Fire disasters like the Grenfell Tower tragedy have prompted many fire departments around the world to re-examine the ways in which they deal with fires in tall buildings.
By Joana Duque McFadden
With a growing population, more and more high-rise buildings are being built in cities globally. However, fire disasters like the Grenfell Tower tragedy have prompted many fire departments around the world to re-examine the ways in which they deal with fires in tall buildings – and with good reason.
In the early hours of June 14, 2017, a fire erupted from the fourth floor of the Grenfell Tower – a 24-storey residential high-rise comprised of 129 public housing flats – in the North Kensington, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea neighborhood of West London, England. The fire, which ignited unintentionally from a fridge freezer, engulfed the entire building for two and a half days. This required the assistance of 40 fire engines and more than 200 firefighters, with rescue efforts supported by the Metropolitan Police Service, the London Ambulance Service crews and London’s Air Ambulance. The rapid growth of the fire, which was accelerated by the building’s exterior cladding, led to a total of 71 deaths and 70 injuries (Metropolitan Police News, 2017). Many factors played a key role in this tragedy that has led other countries to reevaluate their building regulations and modern fire suppression tactics.
In the aftermath of the fire, it was uncovered that the high-rise was not built with “fire resistant” materials or equipped with a proper sprinkler system, nor did it have a fire alarm within all floors to alert occupants to take action – all critical technologies that are meant to be in place to make residents less vulnerable to fires (Rogers, 2017). Following the discovery of the building’s lack of defense mechanisms, it was also revealed that the emergency services efforts to control the fire were hampered in various ways. When the first fire engines arrived on the scene, a 30-metre high aerial ladder needed to reach the 10th floor was not readily available and only dispatched when the fire reached 70-metres high, rendering the ladder useless. Making matters worse, there was low water pressure. As well, an overuse of the radio system made it difficult for firefighters to communicate and receive a proper signal through several floors of concrete (Grant, 2017). From a preparedness standpoint, the combination of these factors increased the risk to the loss of life and of property.
As we continue to develop our urban environments, it is important to minimize the likelihood of a major fire within high-rise buildings. Although most parts of the world may still build high rises with cladding, it falls on the fire departments to reconsider a more modern approach to tackling such risks. Fire Science researchers like Stephen Kerber, Dan Madrzykowski, and Paul Grimwood, to name a few, are paving the way by leading fire services around the world to reexamine fundamental practices by introducing modern suppression tactics suitable to combating high-rise residential fires (Roman, 2014). This has essentially led parts of the world like New Zealand, who do not have many high-rise buildings, to not only amend their building regulations to exclude cladding – an accomplishment before the Grenfell Tower fire – but also equipping their fire services with the necessary tools for suppressing future fires in tall buildings.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it not only highlights a social and political issue but also presents fire departments around the world with a lesson on fire suppression, one that may surely save lives and property moving forward.
Grant., H. (2017) ‘Lack of equipment ‘hampered Grenfell rescue effort’’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/08/lack-of-equipment-and-low-water-pressure-hampered-grenfell-rescue-ef
fort (Accessed: March 26, 2018)London Fire Brigade. (2017) ‘Grenfell Tower Fire Updates’, London-fire.gov.uk. Available at: http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/LatestIncidentsContainer_grenfell-tower-fire-update-15-june-2017.asp (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Martin,. J. (2017) ‘After Grenfell Tower fire, U.S.-based group develops tool aimed at making buildings safer’, The Toronto Star. Available at: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/12/13/after-grenfell-tower-fire-us-based-group-develops-tool-aimed-at-making-buildings-safer.html (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Metropolitan Police News. (2017) ‘Number of victims of the Grenfell Tower fire formally identified is 70’, met.police.uk. Available at: http://news.met.police.uk/news/family-tributes-to-victims-of-grenfell-tower-fire-247006 (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. (2017) ‘Changes to fire safety design requirements will help save lives’, mbie.govt.nz. Available at: http://www.mbie.govt.nz/about/whats-happening/news/2017/changes-fire-safety-design-requirements-save-lives (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. (2017) ‘Changes to fire safety requirements for external cladding systems’, Building.govt.nz. Available at: https://www.building.govt.nz/about-building-performance/news-and-updates/codewords/codewords-issue-77/changes-fire-safety-external-cladding/ (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Radio New Zealand. (2017) ‘London fire: Same cladding likely to be on NZ buildings’, radionz.co.nz. Available at: https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/world/333089/london-fire-same-cladding-likely-to-be-on-nz-buildings (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Rogers,. A. (2017) ‘The enduring problem of fighting high-rise fires’, Wired Magazine. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/london-fire-the-enduring-problem-of-fighting-high-rise-fires/ (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Roman,. J. (2014) ‘New fires, new tactics’, NFPA Journal. Available at: https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications/NFPA-Journal/2015/January-February-2015/Features/Fire-Tactics (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Smith,. N. (2017) ‘Cladding rule changes make NZ high-rises safer’, National.org.nz. Available at: https://www.national.org.nz/cladding_rule_changes_make_nz_high_rises_safer (Accessed: March 26, 2018)
Joana Duque holds a Bachelor’s degree in Disaster and Emergency Management with a minor in Geography from York University. Prior to that, she obtained a Journalism Print Diploma from Sheridan College. She is currently attaining a Project Management Certificate in the stream of Community and Health Service Management from Ryerson University. Her curiosity in emergency management came out of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster. As such, her interests lie in exploring various countries and their varied hazardscapes, and learning how best to prepare and mitigate for such hazards before a disaster occurs. This led her to a six-week national expedition and internship program through Massey University in New Zealand where she did an internship with the Fire and Emergency New Zealand National Operations’ offices to learn what makes communities resilient and how they implement disaster risk reduction methods. She currently lives with her husband in Toronto, Canada. Joana is a freelance contributor for HazNet.