The danger of fire in high-rise buildings has been thrown into terrifying relief by the recent (June 2017) tragedy at Grenfell Tower in London. The conflagration in this residential complex has been linked to unsafe cladding containing flammable materials, plus inadequate fire safety and evacuation procedures. The tragedy has so far claimed at least 80 deaths and 70 injuries.
The situation for commercial high-rise buildings is very different, but the importance of fire safety is just as critical. It is the responsibility of commercial landlords and organisations to minimise the risk of fire and put adequate fire safety procedures in place to protect staff and visitors.
How High-Rise Commercial Buildings Differ From Other Premises
Many of the fire safety principles are the same for high-rise buildings as they are for other buildings, such as the need for adequate fire compartmentation, training, appointed fire safety officers and regularly updated policies. However, some things are different, due to the fact that a number of distinct organisations are likely to share the same building.
The biggest danger in a high-rise building is the risk of a fire spreading from one office or area to another. This can happen through lift shafts, rubbish chutes, external wall cavities, communal plant rooms or storage areas, or through air circulation or extraction ducts.
To minimise the fire risk, each business using a high-rise building should be compartmentalised as far as possible: i.e. each office should be a separate fire compartment totally isolated from its neighbours by fire resistant walls, doors, windows and access points.
A fire in a compartmentalised office is unlikely to pose a smoke, flame or heat risk to occupants in another compartment. This allows the building’s owner or facilities manager to adopt a ‘stay-put’ principle when a fire is detected.
Some buildings will have individual fire detection systems in each business unit, these could be standalone or they could be interfaced into a communal system utilising complex cause & effect. Other properties will have communal alarm systems that only cover the escape routes and maybe the room off the escape route, such as the reception to the business unit, this additional device is intended to protect the escape route should a fire break out in this area.
Communal fire detection and alarm systems require greater attention to detail when it comes to management, than to a single occupancy building, low rise office buildings. However, a fire is detected and the alarm raised, evacuation will rely on common escape routes, which must be carefully managed.
The key difference in planning escape routes for high-rise buildings is the consideration that, once the occupants have left their business unit, they will have further to go to safety than they would in a low-rise building. Escape in an emergency situation in this scenario puts even more reliance on strict fire safety precautions being implemented, maintained and managed, to ensure lives aren’t put at risk.
There should always ideally be one or more alternative escape routes in place, in case the main routes are blocked by smoke, gas or heat. Consideration should also be given to how the emergency services will access parts of a building to fight fire and/or rescue trapped occupants.
To reduce the risk of fire spreading between offices, the following fire prevention strategies should be put in place:
- Main access doors to each office complex must be fire resistant, fitted with intumescent strips and self-closing.
- Escape routes, communal corridors and escape stairways should be enclosed in fire-resisting construction.
- The escape route must be kept sterile from any combustible materials or sources of ignition.
- Fire compartments must be maintained including ensuring any self-closing doors aren’t held open with foreign objects.
- Dead ends should be avoided as far as possible in communal walkways and the extent of travel limited to a minimum.
- Arrangements for maintaining the stairways free from smoke need to be included, this could be windows that can be opened, automatic opening vents or extraction systems.
- All corridors and ducts linking different offices should be closely monitored and fitted with fire resistant glazing wherever possible. This is especially important for high-risk communal utilities, such as openings in walls or ceilings for gas and electric infrastructure.
- Fire alarm & emergency lighting systems should be routinely inspected along with portable fire extinguishers.
Identify & Manage Fire Risks in Your Building
While the risk of fire can never be completely eliminated, it is possible to identify and manage fire risks in any type of public building. Doing this depends on establishing a comprehensive fire safety audit and set of evacuation procedures, with a clear fire safety policy that combines good practice and the latest technologies. Find out more about fire safety and prevention in our Quick Guide to UK Fire Safety Regulations, which can be downloaded for free by clicking here. For all other fire safety questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our consultants today.