FMLink Special Report: The London apartment fire — why is this important for facilities managers?

by Peter Kimmel, IFMA Fellow — June 19, 2017 — On June 14, 2017, a fire ripped through the Grenfell Tower, a low-income, 24-story London apartment building, leaving more than 50 people dead in its wake. The tragedy struck in the middle of the night, trapping the Grenfell residents in the building. The building housed around 400 people in 120 apartments.

Although firefighters were on the scene within minutes, the apartment fire, which started on the fourth floor, spread so quickly that it engulfed the entire building within hours. Witnesses said that they could see flames pouring out of every window. The London Fire Commissioner said that she “had never seen anything of this scale.”

The precise causes of the fire are still being investigated. The key questions are four:

  1. How did the fire start?
  2. Why did it spread so quickly?
  3. Could the residents have had more warning than they did?
  4. What could have been done to enable the residents to get to safety faster?

Several theories seem likely. What is important at this point for facilities managers is that regardless of the precise answers to the above questions, this devastating fire should be a wake-up call for all to examine their facilities and procedures that they have in place. In the case of the London tower fire, it is believed that many of the tragic consequences could have been avoided. Below, we’ll look at some of the leading theories about the fire. It is up to us to ensure that they do not apply to our facilities.

The cause of the fire

The apartment fire appears to have been caused by an electrical appliance, likely a refrigerator. This could happen in any facility. Given that something like this could happen anywhere in any facility, once it happens, what do FMs need to know to avoid such tragedy in their own facilities? A look at some of the theories and what we know about Grenfell Tower will help in the preparation of a plan.

The spreading of the fire

The speed of the spreading of the apartment fire appears to have been accelerated by materials that are highly combustible, namely composite panels used for exterior cladding on the building; the cladding was a polyethylene core sandwiched between coil-coated aluminum panels. In the United States, such materials are not permitted in jurisdictions that have adopted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, specifically NFPA 285, which evaluates the combustibility of exterior non-load-bearing wall assemblies. An option for this product is a fire-retardant mineral core with higher resistance to fire; it is not believed that the Tower used this product, which is recommended in buildings greater than 30′ (9 meters) tall. The fire-retardant option costs $0.24 (19 pence) more per square foot. The cladding was just installed in May 2016, reportedly as a means to improve energy efficiency. The Tower was completed in 1974.

The Grenfell Tower should be a call to action for facilities managers to examine the vertical penetrations for all high-rise facilities, whether they are in the interior or on the exterior of the facilities. This is especially true for buildings built prior to 2001, when the many fire codes started to get updated because of what had happened when the airplanes struck the World Trade Towers in New York City on 9/11. Duct and elevator shafts are particularly vulnerable and must be treated accordingly according to fire codes. It also is a time for jurisdictions to examine fire codes to ensure that they offer adequate protection. In the United States, it is up to each state and local governments to determine what shall be included in its building code, as not all follow NFPA 285 and other fire protection codes. Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, called for fire safety reviews of all public high-rise housing complexes.

Some organizations, such as the International Code Council, have developed model building codes and standards, designed to construct safe, sustainable and resilient structures. Many global and U.S. markets choose to use the International Codes — there are multiple codes that have been developed, including the International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC).  The IBC is in use or adopted in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and in portions of Central America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, among other places; the IFC is in use in 42 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (excluded are Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia).

Fire warning systems; emergency preparedness

Building residents had long complained that there were inadequate fire alarms and emergency exits. It also was reported that the fire sprinklers were non-existent in many places; in a 2012 report, the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said that sprinklers could be retrofitted, but, according to residents, at considerable cost and disruption. This led to the worst combination of flames spreading quickly, an inadequate warning system, and nowhere for residents to go to escape.

In today’s high-rise buildings, the installed fire and life safety systems, including automatic fire sprinkler protection as well as alarms and voice communication systems, are designed to control a fire and thus lessen the need to evacuate all occupants. Other than the floors immediately above and below the floor with the fire, it often is recommended that occupants remain on their floors and await further instructions; those on the floors immediately above and below the fire should use the exit stairs to descend to a floor level several floors below the lowest floor with the fire. Otherwise, stairwells are not recommended as they can entrap smoke in them.

Of course, all the above recommendations are predicated on the building’s having the appropriate fire alarm and sprinkler systems in place, as well as a building that satisfies fire code. The Grenfell Tower building did not have many of the above safety redundancies, such as working sprinklers and multiple exit stairwells.

As part of a building’s emergency preparedness plan, occupants must become familiar with the egress routes through regularly scheduled fire drills at least once a year. The NFPA 101 Life Safety Code requires such drills. The NFPA also recommends that each high-rise building have written evacuation procedures; the procedures must identify clearly:

  1. The actions to take.
  2. When to take them.

Getting to safety from the fire

There appeared to be only one fire-rated stairwell for the Grenfell Tower residents, and, according to residents, many of the corridors leading to stairwells had debris and building equipment stored in the corridors, causing a major egress problem.

The NFPA has considerable information on its Web site regarding building egress, which it states should be communicated to the occupants in writing. Here is a summary of some of its key points for high-rise buildings:

  1. Since exiting down stairs can take a long time, does the roof make sense as a go-to place?
    The only rescue solution from the roof is a helicopter, one may not ever come, and you will have wasted valuable time going up to the roof. Helicopters can also be dangerous in the case of fire (due to large thermal currents generated by heat from the fire).
  2. Should elevators be used?
    Most buildings lock their elevators on a designated floor in the event of a fire. Elevators can malfunction and the shafts are a place for smoke to travel through the building, thereby exposing its occupants to the smoke.
  3. What should occupants in wheelchairs or with other disabilities do?
    If possible, get to a refuge area; facilities managers should identify such spaces on floors and provide instructions to those with disabilities. Refuge areas are often stand-alone, barriered compartments on the floor or be oversized landings on the stairwells. Such spaces should have a two-way communication device. Buddy systems are also useful.
  4. If the situation becomes untenable, should one break a window? Jump?
    If you feel trapped and there is no way out through the fire, try to find an area where the door can be closed and the cracks can be sealed (to keep out the smoke). Use a telephone if possible to let the fire department know your exact location in the building. Be patient, as it can take a long time for rescuers to arrive in a high-rise building. Breaking a window is not advisable, as smoke can enter the building, and broken glass can injure fire personnel as well as sever their hoses; however, if a window is operable, it is ok to open it a bit to let fresh air in, and then be prepared to close it as soon as smoke enters. If you see fire personnel, shine a light toward them (such as a light from your phone) to let them know where you are located.
  5. What should I do if a neighboring high-rise is on fire?
    As a rule, you should stay put, but remain vigilant and be prepared to evacuate your building. Usually, there will be time for fire personnel to issue such instructions should the fire become a threat to your building.