What lessons can be learned from the Kemerovo fire?

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Operations manager, Invicta Fire Protection

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Invicta Fire Protection is a specialist division of The Invicta Group and the world's leading installer of 4 hour passive fire protection systems using Promat Durasteel.
April 12, 2018

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(Image: Vladimir Putin meets Kemerovo citizens in the aftermath (Credit: :Kremlin.ru, under CC BY 4.0))

Coverage of a recent event in Russia will have borne a sickening familiarity for viewers in the UK.

We may one have complacently thought that the kind of tragedy that unfolded at the Kemerovo shopping centre in Russia on 25 March, killing upwards of 64 people, would not take place in the UK. But the Grenfell Tower fire has changed the landscape and reiterated the need for the strongest possible protections against fire.

Luckily, such tragedies occur infrequently, and the only good thing about them is the changes they often bring about in laws and practices. Whether or not these changes are implemented with due speed and rigour in Russia, the Kemerovo fire has much to teach us about the importance of proper procedures and protections, the way we react to fires, and the vigilance required against corner-cutting landlords.

How the fire happened

Investigations into the Kemerovo fire are still at a preliminary stage, and so it’s difficult to draw absolute conclusions. The cause of the fire is still disputed; some officials have suggested a child may have used a lighter, although past fires in Russia have often been narrowed down to faulty wiring and electrics.

A consistent picture has however emerged based on witness testimony, and the initial findings of investigators and fire crews at the scene.

Witnesses attest that the fire began in the children’s trampoline room, part of a larger play area on the top floor of the shopping centre. This area was next door to a three screen cinema, with a fitness club, bar and billiards pool on the opposite side.

Parents would reportedly leave children to play in these top floor areas while they went to play pool, worked out or went bowling on the floor below.

Witnesses report there being no fire alarms, with people only evacuating due to the shouts of others or having seen the smoke and fire

Patrons – mostly children – quickly left the trampoline area as the fire spread. Witnesses report there being no fire alarms at any point, with people only evacuating due to the shouts of others, or having seen the smoke and fire.

Reports from the cinema suggest that the fire escapes here were locked to prevent people from sneaking into the movies. These were apparently not opened until a late stage of the fire, despite offering access to the outside.

The Zimnyaya Vishnya complex after the fire credit (sfo.gov.ru under CC BY 4.0)

Immediate lessons

The reason for the fire alarm not sounding was, apparently, that it didn’t work. A technician had disabled the system some weeks prior due to a fault, and no effort had apparently been made to repair it.

This is an obvious point but a crucial one: if any fire safety provision isn’t functioning – especially the alarm system – your facility should not be in operation. Everything else should be dropped in order to prioritise its repair and ensure its full functionality.

The fire door situation may seem astounding, but these issues are more common than you’d think. When people do not consider the threat of a fire, they tend to treat fire doors like any other.

Doors are often seen propped open, poorly fitted, chained or otherwise obstructed. The role of fire exits and fire doors cannot be understated, but is very often confused, and frequently underappreciated by untrained staff.

A fire exit is a point of emergency egress to the outside of a building, typically signposted with emergency lighting and clear signage. Fire doors are internal doors, used both to signpost exit routes and to prevent the spread of fires to these routes.

A fire door may look like a regular door, but is in fact comprised of multiple fire resistant components and interlocking parts. Failing to close them or leaving them in a state of disrepair can seriously compromise critical routes out of a facility, while locking them invalidates these routes altogether.

There is also the issue of fire marshals and other staff, who might have been able to offer guidance and assistance when the fire started. Although there is no legal definition of whether a building is ‘high risk’ in the UK, it’s likely that a large shopping centre with combustible materials and a high proportion of unsupervised children would fit the bill.

The premises should have had at least one fire marshal per floor, with more according to the business’ discretion. Positioned in key areas, they would surely have helped to shepherd people towards the exits and away from danger.

Negligence and behaviour

Of course, one of the factors which can undermine this advice is how we behave when confronted with fire. This is particularly pertinent in this case, where many of the structural elements we associate with an emergency – i.e. the fire alarm and staff presence – were not there.

Faced with this absence of structure and reassurance, as well as the conditions of the fire, people are liable to panic and make poor decisions. This can hamper even a well implemented evacuation plan.

From initial reports, negligence, poor planning and shoddy construction also seem to have been factors. These should be eliminated by strong regulations and frequent inspections, but are not always malicious, or even deliberate cost-saving measures.

Sometimes people make mistakes, or simply don’t realise the impact of their actions. Proper fire safety training and frequent drills for all staff are critical. They will not only prepare them in the event of a fire, but also make them more aware of fire hazards, and encourage them to report and address them promptly.

The spontaneous and unusual nature of this fire, in particular, reiterates the value of training. We may have ideas about what we would do in that situation, and there may be logical steps to evacuate safely and in an orderly manner.

But without the confidence and certainty that training provides, staff may not feel comfortable organising themselves even in a structured evacuation. In an emergency scenario where they may have to improvise, trained staff are more capable of taking control, and using the knowledge they have to come up with safe alternatives.

Ultimately, the Kemerovo fire and others like it demonstrate the need to be as prepared as possible. Thinking that it’s fine to leave the fire alarm broken for a day or two, or that a fire door is ok to prop open temporarily, simply isn’t good enough.

Safety should never be chanced with, and must always take precedence over financial considerations. Businesses, governments and individuals must continue to band together to make safety a logical and cost-effective choice, and to report and identify hazards when they happen, not when they lead to something worse.

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