Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fire! Why can't we learn from the past?

Zoë Sharp

Over the years I’ve learned a lot of self-defence, both for personal reasons, and as research for my main series protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. When we first meet Charlie, she’s teaching self-defence, mainly to women, and her whole mind-set is on how to best protect yourself in any circumstances.

One of those circumstances has to be in the event of fire.

In some ways, people take this more seriously than other kinds of danger. It’s a sad fact that, if you’re being attacked in the street, a shout of, “Fire!” has been shown to be more effective in drawing attention and possible assistance rather than one of, “Rape!”

But in other ways people are amazingly blasé about fire. I’ve known them refuse to leave their hotel beds when the fire alarm goes off during the night, convinced it’s a false alarm, a prank or a drill. In the King’s Cross fire on the London Underground in 1987, commuters on trains arriving at the station overruled transport police, demanding to leave the train despite the obvious dangers. Some were never seen alive again.

That fire moved incredibly fast. Less than 15 minutes after the first signs were noticed when a dropped match ignited fluff-impregnated grease under one of the Piccadilly line escalators, a gout of superheated flame and smoke, propelled up the sloping escalator by the trench effect, flashed over through the ticket hall with devastating results.

Afterwards, it was learned that up to 20 layers of old paint had been allowed to build up on the tunnels which housed the escalators, trapping the heat, while the wooden treads and metal sides of which helped feed and channel the flames. A computer simulation produced the same flashover as the incident and, when a model was built, the same effect was seen. As well as all the materials involved, the 30deg angle of the escalator tunnels, plus lack of training of staff, and, it was alleged, a certain complacency caused by the fact that there had never been a fatal fire on the Underground, all led to disaster.

Following the King’s Cross fire, better communications and training were provided for staff. Smoking was banned, and the old wooden escalators were gradually decommissioned and replaced with all metal units. Thirty-one people died and of the 100 hospitalised, 19 had serious injuries. It was never discovered whose carelessly discarded match had actually started the fire.

This was not the case with the fire at the Summerland holiday complex in Douglas, Isle of Man in 1973. Opened two years previously, Summerland was a climate-controlled building covering 3.5 acres on the seafront in Douglas. It was clad in Perspex sheeting called Oroglas.

In August of ’73, three boys broke into a kiosk adjacent to the building to have a crafty smoke. The kiosk caught fire and fell against the outside cladding of the Summerland building itself, which was constructed of bitumen-coated steel with asbestos felt on both sides. This quickly spread to the internal sound deadening, and to the acrylic roofing sheets, which melted, not only allowing more oxygen to enter, but also dropping burning debris onto people inside.

The Summerland project had been designed by two different sets of architects with no common plan, making a coherent fire-fighting strategy impossible. It took 20 minutes for the alarm to be raised, and then it was done by a taxi driver outside, and a ship off the Manx coast who radioed in to the coastguard. When the people inside realised the danger, they were hampered by locked exits, and stampede for the main entrance caused further casualties.

The eventual blame was laid at the door of the flammable materials used and failure to evacuate the 3000 people present, as well as locked fire doors, and inadequate ventilation. Between 50 and 53 people were killed, and 80 were seriously injured.

As a result, changes to building regulations were made, and the rebuilt smaller version of Summerland was fitted with an extensive sprinkler system.

There are common features between these two fires:
Highly flammable materials.
Lack of warning system or timely escape plan.
No sprinkler system.

And now we have Grenfell Tower in London, in which the death toll is currently at 30 and looks set to rise far higher. The external cladding on the refurbished tower was highly flammable, and residents complained in 2014 that egress had been compromised, with poor access for emergency services and even fire exits blocked. The installation of a sprinkler system was recommended, but not carried out. Previous power surges had caused electrical equipment to smoke and fail.

According to The Guardian, a blog post written last November claimed that only an incident leading to grave loss of life would persuade the management company to take the concerns of residents seriously.

Although it’s too early to say for sure, the exterior cladding certainly seems to have made the fire at Grenfell Tower more severe. It is of a type that has been banned in the US for use on taller buildings because of safety concerns. The fire in 2014 in an apartment block in Melbourne, Australia, went from the point of ignition on an eighth floor balcony and raced to the roof in eleven minutes, mainly because of the flammability of the exterior cladding.

How to evacuate tall buildings successfully in the event of fire is a difficult proposition, but surely encouraging them not to burn in the first place is the ultimate goal. It is desperately sad for the residents of Grenfell Tower and their families that the lessons of previous tragedies have been ignored, time and again. And now the race begins to find someone to blame rather than putting those energies into ensuring that conflagrations such as this one do not happen again.

Perhaps that is the biggest tragedy of all.

This week’s Word of the Week is flammable from the Latin flammare meaning ‘to catch fire’. This word is interchangeable with inflammable, which has the addition of the suffix in- meaning ‘to cause to’. Not to be confused with non-flammable, meaning something that will not catch fire.


  1. Really awful. We don't even know what started the fires that devastated the Cape east coast here a couple of weeks ago. Over 400 homes were destroyed.

  2. Replies
    1. I hadn't heard about the Cape fires, Michael, but will do some reading up on them. Thank you for pointing out the story. Something must have gone right amidst the wrong, though, for the death toll to have been relatively small for the number of homes destroyed.

  3. I am a private landlord and we are constantly told to update this and install that. Just before this fire the government requested we double the amount of smoke detectors that are hard wired, as well as the normal battery kind so when a building the size of Grenfell didn't have klaxons, I don't know. That's what they have on boats!

  4. It's this same old issue of money. The landlords want as much as they can squeeze out (except Caro, of course...) and don't particularly care about risk they're imposing on their tenants. Even farmers know they need to fertilize their crops and protect them from pests if they want to maximize their return.

    The whole 'flammable/inflammable/non-flammable/non-inflammable' brouhaha is one of the great examples of the shining purity of the English language.