Tuesday, 24 June 2008

High Rise Buildings - Some Safety Considerations

This was written as part of a submission to Freddie Cohen at the time when high rise was on the agenda at the Waterfront. Given the height of Swansons building, I think it is still pertinent. I was once told by a fire officer that even with Les Marais, if a high fire broke out, forget being able to contain it. As it never found its way into details of submissions (very little did), here it is for all to read.

Safety Considerations

In his "Operational Aspects of High-Rise Firefighting", UK Fire Office Paul Grimwood researched firefighting experience in high-rise buildings and demonstrated that "many incident command systems and standard operating procedures for tall structures are based on out of date policies".

Where this is particularly relevant is in respect of the proposed "landmark" building of 15 stories. Some of the incidents he reports on occurred in buildings either of similar height or only marginally taller.

For instance, in 1996, due to welding work in an elevator shaft (maintenance and repair work), a fire broke out on the 16 storey Garland Building in Hong Kong, in which 39 people were killed, and 89 seriously injured. A helicopter was required to rescue more than 90 people who were in parts of the building inaccessible to conventional fire engine ladders.

In 1989, in Atlanta, in a 10 story office building an electrical fire killed 5 people, injured 23 others, and 6 firefighters. When the fire erupted, it immediately blocked the corridor, preventing escape from the two exits serving the floor. The fire demonstrated the need for automatic sprinkler protection for high rise buildings.

These demonstrate the need in high-rise buildings for precautions ("sprinkler systems, standpipes, fire detection systems, built-in fire protection systems"), and also the need for "a high level of co-ordination" and "a large commitment of resources" as "only with proper preplanning will familiarity with the response district be possible".

There is also dangers in stair-shaft negative pressures in high-rise buildings which "cause the fire to be 'sucked' out of the apartment or floor to head directly into the stair shaft" and which can be substantial. In 1998, an incident in a 10 story building involving negative pressure brought a fireball into the hallway claiming the lives of 3 fire fighters".

Grimwood comments that "Fires in high rise buildings everywhere have the potential to be one of the most challenging incidents to which we respond. The potential for loss of life is high"

If a decision is made to support a 15 story high-rise, it is certainly necessary both for the plans to be scrutinised by the fire department, and for the increased costs of fire drills and testing safety procedures which prudence would require.

Whether Jersey's fire fighting resources are indeed capable of tackling these kinds of problems needs to be considered, and an independent assessment by someone such as Paul Grimwood would make obvious sense. Planning must involve planning for safety, and the States have a moral duty of care to ensure that this is not overlooked in the rush to get ahead with development.

Selected References

Cohn, Roger, "High rise hell" (1985)

Grimwood, Paul, "Operational Aspects of High-Rise Fire Fighting" (2003)

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