Fires shaping safety regulations.
Fires shaping safety regulations in the UK stretch back to William the Conqueror in the 11th century who required house fires to be extinguished at night.
The easiest way to put out those fires, generally in the centre of the main room, was to cover it with a metal pan.
This “couvert feu” is the basis for the word curfew.
As with William the Conqueror, it has often taken major fires to shift attitudes and change fire regulation.
Perhaps the best-known fire is the 1666 Great Fire of London. In its aftermath, new fire regulations meant that the upper floors of houses were no longer permitted to jut out over the floor below.
Also, all houses or buildings had to be built in brick or stone. And new fire prevention regulations required easy access to water and the beginnings of a fire hydrant system for the city.
Codifying by catastrophe is therefore nothing new and examples can be found in every kind of building or structure.
But let’s look at some more recent examples that have changed regulations in specific sectors.
First, we all enjoy a visit to the cinema once in a while. However, the history of fire safety in cinemas has been haphazard at best.
Maybe that was inevitable as the new-fangled cinema was something that took the world by storm in only a few years.
That popular storm only really started in the 1880s. London’s first cinema, the Kineopticon, was destroyed by fire shortly after its opening in 1896.
Nor was that fire the only one. Films were often shown in temporary venues such as music halls or converted shops.
It was, of course, the film material itself. This was made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate which, under bright lights, could quickly become unsafe.
The 1909 Cinematograph Act required projectors to be enclosed within a fire-resistant enclosure. Stricter building regulations were also introduced, and local authorities were given powers of inspection.
But it was the 1929 Glen Cinema fire in Paisley, Scotland that really shifted regulations. 71 children died. Once again, it was the nitrocellulose film that was to blame.
As in too many other disasters, people – mainly children – clamoured to the exits, only to find that they either only opened inwards or had been padlocked shut to prevent unauthorised entry.
This fire is still the worst cinema disaster in UK history.
Outward opening doors
In its aftermath, the 1909 Act was rewritten to regulate again on the numbers of fire exits, outward opening doors, and such issues as cinema capacity. These were all issues that previous theatre and music hall legislation had addressed.
The repercussions of the fire spread around many parts of the world, mainly the requirement for outward opening doors. This has been a frequently ignored refrain in the litany of fire tragedy and disaster.
The worst fire disasters generally take place in spaces that large numbers of people have congregated. That can be a large office block, cinema, shopping centre or railway station.
My second fire is also pleasure-related, and which remains the worst disaster in the history of the Isle of Man.
It changed building regulations across the country because, most tragically, poor design and inappropriate building materials allowed a minor fire to become a major conflagration.
The centre boasted everything from an indoor heated swimming pool to saunas and Turkish baths. It had seven floors and the building had a capacity for more than 5,000 people.
On the evening of Thursday 2nd August 1973 an estimated 3,000 people were enjoying themselves at the resort.
But three schoolboys on holiday from Liverpool were smoking at the back of the building next to a dismantled fibreglass kiosk. The fire they inadvertently set off killed 50 people and gutted the complex.
The building’s open-plan design included many internal spaces that simply acted as chimneys to spread the fire.
In the rush to escape, many were crushed and trampled because of, yes, locked exit doors. Many others then made their way to the main entrance, causing further crushing.
If that wasn’t bad enough, emergency lighting failed after the main electrical supply was mistakenly turned off and the emergency power generator failed to start.
The main factors in the tragedy – inappropriate building materials, lack of compartmentation and protected escape routes – all came under scrutiny in the subsequent public enquiry.
No individuals or groups were blamed. But changes to building regulations to improve fire safety were introduced nationwide and, soon afterwards, internationally.
Central to those changes were better approaches to contain fire and ensure that escape routes were protected – areas that Wrightstyle, with our advanced steel glazing systems, have particular experience and expertise.
In the second part of this article, I’ll take a look at the Bradford City and King’s Cross station disasters.