Learning from past catastrophes: improving fire safety.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of one of the UK’s worst fire disasters. That’s when 56 people died at Bradford City’s football stadium. Over 250 other supporters from both Bradford City and Lincoln City were injured, many seriously.
The fire was most likely caused by a dropped cigarette or match. The same minor cause that started the Summerland disaster that I wrote about in my previous article.
The match or cigarette fell into a void area beneath one of the ground’s stands. The fire soon engulfed the whole structure, including the roof. Worse, people had to break down locked exits to escape.
That too echoes the Summerland and Paisley cinema fire disasters, and others internationally. Locked exit doors stop unauthorized access, but they also prevent escape.
The subsequent Popplewell Report introduced new safety legislation for sports grounds across the country. It is yet another example of “codifying by catastrophe.” How fire and other safety regulations have often come about because of tragedy.
UEFA also offers guidance, making clear that “major lessons have been learned from the fire-related stadium disasters of the past.” They insist upon active measures such as extinguishers and sprinkler systems. They also advise on passive measures such as fire sectorisation and fire doors.
Nowadays, major stadiums have crowd safety as their first design prerequisite. That covers everything from entrances and exits to major incident plans (MIPs) to deal with any eventuality. Not least, modern stadiums are built with lots of concrete, steel and fire-rated glass to minimise the risks posed by fire.
As we constantly point out, the main lesson for designers is not simply to build in passive and active fire systems. They must also look at the whole stadium or building’s capacity to withstand a fire.
For the glazed components, that means analysing the level of containment the glass will provide and its compatibility with its framing systems.
Those levels of containment are absolutely vital in places with very large numbers of people in a restricted area. In a fire, they may not always follow proper evacuation procedures. Evacuation models, based on engineering and computational tools, don’t necessarily reflect the variable nature of human reaction.
That’s why modern steel glazing systems are so important. Both for the exterior envelope of a building and for internal screens and fire doors. Our advanced glazing can provide up to 120 minutes of protection against the spread of fire, smoke or toxic gases.
The second fire I’d like to look at is the 1987 King’s Cross railway station fire. Again, it was most probably started by a discarded match. The source of the fire was an escalator shaft dating back to before World War II.
It was partially built from flammable wood and had not been cleaned since the 1940s. It was therefore covered in grease and filled with rubbish.
The fire claimed the lives of 31 people, including a fire fighter and a homeless man who wasn’t identified until 2004. Dozens more were injured.
However, the importance of the tragedy in the evolving story of fire safety is that its severity was initially inexplicable. There was a lack of visible flames, and the firemen first on the scene believed that it posed little threat. Indeed, fire-fighters later described it as being about the size and intensity of a campfire.
However, the situation rapidly became worse. The fire appeared to flash over and fill the ticket hall with flames and smoke. Fire-fighters trying to re-enter the ticket hall described conditions as similar to climbing into a volcano.
It was later shown that a combination of wind movements caused by underground trains arriving and leaving created a 12mph wind in a “piston effect.” This pushed air from the tunnels upwards and added to the speed of the fire spreading.
It took groundbreaking computer modeling and fire simulation, then in its infancy, to promote a new theory of fire development within inclined shafts.
That theory is called the trench effect. It involves hot gases in the buoyant plume lying along the escalator surface. The rapid airflow that caused the gases to move up the escalator eventually created an effect much like a flamethrower.
The subsequent Fennell Investigation prompted the replacement of all wooden escalators on the Underground. It also required the installation of automatic sprinklers and heat detectors in escalators. Also brought in were mandatory fire safety training for all station staff twice a year, and improvements in emergency services liaison.
It’s a station that Wrightstyle are proud to be associated with, having supplied high specification glazed components to the frontage of the redeveloped King’s Cross. We also supplied to ancillary developments in other parts of the station.
In addition, our large-span systems provide a safe evacuation route from the main administrative areas.
It’s a sector with which we are particularly familiar, having a wealth of experience from other UK transport infrastructure projects. We’ve also supplied to overseas transport contracts in Hong Kong and Dubai.
These are but some examples of major fires that have shaped legislation and building regulations. Other conflagrations have shaped legislation in, for example, theatres and hospitals.
At Wrightstyle, we have many years of designing, fabricating and installing protective glazing systems to mitigate against fire, smoke and toxic gases. We have a comprehensive range of internal and external steel glazing systems to protect against fire, radiant heat and smoke.
Our compatible systems, with the glass and steel framing systems tested together, are accredited to EU, US and Asia Pacific standards.
We therefore have unique experience in developing steel glazing solutions to make buildings safer, integrating the strength of steel with the aesthetics of glass.
It’s just a pity that it has often taken tragedy to bring in more and better fire safety regulations.