x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UK expert details high-rise fire fighting methods

Britain's top fire fighting expert says illegal structures added to high-rise buildings could put lives at risk.

A fire at the Burj Salam last May in Dubai Media CIty.
A fire at the Burj Salam last May in Dubai Media CIty.

ABU DHABI // Britain's top fire fighting expert said yesterday illegal structures added to high-rise buildings could put lives at risk in the event of a fire, and authorities should carry out regular building inspections to ensure no illegal alterations had been made. Sir Ken Knight, a former commissioner of the London fire brigade and currently the chief fire and rescue adviser to the British government, said a high level of training and forward planning were also needed to help prevent fire disasters in skyscrapers.

"Where people have added structures on the roof, for example, which do not conform to building standards, that can definitely put lives at risk. The authorities can't check every building in a city, but they can target their resources by assessing where there is the greatest risk," he said. Following two roof top fires in the capital last month, one of which apparently involved illegal makeshift structures, the Municipality pledged to take strict action against property owners who violate building codes. The Interior Ministry also ordered aerial inspections of all city buildings to spot offenders.

Sir Ken was speaking before the two-day World Security Forum in Abu Dhabi, which starts today. The challenge of fighting fires in skyscrapers is one of the issues that will come under discussion. Sir Ken will give a presentation on the topic this afternoon. "Fire safety has to be taken into account at the design stage, and modern buildings are usually built to very high standards - but firefighters have to be aware that that may not be the case with older structures," he said.

"Fighting fires in high-rise buildings happens from the inside - over a certain height the emergency services will not be able to reach the fire with ladders, so you have to go in and climb up to it. That means you need lightweight equipment that allows you mobility, and specialised training - a situation like that involves fire fighters having to put themselves at risk." Sir Ken said that in the case of a fire on one floor of a building, civil defence crews would form a bridgehead one or two storeys below, from where they could gather enough people and equipment to tackle the blaze properly.

"There is no point in just one or two firemen going in on their own - they are not going to be able to do very much and will be at much greater risk. You have to wait until you have enough strength to really take it on," he added. He said it was essential that police, ambulance crews and firemen worked under a clear chain of command. "Operational intelligence is essential; buildings are all different and knowing the layout is very important," he said.

"You can't carry that information around in your head. A relatively simple method of dealing with that is to make it a regulation that every building has to have a Premises Information Box at the entrance, which contains blueprints and other details relevant to the building." Sir Ken also had advice for people who live or work in a high-rise building. "You should always know what the escape routes are, but in general if there is a fire on one floor, it is preferable not to evacuate the entire building, as that can put hundreds and hundreds of people on to the street and make the work of the emergency services more difficult," he said.

gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae