Freelance journalist

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Tilly worked as a lawyer for 14 years before deciding she wanted to combine a career in law with freelance journalism. She has recently completely her post-graduate diploma at the London School of Journalism. Tilly is presently completing an internship with a property portal and is also working as a legal consultant. She has written extensively on the topics of property and housing, social justice and legal aid and the legal profession.
June 28, 2016

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The Video Surveillance Report 2021

Vertical Cities: How to Safely Evacuate Tall Buildings

Gary Hicks of Evac + Chair, Middle East, after is talk on safe evacuation of tall buildings

Gary Hicks of Evac + Chair, Middle East, after is talk on safe evacuation of tall buildings

On New Year’s Eve last year, a five star hotel in Dubai became engulfed with flames that appeared to reach from the ground floor to floor 40 of the 63-floor building in almost no time.

Although miraculously no one was killed, those who escaped the Address Hotel reported people climbing over each other to get out and one man having to carry his disabled mother down the stairs. James Lane, head of fire engineering at BB7, explored the problems highlighted by the disaster for IFSEC Global.

Gary Hicks, of Evac + Chair, Middle East, meanwhile, started a talk at the FPA Fire & Evacuation Theatre in FIREX International 2016 by describing this incident as a salutatory reminder of how difficult it is to evacuate tall buildings safely.

“They are a vertical cities with only a couple of ways out, depending on the size of the building and the number of stairwells,” he explained.

When does a tall building need to be evacuated?

Gary said that detailed analysis of international trends found the main reasons for the evacuation of tall buildings were:

  • Earthquakes
  • Flood
  • Fire
  • Terrorism
  • Fire alarms
  • Vandalism
  • Building management failure

What are the problems encountered in evacuating a tall building?

Tall buildings are not designed for rapid, mass exit and stairs and lift shafts in such buildings are often narrow by necessity which can result in bottlenecks on the stairwells as too many people try to descend the building at once.

This problem is further compounded by the fact many tall buildings are what Gary described as “ancient structures” meaning they were not built for their present modern usage. However newer buildings may only have a prospective life span of say 20 years which means that maintenance could be a low priority for the owner.

Gary said that evacuations could be particularly challenging in mixed-use buildings. He explained that a “typical” building in Dubai, where he is based, will usually consist of 60 storeys – 20 floors each for commercial and residential use and the remaining storeys containing a luxury hotel.

However each section of the building could have their own evacuation procedures and trying to arrange fire drills with the different owners and occupiers of the building involved, where  a variety of different languages are spoken, can be extremely difficult.

He further added that unless buildings were properly compartmentalized, then a fire will quickly spread and “that is frightening”. Moreover sprinkler systems could only contain the fire within the building.

Information is vital

One of the key lessons learnt from the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001 was the scarcity of information available to fire personnel despite the buildings being fitted with smoke detection and alarm systems throughout.

Gary said that so often vital information is missing when it comes to real life evacuations, which could be as basic as how quickly the fire brigade can reach a particular building in an emergency. Gary said you needed to keep in regular tough with the local civil defence team, update them on any changes in the building or procedures and also seek their advice where appropriate.

He also emphasized it was essential to carry out regular site visits and inspections to tall buildings to continually evaluate and update the approved fire and evacuation procedures. This is despite the fact he had been told on many occasions that such action was unnecessary as you could just “do a fire risk assessment on line”!

Trained fire personnel on site

Gary said one of the most important thing was to have “resilient and robust” procedures in place with properly trained fire personnel on site who kept “training and doing drills”. It was also important to make sure there were sufficient duplication of fire marshalls in case one was away.

Key fire safety systems needed to be totally integrated with building features and incorporate features such as evacuation points and refuge areas for people to wait. It was also vitally important to ensure there was adequate fire safety and evacuation equipment in place such as evacuation chairs to transport the elderly and disabled people in case of a fire.

Careful consideration also needed to be given to what system to employ to ensure all occupants of the building were accounted for. Gary said this was particularly difficult because human nature meant that as soon as someone had left a building, they tended to go home and not stick around for a roll call.

“It is tough and there are no answers,” admitted Gary but said he believed the safest approach was a “buddy-buddy” system where people who work together “buddy” up. This was the safest way to account for people because co-workers were best placed to know if their colleague was in work that day.

New technology and building design will continue to emphasize the safety feature of tall buildings but there is no doubt that safe evacuation of such buildings continues to be a logistical challenge.

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Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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July 2, 2016 3:58 pm

Interesting but scary.  Echoes resound of Towering Inferno!