The tragic events involving the Grenfell Tower fire in London on June 14th has taken 79 lives thus far, and the number keeps rising. The developments have sparked an important question in the minds of property developers and fire safety officials alike.
Could it happen here in the Caribbean? Could something similar possibly happen in our country or in our region?
With an increasing move by some countries in the Caribbean to go the way of high-rise developments, Governments, property owners and concerned citizens have to be ever conscious of every building and planning decision for the sake of safety.
What materials are best suited for construction of a high-rise development? More importantly, what design features are there in place to ensure fire escape in the case of emergency or fire suppression in terms of sprinklers or extinguishers on-site? What is better? Electrical systems or mechanic?
In the Caribbean, building codes may differ from country to country. Some buildings have no reinforcement in between brick and mortar, which could spell trouble in the event of other types of natural disasters.
For territories which have building codes, the fire service is often charged with the major responsibility of assessing and approving the fire safety of commercial or residential dwellings like apartments. Property developers must, therefore, ensure that they incorporate a number of important fire safety features in their design, especially when the structure will eventually house multiple residents.
Even with approvals to meet minimum requirements, there can still be horrible outcomes, like at Grenfell Tower. After a two-year, £8.6 million refurbishment, the reverse problem has been identified by media investigating the disaster. A Refurbishment Pre-assessment Report on the building from 2013 indicates that developers went to the other extreme and over-insulated, to avoid having to refurbish again.
According to the report, there was a decision to use 15cm of insulation material, then a 5cm void before a 3mm thick PE plastic cover with a zinc rain-proof coating.
Several experts have already suggested the materials and system used to clad the exterior of the concrete 24-storey block may have been responsible for the rapid spread of the flames during the blaze.
It has also been suggested the fire may have spread quickly at Grenfell as the cover used was a non-fire retardant version that is banned in buildings over 40 feet in the US and Germany.
Added to that, the building did not appear to have proper fire alarm systems and the fire escape routes were said to be inadequate and not smoke-protected.
What can we in the Caribbean learn from this tragic disaster?
Most fire service departments have a checklist that they utilize for owners of large commercial or residential structures before they can be issued with a fire safety certificate. The Barbados Fire Service has a thorough list.
Here are some of the most important items of consideration for Caribbean homeowners:
Fire Safety Certificate Checklist
* Adequate means of escape in case of fire or other emergencies.
* Exit signs and directional arrows indicating the path of out of the building.
* Clearly visible exit signs on all final exits.
* No smoking signs.
* Means of escape must be well maintained and free from obstacles in case of fire or other emergencies.
* Alarm systems: audible and visual warning devices throughout the building in the event of a fire or other emergencies.
* Exit doors shall swing in an outward direction
* Appropriately located firefighting equipment (extinguishers, hose reels, fire blankets, sand, etc.
* Extinguishers mounted at prescribed levels.
* Fire protection equipment (total flooding systems, sprinkler systems, dry risers, wet risers, hydrants, etc.
* Fire detection devices (smoke alarm, heat detectors).
* Unencumbered passageway to the assembly point.
* Fire safety plans.
* First Aid Kits on site.
* Fire safety inspections.
* Facility occupancy load.
* Auxiliary lighting.
* Construction of the building (including building materials, roof type).
* Fire Service Appliances access.
* Storage of combustible material in and around the building.
* Storage of flammable materials in metal containers and underground no less than two feet.
* Storage of flammable materials in metal containers above ground no more than 200 gallons
* Electrical hazards.
This list is not exhaustive, but the tragedy in London will no doubt bring the issue of fire safety for buildings back into sharper focus.
If you’re building, renovating or would just like to make an assessment on your existing building, it’s important to check with your local relevant authorities for the National building code standards and requirements. These authorities include the Environmental Protection Division, The Fire Department, Town and Country Planning and the Government Electrical Engineering Department.
Property developers would, therefore, be wise to engage with their project team (architects and engineers), to avail themselves of the best materials, best equipment and best practices that would help to ensure their properties meet the requirements to prevent, as much as possible, any loss of life.
- Nepal – https://www.fema.gov/building-code
- Refurbishment Pre-Assessment – https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Revision%20Content-1094275.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=1094275&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1
- Barbados Fire Service – http://fireservice.gov.bb/index.php?id=821