London Tower Block Tragedy Highlights Importance Of Effective Fire Stopping


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An inquest into Britain’s worst tower block fire has concluded that ineffective fire stopping was a contributing factor to the tragedy, in which six residents lost their lives.  The fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, London, which occurred 3rd July 2009, was a ferocious blaze that spread so quickly it left firefighters perplexed.  Now, following a 10-week hearing, it has been revealed that botched renovation work in the 1980’s compromised the building’s passive fire protection system, enabling the fire to spread unchecked.  

Unusual Fire Behaviour Causes Confusion

The fire originated on the ninth-floor as a result of an electrical fault in a television and the building was evacuated.  However, six residents remained in their flats on the top floor, several of whom were advised to stay there by emergency operators.  The advice provided was sound and based on the theory of compartmentalisation, which should have allowed firefighters time to take control of the blaze and make the building safe, before rescuing the remaining residents.  Unfortunately, the operator could not be aware of the fact the building was unsafe.  The behaviour of the fire was so unusual, spreading both upwards and downwards, that emergency operators did not at first believe the information that they were being given by residents trapped in the building.  

Missing And Unsuitable Materials Aided Spread

The fire was able to spread so quickly due to the fact that fire stopping material, which was previously placed between flats and communal corridors, had been removed during construction work decades earlier.  Asbestos window panels had also been removed in favour of PVC alternatives, which were burnt through within just 5 minutes; both feeding the blaze and allowing it to spread into other areas of the building.   

Fire Risk Assessments Overlooked

Whilst the botched renovation played a huge role in the tragedy, the jury also highlighted Southwark council’s failure to remedy the problems.  A change of law in 2006 meant that it became the council’s responsibility to carry out fire risk assessments of all its tower blocks.  However, no such fire safety checks had taken place in the three years after it became the Southwark’s responsibility and when the tragedy happened in 2009.  The inquest jury noted that a thorough fire assessment would have identified weaknesses in the passive fire protection and penetration sealing systems, which could then have been fixed.  

Enduring Legacy

Southwark deputy leader, Ian Wingfield, has since the hearing ‘apologised unreservedly’ for the failings, and promised that improvements is the council’s processes have been made:

       “We have learned immediate and enduring lessons from this tragedy and have               improved what we do to make our residents’ homes safe.”

Although it will offer little consolation to the friends and families of the victims who lost their lives in the Lakanal House fire, the high-profile tragedy has served to remind Local Authorities of their responsibility to protect their residents and highlighted the importance of effective passive fire protection systems.  We can only hope that this important message is properly received by all councils and that they take the appropriate steps to ensure that properties which fall under their care are properly assessed and fire protection systems upgraded where required.

Taking The Lead

Whilst this terrible story is certain to cause upset to any who read or hear of it, the tragedy hits especially hard with those of us who work in the fire protection industry.  At Sharpfibre we take seriously our role of providing effective passive fire protection systems that will save lives, whilst protecting buildings.  To see lives needlessly lost as a result of the lack of proper maintenance and inspection is both saddening and frustrating.  We believe that in order to avoid such a tragedy occurring again that fundamental changes must be made.  No longer should we the industry sit back, but rather now  we must take the lead and utilise our expertise and knowledge to ensure that there is greater accountability for all involved in the design, build, inspection, and maintenance of the build process.  
image credit: Sceaux Gardens by Peter Gasston on Flickr



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