In depth

London 2012, the ATP Tour and the Kings of Leon incident: Fire safety at The O2

Charlotte Geoghegan

Head of Content, IFSEC and FIREX

Author Bio ▼

Charlotte Geoghegan (nee Wright) is Head of Content for the Protection & Management portfolio, which includes IFSEC and FIREX live events and IFSEC
May 18, 2017

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Paul Andrews, project manager at AEG Europe, has played a major role in the fire safety operation at The O2 in London.

Below he gives a detailed account of the fire protection/safety systems and fire-engineered strategy at the erstwhile Millennium Dome, including measures implemented for concerts, the 2012 Olympic Games and the ATP tennis tour.

IFSEC Global: Hi, Paul. Please tell us a bit about your role at the O2…

Paul Andrews: I’ve been working at The O2 since its opening in 2007.

For the first four years I worked in the in the building services team. My job was to maintain the fire alarm system and coordinate the maintenance of the other fire protection systems across the venue.

Unfortunately the venue had a serious fire incident in December of 2010.

The Kings of Leon were due to play a number of concerts, but on the first morning, whilst the production team were loading-in the stage, a tour bus caught fire in the arena’s service yard.

The fire was extinguished by the London Fire Brigade. Their swift actions, coupled with the efforts on the in-house teams, meant that the incident only lasted for a matter of hours on that fateful day.

Essentially the band still could have played that night, but the mutual decision was for the show not to take place.

Off of the back of that and due to other restructuring taking place,  the business created an enhanced role in the health and safety team, the role of fire safety manager, and since 2011 I’ve been in that role for AEG.

Both the building services and health and safety teams are part of the facilities department.

The O2 concourse (photo: Liam Daly under CC 2.0)

CW: What was the thinking behind this restructuring?

PA: I don’t know how well you know the changes in fire legislation over the last 10 years but, basically, in 2005 there was a change in UK fire legislation.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) was created and enforced in 2006.

For premises like The O2, prior to 2006 the London Fire Brigade would carry out an annual audit and issue a ‘fire certificate’ to say “everything’s OK”.

With the introduction of the new legislation this responsibility was placed back on the businesses and the employees (competent people) who work at the premises.

The implementation of the new legislation roughly coincided with the opening The O2.

IG: It’s quite an unusual structure you have to protect…

PA: The building [formerly the Millennium Dome] initially opened in 2000 for the Millennium Experience. It was only open for a year to celebrate the coming of the third millennium, but even today there are lots of bits about the building, infrastructure-wise, that we’ve inherited from the legacy of ‘The Dome’.

The building sits on the Greenwich Peninsula at the edge of South East London. Its western edge is passed by the Prime Meridian, which is the birthplace of time.

The O2 has 12 iconic yellow support masts that jut out from the fabric to represent the 12 months of the year and the 12 hours on a clock face

The building is constructed out of tensioned fabric over a skeleton of steel.

Of the many large domes worldwide which share this construction scheme, the Millennium Dome is one of the largest.

Symbolism was key to the design of the dome and there are many symbolic pieces of the structure. It has 12 iconic yellow support masts that jut out from the fabric that represent the 12 months of the year and the 12 hours on a clock face. This is an attempt to pay homage to the role of Greenwich mean time and the prime meridian.

The circular dome shape also has a diameter of 365 metres to represent the days of the year. The centre of the dome is a full 52 metres tall to represent the 52 weeks in each year.

Prince’s 2007 performance at the O2

IG: Can you give us an overview of fire safety tech and procedures in what is such an unusual building? 

PA: From a fire safety point of view, due to the bespoke design and construction, compliance with normal building regulations wasn’t exactly possible.

So we have what’s known as a fire-engineered strategy.

It’s a unique combination of comprehensive fire protection and detection systems, plus a strict set of fire safety management rules that have to be adhered to.

The venue has a number of perspex shutters that raise automatically when the fire alarm goes off and essentially they’re our final fire exits

The biggest challenge in terms of fire is because we are an enclosed environment, if we were to have a fire, how do we vent the smoke from The O2?

One of the legacy items from the dome design is right on top of the roof.

We have a number of smoke vents which open when the fire alarm is activated to assist with smoke ventilation.

In each one of the structural yellow support masts there’s a large smoke extract fan. These systems assist with the problem of venting the smoke out of the space if there is an incident.

Around the perimeter of the building we also have some unique assets from the history of the dome.

The venue has a number of perspex shutters that raise automatically when the fire alarm goes off and essentially they’re our final fire exits.

So they’re just some of the main – quirky – things that we’ve inherited from the old design of the Millennium Dome and that we have to maintain even now – almost 20 years later.

Inside the arena we’ve got pretty much the full complement of fire safety arrangements: a comprehensive, networked fire alarm system throughout the whole venue with a PAVA, audible warning system.

There are certain areas of the fire alarm system where we’ve got an aspirating type of smoke detection, called VESDAs [very early smoke detection apparatus]. That includes inside the auditorium itself at high level.

We’ve got a couple of areas inside the arena that have sprinkler coverage. One of those areas is the loading bay where we had the fire; the second area is the American Express invites lounge.

All kitchen canopies at the venue incorporate a UV filtration system, which use UVC rays to break down grease particles in extracted cooking smoke/air

Around the perimeter of The O2 is ‘The Avenue’, which is where all the bars and restaurants are – still inside the building!. All of the buildings there have sprinklers throughout.

Due to the higher risks associated with these premises – higher fire risk because of the kitchens and cooking activities – sprinklers are included to mitigate that risk.

As you can imagine we’ve got fire extinguishers in all areas of the site.

All the restaurants units on The Avenue and the catering kitchens in the arena have a special arrangement in terms of extraction, which is quite unique as well.

All of the kitchen canopies at the venue incorporate a UV filtration system, which use UVC rays to break down the grease particles in extracted cooking smoke/air.

IG: Is that common in restaurants in general?

PA: In some, but not others, but again, it’s one of the stipulations of our fire engineering strategy at the O2.

All 27 plus restaurants and bars have to follow our fire safety requirements inside The O2.

Prospective tenants may or may not have done it in their other restaurant franchises across the country but they had to comply here.

Entrance to Cineworld (photo: Zeisterre under CC by SA-3.0)

IG: What about firefighter access and evacuation routes?

PA: There are four main firefighting staircases in the arena. During an evacuation spectators would use one of these four protected staircases each, which also consist of a firefighting lift.

The O2 also has its own private fire hydrant water main onsite.

In terms of fire brigade access, having the luxury of those perspex shutters at regular frequencies around the perimeter means they can access where need be in the event of an emergency. They’re big enough to get a fire engine inside.

So there’s a clear route round the arena itself and around the perimeter of the venue. So they can utilise those fire hydrants and everything else.

IG: Have any particular events posed the biggest challenges?

PA: The biggest event that I’ve been lucky to part of to date was the Olympic Games in 2012, The O2 (was called the North Greenwich Arena for the duration of the Olympics) hosted the gymnastics and the finals of the basketball and the Paralympic basketball events as well.

For some of larger events like the Olympics, organisers can erect temporary structures to support the main event in the arena. In previous years, for the Brit Awards for example- they will build a marquee structure for an after show party.

Similarly for the world finals of the ATP tennis tour; hospitality structures & practice tennis courts and more are housed in temporary structures.

Each and every time, as per the requirements of our fire engineered strategy, a fire detection system will installed throughout all of those marquees. We work with an external fire design consultant to scrutinise all of the construction materials that are used to make sure that fire size/fire loading limits of the existing smoke ventilation systems are complied with and not exceeded.

It is very common for special effects to be part of the production for an incoming arena event.

Whether its pyrotechnics, lasers, water effects – all is demonstrated to the licensing team at Greenwich council.

CW: Do you have to work closely with LFB?

PA: Yes. Because of our fire engineered strategy and these rules and requirements that we have to enforce, the LFB have also enforced what’s known as an ‘alterations notice’ on the venue.

That’s not a bad thing, like the HSE handing out an improvement or enforcement notice.

An alterations notice means that if any physical or non-physical change to the existing fire precautions is planned, we have to notify the London Fire Brigade of how we plan to manage the risk. We may also notify our insurers, Greenwich building control and the Greenwich licensing team.

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