In a two-part article, Denis Wright, our chairman, looks at a worrying trend to compromise fire safety standards.
The International Technical Committee for the Prevention and Extinction of Fire (CTIF) estimates that the annual cost of fire damage adds up to 1% of international GDP or €400 billion.
But in the UK, and across much of the developed world, there continues to be a gradual fall in fire fatalities.
In England in the year to March last year, fire and rescue services attended 564,827 incidents.
That was a 1% increase over the previous year (560,453) but a 29% decrease compared with ten years ago.
Of those incidents, 167,150 were fires, a 3% increase over the previous year (161,997). However, again, it was a 43% decrease compared with ten years ago (293,920 in 2007/08).
Also, the number of fire-related fatalities had been on a general downward trend since comparable figures first became available in 1981/82.
In that year, there were 755 fire-related fatalities.
In 2017/18, there were 334 fire-related fatalities, including 71 from the Grenfell Tower fire.
That compares with 263 in the previous year (an increase of 27%).
The reason for this overall safer environment is stricter building regulations and fire safety standards. They cover both passive and active fire safety measures.
That involves everything from better detection systems to catch the fire early to better sprinkler systems to put it out.
However, a worrying trend has begun to emerge. Specifications for fire resistance are being “watered down” by developers and contractors.
We have first-hand experience of original glazing specifications for 60 minutes of integrity and insulation being tendered for 30 minutes. And sometimes without the insulation.
The insulation element stops heat from passing through the glass, and therefore also stops secondary fires breaking out.
The reason given is that 60 minutes isn’t required to safely evacuate a building. But the real reason as everyone knows is cost.
An advanced glazing system for 30 minutes costs less than one for 60 minutes. That adds up to greater profit for the contractor or developer.
Our view is that saving money against an architectural specification undermines the design process on which that building’s ultimate fire safety depends.
If a fire breaks out, people should be given the longest-possible time to escape.
The issue is evacuation time because it can take significantly longer to evacuate a building than computer modelling often estimates.
Studies show that many occupants won’t take the fire alarm seriously, particularly if false alarms have sounded before. Or they will want to finish what they’re doing first.
That period is known as “start-up time” and adds considerably to the time needed to evacuate a building.
It’s an important issue that I’ll be looking at it in more depth in my second article.