Wrightstyle, the leading UK steel glazing company, supplies its fire-rated systems internationally. Tim Kempster, the company’s managing director, points out that not all fires start accidentally.
They’re a set of statistics that are getting better, but there’s no room for complacency.
In 2011-12, UK local authority fire and rescue services attended 584,500 fires or false alarms, down 7% on 2010-11. Fires decreased by 6% over the previous year to 272,100, while false alarms fell by 8% to 312,400.
The downward trend is welcome, particularly since the number of fire fatalities – 380 in 2011-2012 – was the lowest for the past fifty years. (The highest number of fatalities, 967, happened in 1985-86).
Most fatalities or injuries occur in our homes, particularly homes that don’t have a smoke alarm. (Being overcome by smoke or toxic fumes is partly or wholly the cause of death in over 50% of fires).
But it’s not just in our homes where fire can break out. In 2011-12 there were 24,100 non-residential fires. Although that was a 4% reduction over the previous year, twenty five people died and there were 1,200 non-fatal casualties.
Worryingly, of those non-residential fires, only 70% were accidental – meaning that a sizeable number were set deliberately. (In comparison, 86% of dwelling fires last year were accidental). Indeed, between April and September 2011, there were 71,000 deliberate fires – although that figure was 4% lower than the previous year, reflecting the good work now being undertaken by local authorities and local Community Safety Partnerships.
Some kinds of building are especially vulnerable. For example, in a two-year period to 2009, there were nearly 2,702 incidents of arson on schools, the equivalent of nearly four attacks a day.
So, who are the culprits, why do they do it, and how can they be stopped?
To answer the first question, arsonists are not a homogenous group. They can be from any social class or age group although, unsurprisingly, the majority is in the 10-25 years age group, with the peak age for offending being between 14- and 16-years-old. Also unsurprisingly, the great majority are male.
So why do they do it? Again, there is no easy answer. Some, of course, are waging an insurance fraud. Others, it seems, just do it for the thrill; others from reasons of revenge or hatred. Some have alcohol or drug dependencies. Others are pyromaniacs. Most are just, well, children.
However they are started, arson – or malicious ignition, to give it its Sunday name – continues to be a significant cause of industrial and commercial fires in the UK, although multi-agency approaches are increasing expertise and reducing threat.
Most such fires are started at night, although not always – particularly in commercial or industrial premises that are unoccupied. In the latter, areas such as storerooms or warehouses provide both cover for the arsonist and, importantly, stored materials to fuel the blaze.
Stopping the arsonist isn’t easy, although companies can, and should, take sensible precautions – and, first, as part of a wider fire risk assessment, look specifically at the risk of arson.
A sensible fire risk assessment should look at every aspect of the business, not least how materials are stored to what fire precautions are in place. Mitigating against arson should also include visitor control, employee training and supervision - and ensuring that flammable materials are protected.
But if a fire breaks out, it doesn’t immediately matter if it was started deliberately or not. The important thing is to get everybody in that building to safety. The fire risk assessment should, of course, have addressed each issue in the evacuation process.
For example, occupants in a building should generally be able to escape away from the fire. That means having escape routes protected by fire-resistant materials or self-closing fire doors. It also means recognising that fire travels upwards, so that stairways must also be protected.
It also means having doors that open outwards to make escape easier and, if there are large numbers of people, minimising the crush risk. (Exterior fire doors should also be checked to ensure that obstructions, such as bulk deliveries, aren’t cluttering them up).
Where possible, it means making escape routes as short as possible, with clear signage, and building in planned (and rehearsed) contingencies for evacuating the elderly or infirm. It also means planning for electricity failure and how to evacuate people in darkness.
Most of those issues are addressed in fire and building regulations, and local authority fire departments are always happy to advise. However, many (particularly smaller) companies don’t properly plan or rehearse fire drills, or regularly check extinguishers or the fire alarm. (A handy arson guide for small businesses is published by the UK Arson Prevention Bureau).
At Wrightstyle, our business is about managing the risk of fire. Our systems stop fire, smoke and toxic gases from spreading unchecked – for up to 120 minutes, and thereby minimising fire damage and allowing occupants to escape.
Our compatible systems, with the glass and steel framing systems tested together, are accredited to EU, US and Asia Pacific standards and our advice is to always specify the glass and steel as one unit: in a real fire situation, the glass will only be as protective as its frame, and vice versa. Specify each component separately, and you run the risk of one failing – and therefore the whole fire protective barrier failing.
Psychologically, because fire is such a remote risk, we tend to brush it to one side. After all, there are always more important things to worry about. However, it’s worth remembering that arson costs the UK some £40 million every week, and that’s a cost worth guarding against.