It is sad to read about the global fire incidents again and again on the news media, like a never-ending story. It saddens even more that many fire incidents occur repeatedly in the same building category where life safety mattered most such as high-rise residential, healthcare facilities, discotheques, shopping malls, etc. It is either that the industry did not learn from experience or the safety information is not communicated globally. Zero fatalities in some fire incidents at The Marina Torch, Address Hotel, Lacrosse Apartment Tower could have contributed to the low fire awareness. It all changed with the Grenfell Tower tragedy with the highest fatalities in the post-war era despite building regulations, codes, standards and acts in place to guide the construction market towards fire-safety design.
This may be due to lack of emphasis on fire safety where fire safety has not been given the priority. The market is mostly reactive instead of proactive when dealing with fire-safety strategy. Most of the time, review and mitigation measures are only acted on after a major fire incident; otherwise life goes on as normal. Moreover, if the fire caused only property damage, it will be swiftly dealt with by the insurance company. We will have to wait for the next major fire incident to create the headline for fire-safety issues once more. All this needs to change if we are to build a safer habitat globally.
There are many factors that need to be addressed in fire-safety strategy other than active fire-protection systems. Deemed-to-satisfy prescriptive building regulations should be reviewed, taking into consideration the inherent fire risks of modern construction. Codes and standards need to be reviewed and upgraded to be concurrent with the introduction of new building materials in the construction industry. Laboratory testing should be ‘fit for purpose’, with more focus on complete system testing according to application instead of small-scale samples. Competency of fire professionals must be emphasized with forward-looking CPD activities. Holistic fire-safety design among all stakeholders should be integrated to improve harmony, efficiency and effectiveness. These are some of the issues on top of quality assurance/quality control of fire-protection equipment/systems, accredited installer schemes, regular fire-risk assessments, preventive maintenance for fire protection systems, etc.
As the global construction industry moves towards high-rise and super high-rise structures encompassing city-in-city living concepts, mitigating fire propagation, while at the same time allowing safe egress of building occupants, is essential. High-rise evacuation and high-level firefighting is a different ball game compared to low-rise buildings. Compartmentation design is essential to prevent fire, smoke and potential toxic fumes propagating from floor to floor or from compartment to compartment. Should the objective be achieved, it would confine the fire at its origin long enough for it to be attended to by in-house fire marshals or the local fire brigade. It will also provide an essential RSET (Required Safe Egress Time) window for occupants who may be affected by the outbreak of the fire (those who are occupying floors above the fire floor). To achieve this purpose, all compartmentation walls and floors must achieve full duration of stability, integrity and insulation during any fire incident according to design requirements.
Fire stopping, fire-rated dry-wall systems and fire-resistant door sets are essential passive fire-protection systems that form part of floor and wall compartmentation. While a fire-rated wall is a permanent fixture in a building, firestopping may be subjected to alterations due to subsequent increases in electrical or mechanical services passing through. If reinstallation work is not carried out by a competent installer, their fire-rating integrity may be compromised.
Fire-resistant door sets are another unique passive fire-protection system that is subjected to wear and tear and abuse over time, depending on traffic. They are essential to safeguard the integrity of all compartments, especially fire-escape staircases during evacuation. Annual inspection and maintenance are a necessity. Currently fire-door sets have no life limit and are expected to last indefinitely. A cyclic endurance test perhaps can be a remedy.
To prevent smoke ingress, fire-escape staircases, firefighting lobbies and protected corridors should be pressurised unless naturally ventilated.
Fire-safety design should factor in human behaviour as irrational behaviour and ‘follow-the-leader’ syndrome have been observed in various fire incidents and software simulations. For high-rise structures, the physical limitations of occupants to descend long flights of fire-escape staircases has to be taken into consideration, especially for children, senior citizens and special groups (e.g. pregnant ladies, people with disabilities, etc). Emergency response planning and management should be in place to take care of these issues. While a special group of occupants may be evacuated using a designated and managed lift, phased evacuation through the fire-escape staircase may be introduced for other occupants. Lift-aided evacuation for occupants and refuge floors should be planned, managed and drilled.
Performance-based design incorporating renewable energy and green technology will aid in the design of a sustainable built-environment, especially in smoke control and management.
Digital cloud-based intelligent fire-protection systems should also be integrated with building intelligence and security systems for early reporting and to prevent arson and potential external threats. IoT, RFID and face-recognition technology will aid in the transmission of fire-alarm signals, directive evacuation messages and preventive maintenance for fire-protection systems in future.
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