Despite the advances in fire safety in recent years, Andreas Truempy charts how societal shifts and the increasing trend for taller and more complex buildings are demanding smarter technologies.

ALL OVER the world, statistics are constantly highlighting the fact that the potential for fire is an ever present factor in modern life. The estimated economic cost of fire in developed countries alone amounts to approximately 1% of gross domestic product. That is because wherever we live, work or play, human failings such as simple error, incompetence or misbehaviour can cause a fire. On top of our own shortcomings, natural disasters, industrial accidents, extreme weather and terrorist attacks can also lead to
the eventual breakout of fire.

In recent years, improved safety standards, urban planning and stricter construction codes have greatly contributed to a reduction in the threat of fire. Yet as long as injuries and fatalities continue to occur, improvements still need to be made.

Trends and imperatives

The generally accepted trends of growing and ageing populations and the increasing urbanisation of our societies have brought about an architectural trend that aggravates the problems of firefighting: the shift towards multi-tenant and multi-purpose buildings.

This move to construct buildings to accommodate more people in dwellings close to offices, retail, leisure and commercial properties has in turn led to an upsurge in the construction of ever taller buildings. Many of today’s high-rise, multi-storey buildings have been likened to ‘vertical towns’. They can contain many thousands of people occupying many floors, and frequently offer a complex mix of use and occupation. For the purposes of fire prevention, detection and firefighting, these tall buildings represent a very different challenge.

In some countries, the construction of tall buildings is driven by necessity. Too many people, too little available building land or simply the need for people to live within growing conurbations are the driving forces leading the current trend. In other countries and particularly in some developing economies, the need is to create architectural and technological icons in order to compete for prestige, regional investment or simply a greater number of tourists.

Response issues

Whatever the reason behind their conception, the actual construction of these high-profile structures presents numerous problems to those charged with providing emergency response and evacuation capability. More than ever, successful response to the outbreak of fire in a tall building relies on the right actions and the right decisions being made at the right time. In potentially fast developing scenarios, the increased complexity of fighting fire in large and tall buildings of complicated layouts substantially limits the effectiveness of traditional systems and evacuation plans.

Growing expectations

With a growing public awareness of the technologies available, the world is now less inclined to accept any outbreak of fire, let alone to forgive the preventable loss of life should the unthinkable happen.

However, when things do go wrong, public opinion rightly demands even greater accountability. This often leads to the reputations of architects, builders, specifiers, public figures and so forth, being irreversibly damaged and may even bring the long-term commercial viability of such projects into question yet again.

Expectations are rising and not only those of the general public, but also those of the investment community, which is now driving all safety and security technologies to improve incident response and recovery as part of a new move towards improved reputation management strategies.

Best use of technology

Simple detection and alarming is obviously insufficient fire security for tall buildings. In the event of a fire taking hold within a multi-storey location, firefighters are unable to tackle the blaze from ground level or from outside and have to fight it from within. So, in the original planning of any tall building, special attention must now be paid not only to the layout and design of escape routes for the occupants, but also to the access routes for firefighting services to facilitate safe and rapid access to any height, and their timely and effective intervention.

Naturally, the fire resilience of the building’s structure is critical, as is its ability to withstand and contain fire both between floors and vertical compartments. Today’s latest technology also has a major role to play in managing the appropriate emergency response. With the increasingly complex layouts of larger buildings, it is vital that a scalable and flexible fire solution is fully and safely in place. This should fulfil every aspect of adequate and early detection, and of response and evacuation systems
and management.

The correct and appropriate implementation of well-proven, existing safety and security technologies can improve the handling of fire risk and emergencies. Systems that assist in our understanding of events unfolding in a potentially critical incident can also help vastly improve communication with those caught up in the incident. Such people need adequate and up-to-the minute information in order to make important decisions, which might ultimately determine whether they escape unharmed or not.

Safe evacuation

Following notable incidents of recent years, occupants of high-rise buildings might be forgiven for having concerns about how a safe and timely evacuation would be effected in the event of a fire. In such circumstances, large numbers of people would need to escape from several hundred meters above ground level. Providing time for them to evacuate the building and reach safety requires special consideration. The physical condition and capabilities of evacuees, their possible exposure to smoke and heat, the challenge of fire suppression and the potential for thermal weakening of the building structure are all factors that will play a part.

Another of the many difficulties involved in an evacuation where circumstances such as smoke, confusion and fear are hampering those seeking escape is the need for relevant information. People do not need general, non-specific advice but rather pertinent facts about their own particular situation – their location, the threat, the position of emergency exits, the sensible course of action and the best route to take.

Phased evacuation

The complete and safe evacuation of everyone from a typical 20-storey building can take as long as 30 minutes, while evacuating a 50-storey building can take up to 75 minutes. This has led to many tall buildings adopting a policy of phased evacuation, with several designated zones for evacuation at different points and levels throughout the building. In the event of any incident or threat requiring the evacuation of the building’s occupants, they gather at these safe areas in order to await being led to safety.

This approach depends heavily for its success on the occupants ignoring their natural instincts to flee. In a real-life emergency, this will not be achieved through regular drills alone. One factor that might persuade the evacuees to remain calm and follow any predetermined process would be the clear existence of concise and relevant instructions for those people at that particular location.

Mass notification

Proven assets in all evacuation situations – not simply high-rise buildings – are voice evacuation systems. Now a legal requirement in many countries throughout many different sectors such as transport terminals, hospitals, colleges and universities, voice evacuation systems usually combine loud, distinctive and generally understood alarm tones to sound a warning and to focus people’s attention, followed by spoken instructions. They have a distinct advantage over simple bells and alarm sounders, which are often ignored at first when mistaken for a practice drill, and are not always understood. The live, spoken instructions of voice systems deliver vital information about whether to evacuate the building; what to do next; in which direction to proceed, safe and relevant assembly points, and reminders such as not to use the lifts.

On this last point, it is worth noting that extensive research is being undertaken to explore ways in which lifts may be safely employed in future as part of the evacuation process, especially given the extended evacuation times of the world’s multi-storey structures and highest buildings. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai – currently the tallest building in the world – is the first to have some of its lifts programmed for use in a controlled evacuation in the event of a threat to its many occupants.

Some mass notification systems also make use of the prevalent culture of mobile phones and instant messaging. Identifying the position of the recipient through their GPS capability, the systems are able to send accurate and up-to-date information relevant to the specific location of the individual.

Intelligent response

Today’s fire and security industries are looking to performance-based codes and systems to meet the challenges of emergency response and evacuation. Driven by recent advances and breakthroughs in IT and communications, the objective of this concerted move is to ensure improved and more efficient incident management in building environments that are rapidly changing.

In turn, this is moving us towards intelligent response systems, which integrate a number of technologies to ensure occupants can be guided to safety regardless of where they are in the building or their circumstances, and also that incidents are contained and limited effectively and rapidly.

With the adoption of open standards taking place in the building automation arena and gaining momentum in the safety and security industry, the capacity for innovation in fire safety is significant. Already, some detection systems are easily integrated with emergency lighting, voice alarm, mass notification and automatic extinguishing systems. Yet current integration does not stop there. All these emergency systems can also be made to interoperate fully with other security devices and building management systems, so that smoke can be controlled effectively, along with access-controlled doors and lifts to facilitate exit from a high-rise building in any potential fire situation.

Multi-modal systems

To take this combined and multi-faceted approach even further, the intelligent response systems of the future will use a wide variety of fully integrated, multi-modal technologies. In the same way that today’s building technologies can employ the heating and ventilation of a building on a demand-controlled basis to optimise internal conditions for occupants’ comfort as well as energy and cost efficiencies, the systems of the future will be able to manage all events arising from a fire alarm or other incident.

Future systems will use all the detectors, cameras, sensors and other field devices installed throughout the high-rise building to collect and analyse data on a continuous basis. When the need arises, the management and control systems will react to collected data that indicates the potential for fire or other threat to safety and security.
Pre-determined responses will trigger the necessary systems to manage the incident in an appropriate way depending on the size, nature and severity of the threat.

The systems will automatically provide dynamically updated and specifically targeted instructions to everybody affected. Particular information relevant to groups and individuals in separate/different locations will be communicated by mobile phone, text messaging and other means to guide them quickly and efficiently to safety.

Tall building applications

Imposing high-rise, multi-storey buildings represent significant financial investment and present many challenges for fire safety. The parallel trend in firefighting technologies will only accelerate as technology progresses and bypasses the traditional errors of manual procedures with automated functionality. Intelligent response systems of the future will analyse all available building information, provide dynamically updated instructions for online operations and recommend immediate actions to be taken in order to mitigate the situation, as well as assisting evacuees to depart the scene of the fire, even in the tallest building.

Importantly too, these systems will enable the response and emergency services, such as firefighters, the ambulance service, security guards and the police, to communicate efficiently with each other. This will help them work together most effectively to contain the incident, limit the threat it poses, help those caught up in it, and minimise the damage and injury caused. Such methods will make it possible to mitigate the effects and scale of the incident, and to keep recovery time for the building, businesses and people involved to an absolute minimum

Andreas Truempy is head of global platform management for fire safety products at Siemens.

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