limited Fire Safety Objectives of legal regulations/codes

2009 Camberwell Fire – Today’s Fire Engineering Challenges

In Ireland, it is rarely the case that there is an opportunity to practice Rational, Evidence-Based Fire Engineering … and to apply its Principles in a manner which is both professional and project-specific.  The grim reality of everyday fire consultancy revolves around playing ‘cat and mouse’ with current national building and fire regulations/codes … with ‘cost effectiveness’, i.e. to achieve a defined objective at the lowest cost, or to achieve the greatest benefit at a given cost … being the real, hidden driver behind such dangerous games !   Who wants to hear that the Irish Fire Safety Certification System is little more than a charade … an elaborate, resource consuming paper exercise … made all the more meaningless because Part B: ‘Fire Safety’ (of the Second Schedule to the 1997 Building Regulations, as amended) is isolated from a necessary and vital consideration of the other Parts, particularly Parts A: ‘Structure’; D: ‘Materials & Workmanship’; K: ‘Stairways, Ladders, Ramps & Guards’; and M: ‘Access for People with Disabilities’ ?


Colour photograph showing an external view of Lakanal House, Sceaux Estate, Camberwell, London (GB) ... after the Fatal Fire which occurred at 16.19 hrs, on 3rd July 2009. The fire was caused by a faulty television set, and resulted in the loss of 6 lives, with 15 residents and 1 firefighter left injured. London Fire Brigade was required to assist the evacuation of a further 40 building occupants to safety. Along with the serious loss of life, and the large number of injured people ... over 90 families had to vacate their flats.
Colour photograph showing an external view of Lakanal House, Sceaux Estate, Camberwell, London (GB) ... after the Fatal Fire which occurred at 16.19 hrs, on 3rd July 2009. The fire was caused by a faulty television set, and resulted in the loss of 6 lives, with 15 residents and 1 firefighter left injured. London Fire Brigade was required to assist the evacuation of a further 40 building occupants to safety. Along with the serious loss of life, and the large number of injured people ... over 90 families had to vacate their flats.


Discussing the Principles of Fire Engineering … and elaborating on the significant differences between the limited Fire Safety Objectives of legal regulations/codes … and the much broader range of Fire Engineering Design Objectives intended to fully protect social wellbeing and the interests of clients/client organizations, i.e. to properly protect their asses and their assets, in the event of a fire … is a constant, tortuous, but rewarding, struggle.  Masochism does help !

However, the 2009 Fire in a High-Rise Flat Complex at Camberwell, London (GB) … from just looking at the photograph above and reading available information about the spread of fire internally … raises some challenging fire engineering issues for building designers, property managers and construction organizations.

1.  Reliability of People Strategies in a Fire Emergency ?

In spite of the People Strategies elaborated in current Fire Codes/Regulations/Standards … it is totally and utterly irresponsible to advise people to wait in their own flats/apartments during a fire incident, or to develop fire safety strategies based on this approach … unless the confidence level (of ‘Competent Persons’ in Control … managers, designers and builders … of the flat/apartment complex) with regard to the following aspects of construction is very high

  • reliability of both passive and active fire protection measures ;
  • reliability of fire compartmentation (see below) ;
  • reliability of not just the building’s structural stability, but also its serviceability, during the fire and for a minimum period of time afterwards, i.e. the ‘cooling’ phase.

Competent Person:  A person capable of making sound value judgements in the area of professional  endeavour in which he/she possesses profound knowledge, understanding and practical experience.

Fire Codes/Regulations/Standards, wherever or whatever their origin, are NOT Infallible … and it is unbelievably mind-boggling, and sad, to witness a blind and unquestioning faith in such documents !

Looking beyond the headline figure of 6 Fatalities in the 2009 Camberwell Fire … adequate attention should also be focused on the 16 Injured … comprising building occupants and firefighters … the lengthy disruption of community wellbeing resulting from the fire … 90 Families had to be re-located … and, of course, the tremendous amount of direct and indirect damage to property and the environment.  And, I wonder … how did the more vulnerable occupants … and there may also have been visitors present in the complex at the time … cope in this emergency situation ?

This is why Fire Safety, Protection and Evacuation for All must be a Priority on any ‘Sustainability’ Agenda


2.  Independent Technical Control of AHJ Construction ?

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating here again … Self-Regulation Is No Regulation !   Surely this lesson has been burnt into our souls, following the recent scandals, financial and otherwise, in Ireland ?   National and Local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s) … Government Departments & Agencies, Semi-State Organizations, a myriad of Qwangos, the Office of Public Works and Local Authorities are complacent, careless and stubborn concerning proper compliance with even the minimal performance requirements specified in fire regulations, codes and standards.

The 2005 & 2008 National Institute of Standards & Technology (USA) Reports on the 9-11 WTC Incident in New York presented us with some stark language … and a set of important Recommendations which must be heeded …

‘ NIST recommends that such entities be encouraged to provide a level of safety that equals or exceeds the level of safety that would be provided by strict compliance with the code requirements of an appropriate governmental jurisdiction.

To gain broad public confidence … NIST further recommends that as-designed and as-built safety be certified by a qualified third party, independent of the building owner(s).  The process should not use self-approval for code enforcement in areas including interpretation of code provisions, design approval, product acceptance, certification of the final construction, and post-occupancy inspections over the life of the buildings.’

[2005 NIST Final Report on WTC 1 & 2 Collapses – Recommendation No. 25]

Later posts, here, will examine the individual NIST Recommendations in more detail.

However … many individuals and organizations, with vested interests, are still trying to discredit and/or ignore the Recommendations contained in the 2005 & 2008 NIST Reports on the WTC 9-11 Incident.   British Standard BS 9999:2008 is a typical case in point … a document which is slowly seeping into the marrow of the Irish Fire Establishment.  The complete and abject failure to consider any of the NIST Recommendations during the long development of this British Standard, or even to reference the Reports in the Standard’s Bibliography … was an inexcusable and unforgivable technical oversight.  The result was … and remains … a sloppy, crassly inadequate, deeply flawed and discriminatory national fire safety standard.  The British Public deserves far better !

At this stage … reluctantly … I must invite the Chair of British Standards Institution Committee FSH/14, Mr. David B. Smith, to seriously re-consider his position. 

3.  Fire Resistance, Compartmentation & Fire-Induced Progressive Collapse ?

Every person participating in the design, construction, management or operation of a building, no matter how simple or complex, must have a working knowledge and proper understanding of the Fire Engineering Principle of Fire Compartmentation:

The division of a building into fire-tight compartments, by fire and smoke resisting elements of construction, in order …

–   to contain an outbreak of fire ;

–   to prevent damage, within the building, to other adjoining compartments and/or spaces ;

–   to protect a compartment interior from external fire attack, e.g. fire spread across the building’s facade or from an adjacent building ;

–   to minimize adverse, or harmful, environmental impacts outside the building.


BUTButbut … buildings are no longer designed and constructed, today, as they were in the 18th or 19th Centuries …

In a fire situation, Fire-Induced Progressive Collapse may commence before any breach of ‘integrity’ occurs in the boundary of such a Fire Compartment, i.e. the building compartment of fire origin.

Fire-Induced Progressive Collapse:  The sequential growth and intensification of distortion, displacement and failure of elements of construction in a building – during a fire and the ‘cooling phase’ afterwards – which, if unchecked, will result in disproportionate damage, and may lead to total building collapse.

… which is related to, but distinguishable from …

Disproportionate Damage:  The failure of a building’s structural system … (i)  remote from the scene of an isolated overloading action ;   and (ii) to an extent which is not in reasonable proportion to that action.

Structural Fire Engineering:  Those aspects of fire engineering concerned with structural design for fire, and the complex architectural interaction between a building’s structure and fabric, i.e. non-structure, under conditions of fire and its aftermath.


ANDAndand … a designer of a Sustainable Building will want to utilize … in order to conserve energy … natural patterns of air movement for heating or cooling.  This means that it will be necessary to have gaps between elements of construction which are continuously open … in direct conflict with the Principle of Fire Engineering just quoted above !

What happens when this sort of conflict … or lack of resolution (!) … occurs in modern, highly energy-efficient construction projects ?   At the final stages of approval/certification … the Fire Prevention Officer will insist on following the outdated prescriptive approach in his/her rulebook.  In other words, he/she will illegally apply the guidance text of Technical Guidance Document B as if it were prescriptive regulation.  Fire Compartmentation will be uncompromisingly slapped onto ‘unresolved’ areas of a completed building design … to achieve the limited Fire Safety Objectives of Building Regulations … and the fire safety related construction will probably be badly executed, anyway, because the un-supervised sub-contractors of sub-contractors of sub-contractors couldn’t care less if it goes one way or the other !   The outcome is … nobody wins !!!

In Sustainable Building Design, therefore, Fire Resistance (a ‘passive’ protection concept) must not only be extended to consider a complementary relationship with ‘active’ fire protection concepts, but be stretched … ‘intelligently’ … to embrace the concept of ‘non-construction’ …

Building Sterile Space (Fire):  An open space of sufficient and appropriate extent which is designed to retain an exceptionally low level of fire hazard and risk, and is ‘intelligently’ fitted with a suitable fire suppression system – in order to resist and control, for a specified time during a fire, the advance of heat, smoke and flame.

Fire Resistance:  The inherent capability of a building assembly, or an element of construction, to resist the passage of heat, smoke and flame for a specified time during a fire.