It is still not known how often fire drills and safety checks were undertaken at the Villago Mall in Doha, Qatar, where it is alleged engineering faults and building design deficiencies have contributed to the deaths of 19 people, including 13 children, in a fire last week.
Is it also not certain whether any of the kids would be alive today had more frequent and/or more thorough drills occurred.
Given reports of sprinkler system failures and alarm inadequacies, however, it would seem to an outsider that drills were not conducted frequently enough.
Furthermore, given the apparent failure to identify how narrow entry points and passageways could inhibit emergency rescue efforts, it would also seem that any efforts regarding fire safety risk assessments turned out to be inadequate.
In the wake of the Villago disaster, a prominent engineer has spoken out about the need to take reasonable steps to protect building occupants from fire hazards.
Speaking recently to Construction Week Online, Dean McGrail, head of specialists for the Middle East division of engineering consulting firm WSP Middle East, says building occupiers and managers in the United Kingdom have a moral responsibility to undertake regular assessments of their premises and immediate surroundings to identify potential fire safety risks.
While such obligations do not apply in every country, McGrail acknowledges, he says building managers have a moral – and potentially legal – duty to undertake any reasonable and appropriate steps to mitigate any risks and danger to occupants in the event that a fire does occur.
“The completion of regular fire risk assessments by a competent person is one way in which this moral and legal obligation can be demonstrated,” he says.
Follow-up Action Required
Once an assessment is done and potential causes of fire are identified, follow-up action is required, McGrail says. This will serve to reduce both the possibility of fire occurring and the likelihood of harm to building occupants and emergency service personnel in the event a fire does occur.
McGrail says a number of simple steps can make a big difference. Smoking, for starters, should be confined to designated external areas. As for electrical equipment, fire and life safety systems such as sprinklers, alarms and detection systems, these should be regularly tested and well-maintained. Accumulation of waste should be controlled and the use and storage of flammable materials kept to a minimum.
In terms of building layout, escape routes must be clearly identified and kept fully accessible at all times. As we have seen through Villago, too, entry areas and passageways must be sufficient to ensure emergency personnel proper access to the building.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, there must be a strong fire safety management and evacuation plan. This has to be developed and tested, with appropriate personnel assigned to tasks and levels of staff training provided, and must be accompanied by regular drills and continuous review and assessment of risks.
Above all, McGrail says, basic routine procedures are more important than building design.
“Mitigation features include the incorporation of active fire protection systems such as sprinklers and automatic fire detection and communications systems, passive fire protection measures such as fire rated walls and protection to the structure together with protected means of egress routes to enable occupants to efficiently and safely evacuate the building should the need arise,” McGrail says.
“However, no matter how good the design of a building, if routine fire safety management procedures are not implemented then the lives of building occupants and Civil Defence officers are put at unnecessary risk.”
If indeed practices at Villago do turn out to have been deficient, then we will never know if better procedures could have saved 19 lives.
What we do know, however, is that good practices elsewhere will almost certainly save lives in the future.