faced with managerial solutions. The fact that someone calls a package a fire engineering solution does not make it a good solution. Management solutions should only be accepted after proper demonstration that the management strategy can be sustained (both practically and economically in the long term). Even if the management solution is achievable, there needs to be consideration of whether it is reliable. In the same way as a sensitivity analysis is applied to the potential for failures of physical fire precautions, it should be applied to management solutions. It may well be the case that this will show that minor changes can be highly detrimental to the ultimate safety of the building.

A final thought: We should be more worried about the ultimate effects of fire safety failures than about being considered insufficiently trendy.

Colin Todd is a specialist fire safety consultant and principal of CS Todd & Associates.

 

[

Should we ever rely on higher levels of management in a building in order to reduce physical fire protection measures, or should we build ‘forgiving’ buildings which more than compensate for operational shortcomings? Colin Todd sets out the arguments.

BS 9999 is the first standard to set levels for management of fire safety. ‘Management’ is increasingly being seen as a vital component of fire safety design. However, should we ever rely on fire safety management to such an extent that other fire precautions can be reduced? Have the quality and reliability of fire safety management increased, such as to enable us to do so, or is it simply that those who, in the past, poured scorn on management solutions were too conservative.

Prescriptive fire safety solutions, such as those set out in Approved Document B (and equivalent guidance in Scotland and Northern Ireland), assume an adequate level of fire safety management; neither an unrealistic level of excellence, nor a cavalier disregard of fire safety by those who manage buildings, but something of an acceptable ‘norm’. While the quality of fire safety management well above the norm will inevitably result in a safer building, there is no ‘trade off’ in the physical fire precautions prescribed. Equally, reliance is placed upon current legislative controls, such as, in England and Wales, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, to ensure that the quality of fire safety management does not fall greatly below the assumed norm.

That this approach ‘works’ is indisputable, both evidentially (e.g. in the form of national statistics on fire deaths) and anecdotally. In terms of the evidence, fire deaths in non-domestic buildings have, for some years, levelled out at around only 20-30 a year.

All fire safety practitioners can recount anecdotes of incidents in which inappropriate behaviour by occupants, in association with serious shortcomings in fire safety management, led to… absolutely nothing, other than the disapproval of the fire and rescue service and, (ever increasingly since the reform of fire safety legislation) prosecution.

My favourite case history in this respect is one involving a large London office complex in which, around the start of work one morning, the staff restaurant chef discovered a fire in the recently ignited deep fat fryer. Rather than operating the fire alarm system, the culinary clot took the lift to inform his boss of the incident, initially taking the lift to a higher floor than intended and then descending back to the intended floor. Unable to find the missing manager, our hero returned to the canteen, where he found the manager and, of course, the continually developing fire, with associated copious quantities of smoke.

At this stage, no one had yet operated the fire alarm system or contacted the fire and rescue service. Nor did they do so when the dynamic duo contacted the building’s security control, who merely dispatched a security officer to join the fun. When inappropriate fire extinguishers (the appropriate type were probably not visible in the smoke) failed to deal with the fire, the tenacious trio descended to ground floor, where the chef decided to operate the fire alarm system, which was programmed to sound an alert (rather than evacuate) signal throughout the building. Happily, the spread of smoke encouraged occupants to evacuate the building, and the fire and rescue service were ultimately summoned (an estimated 20+ minutes after discovery of the fire).

The point of this tale of potential disaster is simply that the potential never came to pass. The only casualty in the entire farce was the chef, who lacerated his hand when using it to smash the glass of an old-style break glass manual call point.

Built-in redundancy
If, as I believe to be the case, incidents of this nature are not uncommon, why is the number of fire deaths in non-domestic buildings almost negligible (certainly compared to other causes of accidental death)? The answer is almost certainly the ‘forgiving’ nature of traditional fire safety designs, the vast majority formulated in accordance with prescriptive codes of practice. Traditional fire safety codes may be unduly restrictive in some cases, and may, in some cases, ‘over-engineer’ the fire precautions, but they do have an unqualified amount of ‘fat’ that will save the day when management standards slip.

Why then do we place major emphasis on the role of fire safety management in the overall fire safety ‘package’. Quite simply because of the lessons of history. Many fire disasters demonstrate with horrible eloquence the effects of (usually multiple) shortcomings in the management of fire safety. The vast majority (some might suggest all) of serious multiple fatality fires in non-domestic buildings in the last half century or so have been associated with failures in fire safety management, sometimes with few, if any, failures in physical fire precautions. While we ‘get away’ with poor fire safety management in the majority of cases the corollary is that, statistically, if the poor standards are allowed to continue, one day luck will run out and another Summerland, Woolworths, Stardust, King’s Cross or Bradford will occur.

Moreover, we know from history that this can occur even in what might be regarded as a low risk situation and a fully code-compliant building. Arguably, the fire at Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast in 1984 was such a situation, when six people died in a short period of time on the ground floor of a local authority leisure centre, designed in accordance with relevant building regulations. Associated factors included an inappropriate fire procedure, inappropriate response by occupants, inadequate staff training and inadequate arrangements for liaison with the fire service on their arrival.

More generally, serious fire disasters often share many common aspects, such as:

  • Failure in fire prevention (resulting in the fire)
  • Inappropriate fire procedures and preparedness for fire
  • Delay in operation of the fire alarm system
  • Delay in summoning the fire and rescue service
  • Inappropriate response by occupants, including delay in evacuation
  • No one taking proper charge of the incident (certainly at an early enough stage)
  • Failure to manage the evacuation process

It is not only the traditional codes of practice that expect a reasonable standard of fire safety management, while offering no benefits for enhanced standards. The so-called ‘advanced’ approach of BS 9999 (which is itself, of course, a form of prescriptive code) specifies the level of management that should be provided for each ‘risk profile’, but affords no benefits for higher levels of management than those specified. (One of the many anomalies in this standard is that, in an early section, it promises, quite specifically, that an increased level of management of fire safety will, in a later section, permit variation in travel distance and door and/or stair widths. Happily, the promise is not fulfiled, and no such variation is offered in the latter section!). Indeed, the Level 1 management specified in the somewhat quasi-academic approach adopted in BS 9999 is such that it is impracticable for many organisations – particularly large, centrally managed groups where local premises are effectively managed from a head or regional office – nor do some of the Level 1 parameters afford any enhancement in fire safety.

There are, of course, now three different approaches that can be adopted in fire safety design, namely:

  • The general approach (e.g. that given, in England and Wales, by Approved Document B)
  • The advanced approach (namely that specified in BS 9999)
  • A fire engineering solution (using BS 7974 and its associated published documents)

It is only in the third of the above approaches that there is potential for management to form the major (or even the sole) basis for departure from the recommendations of prescriptive codes of practice. However it is, perhaps, appropriate to question whether designs that rely heavily on a management solution afford the equivalent level of safety to that afforded by a code-compliant solution.

Nothing new
The concept of management solutions is, of course, not new. While we often regard the attention now given to fire safety management (quite correctly, given the lessons of history discussed above) as very modern thinking, it is worthy of note that the syllabus of the very first fire engineering higher education in the UK (at Edinburgh University) in 1975 incorporated fire safety management as a significant component of the MSc syllabus.

A very simple example of a long accepted management solution is the time-honoured problem of the inward opening exit door. In premises where occupant numbers would normally demand an outward opening door, the accepted management solution has always been to fasten doors open at the times such numbers are on the premises (or even provide a doorman, ready to open the doors).

This simple example demonstrates a positive aspect of management solutions, namely the flexibility they can afford the designer, particularly in circumstances in which compliance with a prescriptive code would be impracticable, unsympathetic to the character of the building or unnecessarily expensive. Whereas the inward opening door can be pinned or unpinned according to circumstances, the door cannot be re-hung several times a week!

However, there is a worrying trend for fire engineers, often with little practical experience of how buildings are managed (or mismanaged!), simply to incorporate assumptions or even bold assertions into their designs, with the objective of varying (downward) the physical fire precautions specified in traditional, proven prescriptive codes. This, in itself, is not necessarily detrimental to fire safety, provided the assumptions and assertions are realistic and, where the end user is known, the capability of the end user in terms of management is properly researched. The extent to which this important caveat is unfulfilled is the cause for concern.

Perhaps this is the result of inadequate practical education of fire engineers, who appear to leave some degree courses capable of performing advanced mathematics and CFD modelling, but without a good understanding of building management. Equally, given that degree courses provide by definition education rather than training, it is possibly because of the shortage of qualified fire engineers that those with little experience of practical fire safety are permitted to run before they can walk.

When I first graduated in fire engineering, we lived in a world of almost total prescription. (I was rejected for my first job application by an ageing ex-fire officer for being unable to recite the travel distances for various occupancies, he being totally unimpressed by my mini ‘lecture’ on how Einstein claimed not to remember the speed of light, as he could look it up in a book.) Endeavours to circumvent prescriptive codes with academic ideas, based on inexperience, were given short shrift by the traditional old enforcing officer, be it a building control officer or fire officer.

We now appear to have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous in that enforcing authorities appear reluctant to challenge any solution designed by a fire engineer, provided it is described as a fire engineering solution. This includes solutions with major management components, provided as compensation for reductions in physical fire precautions.

What’s the objective?
Is the attraction of the ‘management solution’ to the fire engineer born of a desire to achieve a safer building in these cases? In my experience this is seldom the case. Often, the management strategy is born of an inability to resolve a design issue. This may be because of genuine constraints in the building design but may also be to suit a client’s requirements for use of the building, to create more lettable space or otherwise save costs or increase revenue. Worse still, I have known cases where the management solution is a last minute ‘fix’ to a design shortcoming identified at a late stage in a project.

If the fire engineer is only involved in the design stage, without any ongoing involvement in the building once occupied, it is just too easy for he or she to set unrealistic, impracticable or uneconomic management requirements. These are sometimes formulated in ignorance of the client’s managerial capability or the likely behaviour of the building occupants. These requirements may be not only uneconomic but, worse still, unachievable by the building occupier.

It is bad enough that these ‘quick fixes’ may result in a high cost of operating the building, but it may transpire that, in practice, the requisite standard of fire safety is not achieved because of unachievable assumptions in respect of occupant behaviours (e.g. pre-movement time), change of management, or long term frustration of management with operating arrangements they regard as impracticable.

Whereas a reduction in physical fire precautions subsequent to occupation would be a matter that would require approval under building regulations (and would be readily identifiable on inspection of a building), subtle reductions in management standards are less obvious and can hardly be described as building work that is subject to control.

To put these concerns into context, often the management solution is applied to complex buildings, such as shopping centres and public assembly buildings in which a high standard of management ‘goes with the territory’, and they may well lend themselves to a workable management solution. Equally, even in such premises, management can change and the buildings are those that potentially present a high risk to life. Moreover, there is a clear tendency by some fire engineers to take the same approach in less complex buildings (even small shops, offices, education buildings etc.), in which an unrealistic management solution may have a short lifespan.

Is there not a danger that we are forgetting the lessons of history in the face of client demands? The major single lesson is this: Far from relying heavily on management, given that history shows that this is a very vulnerable component of the fire safety package, should we not design ‘forgiving’ buildings which, as would appear to be the case in traditional design, allow many managerial shortcomings without the occurrence of a disaster?

I know many will regard these as the thoughts of a fire safety dinosaur, so I end with these thoughts for those faced with managerial solutions. The fact that someone calls a package a fire engineering solution does not make it a good solution. Management solutions should only be accepted after proper demonstration that the management strategy can be sustained (both practically and economically in the long term). Even if the management solution is achievable, there needs to be consideration of whether it is reliable. In the same way as a sensitivity analysis is applied to the potential for failures of physical fire precautions, it should be applied to management solutions. It may well be the case that this will show that minor changes can be highly detrimental to the ultimate safety of the building.

A final thought: We should be more worried about the ultimate effects of fire safety failures than about being considered insufficiently trendy.

Colin Todd is a specialist fire safety consultant and principal of CS Todd & Associates.

 

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[…] in place can save lives, having improper procedures can actually place lives at risk. A story by Colin Todd (2009) in the publication “Fire Safety Engineering” highlights the tendency in the United Kingdom to […]

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