Sun, Jul 02, 2017 - Page 7 News List

London fire symptomatic of worldwide fire safety issues

Experts stressed that, with more high-rise housing going up, fire prevention systems need to be enhanced

By Danica Kirka  /  AP, LONDON

Illustration: June Hsu

The deaths of 79 people in a London apartment tower have triggered emergency inspections, evacuations and soul searching among British officials who failed to prevent the tragedy.

However, fire-safety experts said governments and builders around the world should take notice, because the fire at Grenfell Tower is just the latest in a string of deadly blazes that demonstrate how building regulations have failed to keep up with changing materials, and cuts in inspections and oversight mean problems are not discovered until it is too late.

The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, made headlines in December last year, when 36 people were killed in a warehouse that had been illegally converted into living spaces and a music venue. In September last year, 33 people died in a fire at a packaging plant in Bangladesh.

“They are a collective example of how, either intentionally or accidentally, the fire prevention and protection system has been broken,” said Jim Pauley, president of the US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which develops fire codes used in the US and around the world. “A system that the public believes exists and counts on for their safety — through complacency, bad policy and placing the economics of construction over safety — has let them down.”

The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire shows that the faults that led to the disaster are not isolated.

ISOLATION

The British government is scrambling to test panels similar to those used at Grenfell Tower, and has found at least 75 buildings covered in similarly flammable material. Thousands of people have been evacuated from four high-rises in north London after inspectors found fire-safety problems, including faulty fire doors.

The city of Birmingham has decided to install sprinklers in all its public housing towers — four years after coroners investigating deadly fires suggested this be done throughout the country.

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service former chief officer John Bonney said he regrets that it took a disaster to trigger action.

Seven years ago, Bonney vowed to improve conditions after two of his firefighters died in a blaze in a high-rise apartment building in Southampton.

“I call it tombstone legislation — it appears after significant losses of life,” Bonney said.

The residents of Grenfell Tower did not realize the danger they faced when they went to bed on June 13.

A fire that started in a refrigerator just after midnight quickly spread throughout the 24-story tower. As firefighters arrived, flames were shooting up the outside of the building, trapping residents inside.

“How is that even possible?” one incredulous firefighter asked in a cellphone video captured as his engine approached the tower.

While the investigation is still under way, fire experts believe part of the answer might be the aluminum composite material recently attached to the outside of the building.

The material, essentially two thin sheets of aluminum around a layer of insulation, has been used for decades, but its popularity has grown in recent years because it offers a relatively inexpensive way to save energy and beautify buildings.

Experts have warned about risks posed by the panels for years because some varieties use highly flammable plastic foam insulation, which can rapidly spread fires once it ignites, as previously seen in Australia, China and Dubai.

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