FIRE Comment October 2019

Timber-box building fears

In an era of hothouse political decision making, open conflict across the parties and a state of near constant meltdown, it would seem appropriate if unusual to call for calm, measured response to government announcements.

The Home Office’s proposal to reduce the requirement for sprinklers from 30 metres to 18 metres on all new high-rise blocks of flats has been met with open arms by the fire sector (see pg 41), countered by the need to go further with the likes of London Fire Brigade repeating calls for installation in all buildings housing vulnerable residents such as care homes or sheltered accommodation. The reason will become clear.

The cognitive dissonance in the fire sector comes from the pressing need to act now and the long-term legislative necessity of getting it right through changes to the consultation on Approved Document B of the Building Regulations and calls for evidence on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. However, identifying and filling the gaps right now is an urgent necessity that should ameliorate concerns.


‘In the skewered world of government statistics that will be recorded as a success; in the real world it can rightly be slotted into the near miss and disaster waiting to happen category’


Take the spate of timber framed building fires (see our special report on pg 13) that has rocked the collective conscious of fire safety campaigners, not least the Beechmore Care Home blaze in Crewe where 150 residents were evacuated. The decision to reverse the ‘stay put’ policy was critical. Even so and referring to previous FIRE investigations where owners were grossly underestimated egress of patients with mobility issue, this care home still took 50 minutes to evacuate. Just in the nick of time as the front of the property had started to collapse.

In the skewered world of government statistics that will be recorded as a success; in the real world it can rightly be slotted into the near miss and disaster waiting to happen category. Our correspondent quotes CFO Mark Cashin, Cheshire FRS, as stating that he believed that had the fire started a few hours later, after sunset, there could have been a significant body count due to the rapid spread of fire, limited visibility and the potential for confusion among the elderly residents.

A pressing debate at the Fire Sector Federation underlined the long-term consideration that there was no sign of improvement on modern methods of construction, there could easily have been considerable loss of life and the legacy of modern buildings is becoming increasingly questionable. Members moved to deliver recommendations on what good practice would look like, not least for the immediate benefit of residents and the production of a technically authoritative report. That most members are heavily involved in the aforementioned government consultations and Hackitt working groups, it is telling that urgent response was also high on the agenda. Also notable was that members spoke of citing international best practice to protect similar modern buildings.

The Swedish timber model cited at the end of our special report (see pg 16) highlights the comparative scarcity of timber framed fires – just 22 between 1998 and 2014 when statistically there should have been around 73 – perhaps due to Swedes being more conscious of the fire risk and the strong possibility that standards of construction are higher in Sweden. Our contributor cites: ‘There is no reason why timber frame buildings have to be any more risky than any other means of construction – the Swedes show this to be true – it is the systemic failure to enforce the law and its regulator that is at fault and not inherently the building’.

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