A Very Difficult Fire Risk Assessment

WHEN THE FIRE RISK ASSESSOR CALLS

The law of the land* is that if you employ more than 4 persons, or if you need a licence to do what you do in your premises, you need a written Fire Risk Assessment.  That’s what we do, Fire Risk Assessments.  When I go out to a premises I can never be sure what’s going to arise…..

This building used to be a deep freeze store.    (The occupiers have agreed I can discuss the problems arising but we don’t want to reveal their name).    Note the lack of windows.

                            

 

 

They were hardly likely to put windows in when the place was a deep freeze store.  One side is attached to the next building.  And this building is big – a 35 metre square with four levels.  So let’s have a look inside.

    

 

 

Storage was jammed in floor to ceiling.  The more they store, the more income they generate, which is what the business is all about.    When the place finally warmed up after years of being frozen, part of the ceiling collapsed.  This revealed what’s up there – a layer of expanded polystyrene with two layers of cork above, all designed to provide the insulation necessary to maintain low temperatures.

         

 

The cork is still in place and there are masses of expanded polystyrene still up there.   A fire involving these materials would be ferocious.  Bearing in mind that the ceilings have not collapsed in other areas, all these materials are still in place and there is a huge potential for production of heat and smoke in a fire.   The ceiling is absolutely the worst place for combustible materials because heat and smoke from a fire rise to ceiling level and spread out, quickly involving any combustibles that are up there.   The floors, by the way, are of substantial construction – a stacker truck safely moves across the floors.

Is there a significant hazard to persons at work?  You bet there is!   Ignition hazards are very low in this place – let’s be thankful for that – but if ignition occurs and a fire develops it will roll across the ceilings, possibly faster than persons can move to the exits.   First priority has to be to remove all those combustibles from the ceilings.  This is no joke for the person who will be paying a fortune for disposal of these materials, besides working around the unwanted interruptions to business.   There’s no getting away from it though, this is a nettle the Fire Risk Assessor has to grasp: the message cannot be softened.

A fire occurred in Woolworth’s in Manchester in 1979.  Display furnishings caught fire and heat and smoke rolled across the fairly low ceiling so quickly that people nearby couldn’t make it to the exits.   The above scenario is worse than the Woolworth’s one because the ceiling linings would contribute additional energy to a fire.  The above scenario is also worse because of the lack of windows.  There is nowhere for the heat and smoke to ventilate away.   Even with removal of all that cork and polystyrene, the fire hazard is still a high one.

What can be recommended to mitigate the problems and reduce the hazards?   Best answer is a sprinkler system, so any fire is controlled long enough for the Fire Brigade to make it safe.  Install windows or some form of extract ventilation.  Install a fire detection system.  Take all the insulation away from the walls.   Do we see any easy or inexpensive answers here?

There was lots more fine detail in the Fire Risk Assessment, but this particular place threw up unique and almost insurmountable problems.  It is still a nightmarish thought that if fire occurs in the building as it is, fire-fighters might not be able to gain access.  High expansion foam would be considered, but without an exit path for the smoke the foam won’t go in.  I would envisage a man with a crane and a demolition ball being brought in to start knocking a few holes in the building – fire-fighting would be that difficult.   I was once a fire-fighter, stationed just down the road from this place.  Makes you think, doesn’t it.

In the end, it is our skill, expertise and experience as Fire Risk Assessors that our clients rely on.  We find the best cost-effective answers to problems for our clients.

Landlord prosecuted after fire

The landlord of a Milton Keynes house where two people died in a fire has pleaded guilty to three breaches of fire safety regulations.
Lookman Adeyemi of Bletchley will be sentenced on March 29th after admitting the breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 at Amersham Law Courts last Friday (March 9th).
In September 2010, 29-year-old Bola Ejifunmilayo and her three-year-old daughter Fiyin died from the effects of smoke inhalation following the blaze at the house on Fishermead Boulevard.
Mr Adeyemi admitted having insufficient fire detectors and alarms at the premises, failing to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and failing to ensure that quick and safe evacuation was possible.
His plea of not guilty to a fourth count – that there was inadequate emergency lighting in the premises – was accepted.
Chris Bailey, group manager of Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service, told the Milton Keynes Citizen: “We are very pleased with today’s outcome. We look forward with interest to the judge’s sentencing remarks.
“The judge made it clear to the defendant that he could not rule out a custodial sentence.”

London Hotel Pays £250,000 in Landmark Trial

A London hotel has had to pay more than £260,000 in fines and costs in what is believed to be the first jury trial of a case under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

The Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited and its sole director, Michael Wilson, had pleaded not guilty to a total of 12 offences under the Fire Safety Order. The trial took place at Blackfriars Crown Court between 28 November and 6 December 2011 and sentencing was on Monday 6 February.
The offences date back to 18 May 2008 when London Fire Brigade was called to a fire at the hotel on Nether Street in Finchley, North London. The blaze had spread quickly from a first floor guest bedroom, up a staircase to the floor above and along a corridor.
Three people escaped from the fire, two by using the stairs and a third by climbing out of a second floor window.
Following the blaze, fire safety inspectors visited the hotel and raised a number of concerns. These included defective fire doors, blocked escape routes and no smoke alarms in some of the hotel’s bedrooms. Mr Wilson was also unable to produce a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and was found not to have provided staff with adequate fire safety training.
The fine was divided between the individual defendant, Michael Wilson (£180,000) and the corporate defendant, Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited (£30,000). The defendants were further ordered to pay prosecution costs of £50,000, and compensation of £2,000 to the guest who escaped through a second floor window.
The company was found guilty of six offences, while Mr Wilson was found guilty of ‘consent or connivance in the commission’ of those same offences:
• Failure to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of risk (article 9)
• Failure to provide staff with adequate safety training (article 21)
• Failure to ensure emergency routes from the premises are kept clear (article 14)
• Failure to adequately equip premises with fire detectors (article 13)
• Two counts of failure to ensure premises, facilities, equipment or devices are maintained in an efficient state, in working order and in good repair (article 17)
“Business owners have a clear responsibility under fire safety law to ensure that both the public and their employees are as safe as possible from the risk of fire,” said Brian Coleman, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. “This verdict sends out a clear message that if these responsibilities are ignored we will not hesitate in prosecuting and people will face serious penalties.”
Article from February Safety and Health Practitioner.
Top Storey Club Fire

51 YEARS AGO

THE TOP STOREY CLUB, BOLTON,   1ST MAY 1961 by Bill Armstrong

It seems a little strange that a fire in Bolton town centre could have taken 19 lives only for it to have drifted back into the mists of time over the 50 years since it happened.    Let’s take a look at those events and the repercussions from them.

May 1st 1961 was a Monday.  This was fortunate, because it meant that by 10.30 p.m. there were “only” 24 people in the club.   In the three months of its existence, it was not unusual for the Top Story Club to have more than 200 people in the premises, particularly on a Saturday evening.   The club was popular, part of its attraction being the tortuous route from the front door on Crown Street up to the second floor where, after passing through a commercial property occupied by the Harker and Howarth Piano Workshop on the ground floor and its store rooms on the first floor, visitors would emerge abruptly into a plush nightclub environment on the second, top, floor.

Bolton Fire Brigade had expressed concerns regarding the safety of the club if a fire occurred.  The owner of the nightclub was Stan Wilcox.  He was among those present on this fateful Monday evening. Stan had agreed to make improvements when the place made some money, an oft-heard approach from many a business owner.   It is perhaps surprising to realise that there was nothing more that could be done to force matters along.   The lack of fire precautions was blatant and obvious to any person with half an eye for such matters.   Access to the club was via a stairway that had no effective fire separation from the rest of the building.  There was no other exit from the top floor.  The building did not have the benefit of a fire alarm.   It seems that the only nod towards fire safety was the provision of a few extinguishers.  The manager of the Top Storey Club was Bill Bohannon.   He was assisted by a doorman, a local character called Pedro Gonzales.   It was around 10.30 when someone smelled smoke.
The manager went to check it out and everyone else stayed right where they were.  He looked into the piano workshop at ground level and found it to be on fire.   First reaction, shout to the doorman to come and help, which Pedro promptly did, and to call the Fire Brigade.   And everyone else stayed right where they were…..    Pedro tackled the fire with a nearby extinguisher but had little effect on it.  You can imagine the varnishes, solvents and generally large amounts of timber that would be in use in such a place.   He was driven back as the fire grew.

The Fire Brigade were there in less than three minutes, the station being less than half a mile away.   By the time they arrived the disaster had run its course.

Separation between the stairway and the piano workshop was by means of hardboard.   The fire grew and quickly broke through into the stairway.  Heat and smoke billowed up to the club room.  The remaining 22 people suddenly realised they were in mortal danger.   Two main effects were afterwards apparent.
Firstly, there was a scramble to the windows at the side of the building as the occupants desperately sought fresh air.  These windows looked out over a horrible drop, with the River Croal, hardly more than a stream in fact, running through its cobbled channel about 50 feet below.   Eight people were either forced out, or maybe they decided to leap and take their chance on landing in the water.  Three people survived this awful descent, which was in itself amazing.

Now the Top Storey Club was in a building that was once a warehouse.  There were loading doors over the front of the building and the second effect of the fire was that some of those trapped made a desperate attempt to open them.   Loading doors open inwards.  Nightclubs have dance floors.  The doors moved about an inch before hitting the edge of the dance floor.   A number of casualties were found lying against these doors.  They can only have had a few seconds to get the doors open.   A supreme irony was that the hinges would have allowed the doors to lift and open up.   A furniture van parked outside offered a drop of about 9 feet (2.75 metres) onto its roof.   While nobody would seriously plan such a drop onto a vehicle as a means of escape, it was in this case infinitely preferable to the drop from the side windows.

The local fire-fighters, some of whom I later met whilst working in the Fire Service at Bolton, fought their way in but there were no survivors other than the three badly injured persons who had survived the jump.  As the dust settled and the appalling nature of this incident became apparent, there was a sense of national shock.  This was at the time the worst loss of life in a fire since the Second World War.  Why did it happen?   Something must be done about this!     An investigation was carried out as to the cause of the fire.  The materials in the workshop that contributed to such a rapid build-up and spread of the fire were such as to be expected in that place.  It was never established whether deliberate ignition, an electrical
fault or some other cause set that terrible train of events in motion.

The loss of 19 lives is not acceptable.   Owners of properties, who are not necessarily conversant with fire precautions, sometimes have to be forced to bring about improvements.   Modern legislation allows Fire Authorities to enforce fire precautions where necessary.    We should stay aware of the Top Storey Club disaster – to forget it is to risk it happening again.