The risks of office fires

Whenever you turn out the lights of your hotel room or apartment, or get into a lift to your office, you automatically assume that you are going to come out again alive. Our peace of mind and safety is firmly based on the assumption that buildings are safe and that the correct maintenance has taken place to make sure they stay that way.

The law requires public buildings be constructed and maintained so if the worst comes to the worst and a fire breaks out, the exit routes are kept open, flames and smoke can’t travel unchecked and so that firemen can tackle the fire and get out again without serious injury or losing their life. We also all assume that this law is being strictly complied with.

The plain fact is that these assumptions are wholly unjustified. Even though we seem to live in a world that is obsessed with health and safety,  when it comes to putting it into practice we care very little about compliance and policing and basically uninterested in    making sure that fire safety is of paramount importance in public buildings.

This may seem blunt but the recent evidence clearly shows that we, as a nation, ignore much of the legislation. It’s open to debate whether this is due to laziness, ignorance, economy, incompetence or purely due to a misguided belief that it is somebody else’s responsibility.

As increasing numbers of prosecutions are brought for breaches of the 2005 regulations it’s becoming obvious it’s not safe to assume anything when it comes to built-in fire protection. It seems that there has to be a disaster – either death or large-scale destruction – before we wake up to reality. The cases detailed below are just the tip of the iceberg – if large scale and prestigious companies, or local authorities and even Government departments are getting it wrong, it’s likely numerous smaller ones are making the same mistakes.
Sometimes it’s just buildings which are lost – traumatic and devastating as that is – and sometimes it’s lives. The Government is convinced that current legislation is sufficient and appropriate, (and the fire safety industry agrees) but compliance and policing of the law are inadequate. The issues must be faced before more lives are lost and businesses destroyed.

These cases are not exceptions

It would be naïve to think that these cases are unusual – they are simply the ones who have been caught. It’s frightening to think how many other Lakanal Houses or Pacific Wharfs there might be around the country. It seems that it takes death or destruction to make people pay attention to built-in fire safety – faced with the effects of fire, it suddenly becomes important to check that fire safety measures do in fact exist. In the past, miners took canaries down the mines as early warning of dangerous gas. If the canary died the miner didn’t continue. The cases mentioned are like those canaries, indications that all is not well. No-one imagines that these are isolated cases – more likely the tip of the iceberg. It’s time for everyone concerned in the construction and maintenance of buildings to take responsibility and not assume anything. Better to be over-particular than to be the next dead canary.

The answer?

Problems have arisen from the extended chain of design, specification, purchase, assembly and installation – i.e. the steps leading to construction, each allowing a dilution of the original safety specification– and with the rather lax process of scrutiny and approval by the authorities because of clouded responsibilities and overworked resources The authorities responsible for approval are exposed to commercial pressures and market forces – perhaps not a good idea when public safety and public assets are at stake.
No one is claiming to have all the answers, but the core fire safety protection industry (genuinely qualified experts rather than self-appointed gurus), has already raised concerns and has come forward with a number of solutions that should be applied, including the use of third party certified manufacturers and installers
David Sugden, Chairman of the PFPF, is available for interview (contact details below).

The PFPF website ( can provide further information and guidance.

Recent cases which illustrate some concerns Trebor Bassett Holdings Ltd & Anor v ADT Fire and Security PLC

• Judgement in a court case brought after a fire which destroyed the Trebor Bassett/Cadbury factory in Pontefract was that Trebor Bassett should be compensated by the fire suppression system company, but reduced the damages payable from £110m to £25m because the confectionery company had negligently contributed to the loss by failing to provide adequate fire separation and a sprinkler system.

• Trebor Bassett (part of the Cadbury Group at the time), a prestigious company often held up as an example of excellent management, in fact had a completely chaotic approach to fire safety; incorrect assumptions were made at every level about compartmentation, what to do in case of fire, who was responsible for fire safety and the fire safety risk assessment, what fire suppression was in place, how to operate it and what it was expected to do.

• Departments within the company had no clear knowledge of their responsibilities.

• The operatives in the area where the fire started had no formal training or procedures to follow when faced with a fire.

• No-one compared the as-built plans with the requirements of the fire suppression system at the centre of the case.

• Nominated fire safety ‘experts’ attracted severe criticism from the judge by their failure to agree amongst themselves and to be as definitive and authoritative as they should be.

Lakanal House

• 6 people died when fire spread through the apartment block in June 2009.

• Fire broke out several floors above the source of the blaze, trapping and killing people who should have been safe if the compartmentation had been intact.

• Local authorities were forced to examine similar buildings and remedy the breaches in fire safety, at cost of millions of pounds.

• The criminal investigation into the fire is now (October 2011) at an ‘advanced stage’, according to the Metropolitan Police. They are still considering whether anyone should face criminal charges.

Pacific Wharf

• The luxury apartment block was found to have little or no built-in fire protection, despite the construction being passed by the building control inspector from the NHBC.

• The inadequate fire safety was discovered only by chance when investigations into a leaking roof led to a close inspection of the construction –.

• The whole building was a potential fire deathtrap. Individual flats were not separated by correctly constructed connecting party walls, while shafts ran from one apartment to another, acting as chimneys which would allow smoke to spread, affecting people nowhere near the source of the fire.

Eland House, Westminster HQ of the Department for Communities and Local Government

• Following a risk assessment in 2010 the building was found to be in breach of the latest fire safety legislation.

• Problems included: a faulty alarm system, emergency exits which would not open easily, poorly maintained smoke vents and no fire marshal being appointed.

• A risk assessment in May 2011 by a different external specialist identified further items for action and additional recommendations, which the department has addressed. 5 of the recommended 22 actions remain outstanding

• This is the department responsible for fire safety legislation in England and Wales. If they can’t get it right, who can?

London Borough Housing

A London Borough ordered new front doors for its social housing estates. Because substitutions had been made in the door hardware – specifically in the letterboxes – the fire resistance capability of the doors was seriously compromised. An official said at the time “Since the tragedy at Lakanal House London councillors have become very aware of the issues involved in fire safety. From my own experience I have seen how difficult it can be to match the fire tested, certified product with what is actually fitted. There are so many points at which the specification can be changed – the supplier substitutes what he believes to be a similar component, or the contractor uses an unqualified installer or, I’m sorry to say, someone along the line thinks they can get away with supplying an inferior product. My experience was with a visible fitting. I have to wonder what is happening with those elements which aren’t immediately obvious such as compartment walls or conduits for cables and pipes. Is the sealing adequate? Is the original installation still intact? It is an issue of great concern to us all.”