There’s nothing like watching a room flash over to make you realise how quickly a fire can turn deadly.
As a young engineer at the Danish Institute of Fire Technology, I had many opportunities to witness this first-hand; I often joke that my job title is essentially professional pyromaniac. I set fire to all kinds of things – Christmas trees, TVs, furniture, wall coverings – to learn how they burn so that we could make the world safer.
Over the years, my work has taken me across the globe and eventually to NFPA, where I became director of applied research in 2017. Having worked in multiple countries, I can tell you that the fire problem doesn’t abide by our manmade boundaries – given the right conditions, fire will burn with as much ferocity in Europe as it does in Asia, Africa, or North America.
Though this last point might seem obvious, I’ve been surprised to find how disconnected fire-protection professionals can be from this truth. Most countries still largely ignore lessons learned in other parts of the world, and insist on basing their fire prevention and mitigation strategies exclusively on local knowledge, or their most recent pain point. If a bad fire happens in Asia, for example, the fire-protection community in Europe tends to not concern itself with it, falsely believing that the same thing couldn’t possibly happen there. Local building traditions in China are too different to render any applicable lessons for fire protection in Germany or the United Kingdom, the rationale goes. This mindset is pervasive, as well as outdated and misguided – globalisation is erasing many of the differences in the built environment throughout the world, leading to a more universal fire experience than perhaps at any time in modern history.
An example of the breakdown in fire-safety continuity is the series of recent high-rise building fires related to combustible facades. Significant fires involving combustible cladding had occurred in the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the US. All of these fires had shown us just how fast fire can spread up the side of a building if cladded with combustible materials. Yet, the fast-moving nature of London’s deadly Grenfell fire seemed to surprise most. The Grenfell inquiry that points to the building’s combustible cladding and insulation as major contributors for the intense fire spread should not be a surprise – especially not to those in fire-protection circles.
The use of highly insulating facade systems with combustible components can also be a challenge during construction. A deadly fire in Shanghai in 2010 was caused by ignition of scaffolding and the combustible insulation that had been sprayed on the exterior walls but not yet covered with its protective coating of plaster. Yet, despite seeing the potential risk in leaving combustibles exposed during construction, this practice was not challenged in other countries like Germany until they, too, had a similar fire in 2012. Exposed polystyrene insulation on the facade of a building in Frankfurt was ignited and the fire spread rapidly. Fortunately, that structure was not yet occupied so there was no loss of life. The same can’t be said for the fully occupied building in Shanghai where 58 people perished when that building went up in flames during renovation work.
Another example of not learning from our neighbours pertains to nightclub fires. Sadly, devasting life-safety tragedies continue to happen in entertainment venues around the globe. Despite similar patterns of using illegal pyrotechnics that ignite the combustible materials used for decor or sound insulation, lack of sprinklers, insufficient escape routes, and even locked egresses – we still occasionally hear about tragic nightclub fires. Some that come to mind include the Station Night Club fire in the US in 2003, the Santika Club fire in Thailand in 2009, the Lame Horse fire in Russia in 2009, the Kiss Nightclub fire in Brazil in 2013 and the Colectiv Nightclub fire in Romania in 2015.
Many of these fires share striking similarities, as well as important characteristics that go beyond building design and how certain materials burn. They may have contributing factors such as building codes that were ignored or not enforced, and fire testing of materials protocols that were disregarded. Studying the conditions that led to devastating fires, regardless of where those conditions exist, can be just as valuable as examining the fires themselves.
We can also use globalisation to our advantage when it comes to fire-safety research. Because we no longer have to look locally for many of the answers to our safety challenges, research findings from one country can now be widely applied to improve safety around the world. This allows us to better spread the load and cost of research, and to attain a deeper understanding of emerging issues faster than ever before. With research capabilities limited in many areas of the world, and with rapid changes in technology making it difficult to keep pace, the potential to share and learn from others benefits us all.
One great example of globalisation that we see today entails researchers in the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia and Scotland working together to solve some of the challenges associated with using wood in tall buildings. These forward-thinkers are looking at risk factors with an understanding that the problems aligned with tall wood buildings will be largely the same around the globe. So, instead of working in individual silos they are learning from each other to ensure that their research is not competitive but rather complementary. Their collaborative approach will generate better findings for all of us around the globe to apply in local settings.
Fire is a global challenge so let’s work together, across borders, by sharing information from incidents and utilising each other’s knowledge. It’s a big world – let’s protect it together.