Fire Safety, tragically, in the Spotlight

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Following the deeply upsetting fire in a tower block in west London this week, there is understandably a real focus by the press and general public on fire standards, particularly in high-rise buildings.

Much has already been spoken and written on regarding the age and condition of the building in question, the potential impact of the recently installed cladding and the affect it had on the spread of the fire, and the fire safety advice that was given to the residents. There also appears to have been a large (and complex) network of contractors and service providers involved in maintaining the building. Needless to say, there is likely to be political and regulatory ramifications in the weeks, months and years ahead following this tragedy in one of the world’s largest, wealthiest and most modern cities.

The catastrophic event at Grenfell Tower reminded me of a case in 2009, when Royal Dutch Shell plc, one of the world’s largest oil companies, received a fine for repeated breaches of fire regulations at the Shell Centre on London's South Bank. In fact, the £300,000 fine and £45,000 in costs Shell was ordered to pay was the largest fine ever issued under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (the “RRO”).

The Inspecting Officers of the London Fire Brigade found several serious breaches including blocked escape routes and fire exits as well as defective fire doors and excessive fire loading (which had been significantly increased because of refurbishments taking place in the upper floors). The findings were so severe the London Fire Brigade served a prohibition notice to Shell which restricted the use of the Shell Tower and basement levels for a number of days.

The circumstances of that case were very different but Shell was very lucky the fine was based on the results of only a couple of small fires and numerous inspections and not as a result of a much more significant incident such as the Grenfell Tower.

In the blanket news coverage of the disaster in London one particular commentary on The Guardian website in the UK really caught my eye. It noted that “The German authorities have been saying that a fire like Grenfell Tower could not happen in Germany. The head of Frankfurt’s fire service [said] tight guidelines governing the fire safety of tower blocks in Germany mean such a fire could not happen here.”

More specifically, “According to the rules here, the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower is not allowed on buildings that are higher than 22 meters, and that has been the case since guidelines were introduced in the 1980s.”

The news item goes on to say that “Following the London fire, the Association for the Promotion of German Fire Safety (Vfdb) has ordered the renewed inspection of all buildings in Germany, whether tower blocks or other types, that are over a certain age. Many of these, they say, are not fitted with sprinkler systems or firefighting equipment. The association has also called for unified international standards governing fire safety in buildings.”

This highlights a number of questions and discussion points with regards to the wider international context of fire safety regulations. The main one is:

Why are regulations on this topic not more standardized globally, or at least at the EU level?

France, for example, already has a specific regulatory framework for high-rise buildings (immeubles de grande hauteur (IGH)). It applies to all types of buildings, including office buildings.

In Germany, building legislation and related fire safety legislation is generally the competency of the German states (lander), so each state has their own provisions which are based on a common standard agreed by all states. It is important to note however, that sometimes states do not implement these standards word-by-word, so there can be slight variations from state to state.

On a separate but closely related topic, Uli Steiger, Enhesa’s Senior Regulatory Analyst covering Germany also points out that “Germany is currently at loggerheads with the European Commission over construction products. Germany has been pointing out shortcomings in harmonized European standards to the European Commission for years. In the past, Germany compensated for these shortcomings by introducing additional national rules to ensure that the requirements for construction works, in terms of safety, health and environmental protection, are met despite the deficient standards. However, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared this practice inadmissible in its judgment of 16 October 2014. As a result, Germany raised objections against a first set of six harmonized standards in 2015. The first two objections have now been rejected by the European Commission. Germany has therefore decided to bring a case before the General Court of the European Union.”

In summary, there remain a great many variations at national, state and even municipal level in terms of fire safety standards and regulation, even at the EU level and within EU Member States. It is a sad fact that it sometimes takes a reactive approach to improve matters, but perhaps in the long-term some good will come from the London tower block disaster.

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