The destructive relationship between fire and buildings is as old as the history of buildings themselves. Fire protection has been a key reason for the development of new materials, construction methods, and safety protocols since the earliest buildings and each major fire acts as a trigger for innovation and regulation. The response to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD was said to be the beginning of urban fire safety regulation, including wider roads, building height, common walls, and non-flammable structural materials. The great fires of Tokyo in 1657 and London in 1666, as well as similar major incidents around the world, have all played their part in driving the development of fire safety in our modern buildings and cities.
Today, fire safety regulations in buildings have helped minimize the threat of city-wide infernos but fire still is, and maybe always will be, a key threat to buildings and their occupants. The latest reminder is never too far in the past and each major incident helps drive modern fire safety to higher levels. In recent times, one tragedy stands out for the loss of life and safety failures and exacerbated by its occurrence in a highly regulated city. London’s Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 was the deadliest residential building fire in the UK since WWII, resulting in 72 fatalities. While it was started by an electrical fault in a refrigerator, the rapid spread of the fire was later attributed to an “air gap” left between the building's new cladding and its external insulation, which enabled a disastrous stack effect.
“We’ve seen horrors emerge from the Grenfell inquiry – from ministers, officials, manufacturers, and plenty of others. We got these two key pieces of legislation, as a result, and the Building Safety Bill could help transform the industry, but my concern is that we still don’t really have a feel for what any of it really looks like. There remain questions over how the new Building Safety Regulator system will work, as well as confusion surrounding the building control framework,” said Jonathan O’Neill OBE, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association. “Not to mention we still haven’t had a Building Regulations review – despite Grenfell, modern methods of construction and combustible materials being introduced.”
As we stride ahead in the development of greener, smarter, and more cyber-secure buildings, we may be neglecting the risk of fire —the “eternal nemesis” of buildings. Fire remains one of the biggest threats to buildings, yet new green building materials are escaping stringent fire safety regulations and increasing the risk to occupants. We now flood our buildings with intelligent sensors to monitor occupant behavior and energy efficiency but often leave basic smoke detectors on our walls. There is huge potential for green and smart building developments to improve fire safety but, with limited incentive from regulation, solution providers favor more marketable green and human-centric applications.
“The sustainability agenda, in particular, should be seen as a catalyst for change to the Building regs – I’ve lost count of the number of ‘green’ buildings that have caught fire, and there seems to be very little in the way of fire resistance in the structure. Fortunately we haven’t lost any lives yet in one of these fires, but the warning signs are there,” continues O’Neill in an interview with IFSEC Global. “We’re putting some of the most vulnerable people in society at risk, yet we’re not thinking about the implications because a different agenda is being pushed. Large scale fire testing doesn’t happen anymore to give us the information required to understand how a fire will spread in the building – not to mention how the fire and rescue services tackle the fire and evacuate residents.”
Smart buildings may be falling behind on fire safety but smart technology is the key to unlocking unprecedented new fire safety levels for buildings and their occupants. Environmental sensors, including temperature, air quality, and humidity, which were designed to optimize the human environment, can provide more detailed data for quicker and more accurate fire detection. Sensors, occupancy analytics, and access control technology could be used to support evacuations and track the progression of fires, aiding escape and rescue efforts, especially if sensors were built to withstand higher temperatures. By utilizing select data from interconnected systems, the smart building could spark an exciting new age for fire safety.
“Cutting-edge technology that remotely monitors the building environment 24/7 has the potential to prevent life-threatening events. Using remote alarm monitoring, IoT and predictive data analysis, connected safety technology has the potential to identify a fire risk before it escalates to an emergency call,” says Nick Rutter, Co-founder and CPO of FireAngel. “Connection to the IoT could enable landlords to monitor important features such as the building’s age and condition and the wear and tear of electrical appliances. Being able to combine this information with data on individuals’ physical or mental status is also important. If a person has dementia, is partially sighted or uses a wheelchair, their ability to respond to a fire event may be limited.”
Smart building technology can bring unprecedented new dimensions to fire safety. From early detection from environmental sensors, to data on occupants condition, location, and ability to evacuate, to preventative measures like predictive maintenance, and even to digital twin-based 3D models to support rescue and fire extinguishing. While the construction industry tackles the issues raised by the Grenfell Tower fire, the smart buildings sector has the opportunity to create an “Internet of Fire Safety” with an open, tech-enabled, and safety-first approach. Cross-industry agreement on key safety opportunities in buildings could also lay the foundation for a wider culture of collaboration that would support rapid market growth based on safer and smarter buildings.