It never rains but it pours

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Britain’s fire service is not able to cope with the huge industrial fires that break out in ever-larger commercial buildings. Speaking at Jardine Lloyd Thompson Fire Risk Assessment briefing last year, Ian Gough, a former senior fire officer, once in charge of fire safety for the city of Birmingham, was quick to point out the problems.

“The fire brigade is equipped to deal with fires in modern houses but not capable of fighting a fire in a huge building the size of some town centres – many of these, with the potential to be bigger than any during World War II.”

He added that inconsistencies in UK planning laws meant bigger and bigger warehouses were being built, with little consideration to adequate fire prevention and fire fighting provisions.

“Rapidly changing construction methods, ever more innovative architecture and new building materials are providing many challenges. You only have to look at some of the huge warehouses that have recently been constructed to appreciate the problem. Many are single storey buildings in excess of 47 metres, use complex mezzanine flooring and storage and are on a scale that would not have been contemplated a few years ago. If you consider that the tallest ladder used by the fire service is about 30 metres high and cannot be taken into a building then you can appreciate the difficulty.”

He said that the large size of modern warehouses exceeded the “safe travelling distance” which put fire fighters at increased risk of injury and death, such that senior officers may well make the decision to let commercial buildings burn rather than risk men’s lives, especially with the increased risk of flash fires created by modern warehouse design.

Warehouse fires reported in the local news frequently mention the vast number of men and equipment on the scene to control the blazes. The BBC reported that in 2006 about 100 fire fighters were called to the Iron Mountain fire in Twelvetrees Crescent in Bow. Another fire at a furniture warehouse in Kent required 90 fire fighters to bring it under control and crews had to remove several propane cylinders from the scene of the fire putting them at considerable risk.

Businesses now have to take more responsibility for fire safety with the introduction various new regulations and guidelines, including the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

Steve Mitchell of Colliers CRE says that designing fire safety into a building is paramount. For example while advising on the John Lewis building in Milton Keynes an issue arose regarding the width of the building

“We looked at the length that people would have had to run to get out of the building. The original designs would have meant we would have to build a protected corridor. In the end the width of it was reduced.”

Mitchell says there are various insurance issues that have to be met within a design of a building, for example, how long it takes to burn. “Specific criteria have to be met for a building to be awarded LPC (Loss Protection Council) approval. British Bakeries had to beef up its design to secure LPC approval.”

Then there is the issue of sprinklers. Mitchell says: “Many insurers want them as a matter of course, but most shed developers put them in on the basis of the whether local fire authority or occupier requires them. In the North West, the local authority requires all buildings to have them.

Lisa Fitch of Atisreal says: “I have seen a world of change since arriving here five years ago. The American FM standard is increasingly common even though the requirements under those policies for sprinklers and so on can be quite stringent. We dropped the internal ceiling substantially in the Pirelli site since tyres have the potential to burn so nicely.”

As well as fire there is now the issue of climate change. Only last month the Association of British Insurers launched a manifesto stating out its proposals to encourage the government to take a more proactive stance especially on the issue of flooding. It says at least £750m needs to be spent every year on flood management by 2011 and £8 billion over the next 25 years to prevent disasters like the floods of 1953.

It urges a change in building regulation and planning to cope with the climate scenarios in 2050.

Edward Joslin of agrees: “Warehouses are still being built to cope with yesterday’s weather patterns. But with the effects of climate change already upon us, we should be designing structures able to cope with the future.

Every week brings new evidence that weather patterns are changing and will continue to do so, bringing more extreme conditions.

Joslin says: “Snow may soon be almost unknown in much of the country and 2007 has already brought exceptionally dry and wet spells, confirming the forecast trend to more extreme weather behaviour.”

The typical warehouse is still designed with sloping roofs to cater for heavy snowfalls, with roof tie construction techniques that may be vulnerable to high winds, and with guttering and drainage systems unable to cope with sudden, very heavy downpours.

With increased pressure on commercial and industrial land, the temptation to develop on areas prone to flooding will grow, so the likelihood of finding warehouse stock under water will increase still further.

Joslin says: “The most important first step is to review water capture and drainage systems to ensure that anticipated volumes of rainfall can drain into the main watercourse without backing up and causing flooding. While the record rainfall of more than an inch in five minutes recorded in Yorkshire in 2003 may not be repeated, what were exceptionally heavy falls are becoming increasingly common. Gutters face the first onslaught and overflow, overloading soak-aways. Balancing ponds have limited capacity and systems will need larger bore outlets than before to enable water to flow through the system and into the watercourse without flooding.”

The trend towards ever-larger warehouses, now nudging a million square feet, could generate further problems. Huge volumes of rain join run-off from hard standing surfaces large enough to provide record levels of parking for HGVs and cars. Surface water drainage systems installed decades before will have little chance of coping, resulting in both vehicle parks and the warehouse itself going under water.

“The use of Grasscrete,” says Joslin, “which provides hard standing but allows rain to soak away directly into the soil, may help to mitigate the worst effects of heavy rain.”

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