2 January 2018
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The Grenfell Tower tragedy in London last June was a stark reminder of how rapidly a fire can spread and the horror which it can cause. In the wake of this disaster, the UK construction industry is actively examining what can be done to minimise the risk of similar tragedies in the future. It is likely that one of the recommendations will be a clearer identification of responsibilities, but whatever the outcome it will clearly be helpful for all members of the design team to have a good understanding of all aspects of fire safety, as well as detailed knowledge about those aspects under their direct control.
Fire is a basic hazard which can devastate buildings, cities and regions. It is therefore an essential part of an engineer’s skill set to understand and control the risk. Control is a key word, for the risk can never be eliminated, as the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London reminds us. That event was truly a nightmare: an out-of-control fire destroying a whole residential tower, killing 71 occupants. In the same contemporary timeframe, wild fires in California destroyed approx. 9000 structures and left over 40 dead, reminding us of the consequences of regional fires. How these catastrophes happened is yet to be established. It is said that lessons should be learned, and so they should, since the history of fire engineering is largely one of reaction to disasters. As a start, it’s worth observing, as some of the papers in this special issue do, that the basic skills of ‘fire engineering’ are probably absent among many of us. That situation stems partly from an omission of basic training; perhaps from a feeling that this is a speciality for others, and perhaps because advances have been rapid. This is unsatisfactory and unsafe. Fire protection needs to be ensured overall between the architects, plant engineers and structural engineers who make up any project team: we have collective obligations to make buildings ‘safe’.
Construction site fires can be significant events creating risks to life safety as well as causing extensive property damage. During the build process, timber-frame structures can be vulnerable to ignition, whether from a construction process, accident or arson attack. This paper describes the thinking and background behind the fire model underpinning risk-mitigation techniques used for structural timber buildings. The work has evolved from over six years of industry-based research and fire testing, which has led to the Health and Safety Executive endorsing the principles presented. Martin Milner has been the project manager and engineer representing the Structural Timber Association on this work.