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Fire safety: not just a box-ticking exercise

02 October 2017

Recent global incidents have resulted in wide spread media attention and have brought into sharp focus the wider issue of fire safety.

Many have opined, often well before the findings of full investigations, what went wrong and what should be changed. Some have pointed to legislation, design firms or construction firms, and owners as part of the issue.

Our modern world is much safer than a century ago, but far too frequently, we are still reminded that forces of nature can overcome our experience and capabilities. These reminders force us to increase our awareness and refocus our attention on research, development and increasing fire safety understanding.

Speaking to Simon Goodhead, vice president - strategy at Jensen Hughes, it became clear that despite the fact that most people know the importance of smoke alarms, in many fire incidents involving fatalities, the finding is that the building safety features have not been maintained or have been disabled. Similarly, there are reports that occupants have become desensitised to the potential risk due to false alarms, such that they do not appropriately respond to the warning signs/alarm.  
Simon observed: “Whether considering events in the UK, USA, United Arab Emirates, or elsewhere, what would additional fire safety education, had it been received and understood, been able to provide?

“Material choices, design or construction methodology, may have been different, or approval processes may have been more stringent, perhaps including peer reviews due leverage specialty industry knowledge.

“Fire doors may have been closed preventing internal fire and smoke spread. Sprinklers would have been fitted. Occupants would have responded in different ways. Smoke alarm batteries would have been replaced. The “what ifs” are endless.”

For the public at large, Simon believes that fire safety education must be simple enough to allow automatic response in an event. “With respect to health and safety professionals, fire safety education is even more essential,” he asserted.

“Some fire hazards result in a one-second event and multiple fatalities - think combustible dust, gas/vapour clouds, or oxidising materials. Others take minutes, and sometimes hours to become a safety issue.

“A lay person may not realise the extent of a hazard, and so it is incumbent on the safety professionals in every role around the world to continue to learn, and, possibly more importantly, recognise where their expertise ends, and the need for a true technical expert arises.”

Simon warned that a concerted effort is needed to step up fire safety checks and ensure buildings are safe.

Risk assessment and safety checks should not be misconstrued as box-ticking exercices. People’s lives depend on it.