There have been a number of recent developments in fire safety and risk management in the built environment that have implications for the tactical decisions made by firefighters. This article explains how these developments can make firefighting safer and more effective – and how organisations can ensure that their staff understand the new and developing built environment and what it means for their decision-making when protecting people, property and the environment in dangerous situations.
Almost all of these changes are for the better – the built environment is becoming fundamentally safer – but there is a risk that if we do not capitalise on them and share best practice we will lose some of this benefit and put firefighters and the public at unnecessary risk.
In the UK, one of the key challenges facing all levels of the construction and associated industries is the ambitious requirement for the use of collaborative 3D Building Information Modelling (BIM) set by the Cabinet Office. In the Government’s construction strategy, launched in May 2011, it was proposed that, by 2016, all UK Government construction and infrastructure projects were to use ‘information-rich’ BIM technologies and processes. Progress across the rest of the international market is also moving forward, although at a slower rate.
For fire and rescue services, the extended application of BIM – when used correctly and built into the lifecycle usage of the building – will make fighting fires safer and more effective. If made available to responders, it will significantly extend the information they have when creating or reviewing tactical plans. BIM will enable well trained fire and rescue service personnel to have a much stronger initial understanding, via prepopulated information, of how a fire is likely to spread in a building – and so how best to protect lives, property and the environment when it occurs. Although this makes people safer, it also places a higher responsibility on individual responders and tactical commanders to use the information when it is available to them in the best possible way. Inevitably, generic approaches will become less and less relevant.
BIM will also enable fire authorities to further develop the link between their prevention/protection strategies and the operational response that covers the remaining risk. A complete review of the approach to the development of tactical firefighting plans is required where BIM data is available. Using BIM, specific strategies for buildings at particular risk can be developed in much more detail. However, with it comes an increased responsibility to keep plans up-to-date and readily available to responders. A failure to do so will be immediately apparent and increase the scrutiny on a service’s approach to the provision of a safe system of work for its staff. They also need to ensure that firefighters know how to respond to, and effectively use, the reams of information they may now have at an incident.
New construction technology
Another key change to the built environment has been the huge growth in inbuilt fire protection measures in newly constructed properties; particularly larger, higher risk structures. As new technologies come to market, buildings will become safer, but firefighting strategies will change. A good example of this is the recent fire at the 86-storey Marina Torch building in Dubai. Despite the size of the fire and the huge flames visible from outside the tower, every resident managed to get out safely and structural damage was limited. This is almost certainly due to the impressive escape route protection now built into new structures like this.
The chief focus of the tactical response will have been on protecting the surrounding area and residents who had made it to the ground, rather than having to deploy all available responders to rescue trapped residents further up the tower. This is a very different approach from the one that would be required on a traditionally designed and constructed high-rise building using older construction methodologies.
Again, this is fantastic news – it reduces the risk to the public and firefighters alike. However, fire response teams need to understand these changes. They require up to date information, not only on what the impact of new technologies will be, but also on what has been designed into the high-risk buildings in their area. This is where BIM becomes particularly useful – as well as strong information sharing partnerships with local organisations, public sector bodies and private businesses.
New firefighting technology
New technology for firefighters themselves is obviously also making an impact on tactical decisions made on the ground. Technology like the ColdCut Cobra®, which allows firefighters to make small incisions into enclosed spaces and fight fires without having to effect full entry, is changing firefighting for the better by improving safety and saving lives. However, as each new technology emerges, it requires a detailed review of firefighting tactics to ensure that money is spent effectively and equipment is used in the most appropriate way.
Likewise, better understanding of tactical ventilation techniques and the use of positive pressure fans to control and create beneficial airflow all have their place, but only with a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the method of construction and design of the building.
The rise of greener building practices and an increased focus on sustainability has had a positive impact on the environment but it has had a knock-on effect for firefighters. Timber-framed buildings are no more inherently dangerous than buildings constructed using higher-tech materials – but they do require specialist management and fire behaviour is fundamentally altered, particularly during the construction phase.
The greatest fire risk undoubtedly arises ahead of completion, due to the amount of exposed flammable material. Other risks that commanders and crews need to be aware of include the higher risk of structural collapse in the early stages of a fire’s development and the increased risk that fire may rapidly spread to adjacent compartments or properties. All of these aspects need to be taken into account by firefighters on the ground – and services will wish to ensure that their teams are prepared. This means that training must be updated, particularly in areas where timber-framed construction is now being used on a regular basis.
As the built environment evolves and changes, fire authorities all over the world need to ensure that they understand how it is changing and what it means for their tactical decision making. Keeping training and policy up to date requires more collaboration and partnership working across fire authorities, government bodies, industry associations and the private sector. Particular attention must be paid to the international perspective, particularly in the western world. More and more, cutting edge construction and design techniques are being developed in the Far and Middle East – and it is vital that learning and best practice from around the world is shared as effectively as possible.
At the Fire Service College, we have built fire safety elements into all of our courses. We ensure that training is as up-to-date as possible by working with a broad range of partners. This includes the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), whose international branches have proved vital in sharing knowledge about new strategies and the impact of new equipment. The College delivers learning and development against the level 3 Certificate in Fire Safety and both the level 4 Certificate and Diploma in Fire Safety. These occupational awards, when combined with the engineering-based examinations from the IFE, provide a substantial level of assurance to service managers and authorities as well as substantial evidence should their safe systems of work ever be questioned.
We also work with organisations including the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to ensure that we can provide thorough briefings and training on the specific risks that come with new design and construction techniques. Other key links include our work with the Fire Protection Association – based at the College itself – and standards bodies across the UK and beyond, including the International Standards Organisation (ISO). This means that we can be confident that the training we provide to the UK fire and rescue services, international fire services and the private sector meet the high standards that should be demanded for this high-risk environment.
We, in turn, then share the expertise that we develop at the College across all industries impacted by fire safety. We do this particularly through our work with the Fire Sector Federation, which works to ensure the free flow of information across all organisations that have a stake in developing this best practice.
It is only by nurturing these links and building all that expertise into our training courses that we can be confident we are keeping students abreast of an ever-changing landscape of best practice. For other authorities worldwide, regular training, reviews of policy and close partnership working are the key tools to make sure that the public and your firefighters are as safe as possible.
For further information, go to www.fireservicecollege.ac.uk