The all important Fire Strategy

The all important Fire Strategy

To ensure a successful fire safety regime is implemented within a shopping mall it is vital to develop a sound understanding of the key elements that provide the basis to develop and implement a successful fire strategy. Regular contributor to FME and Associate Director of BuroHappold Engineering, Peter Stephenson explains.

The emirate of Dubai is considered as a important global trade centre in the region due to its unique strategic location, and its role as an intermediary to the other emirates in the country. It also provides major products and services in addition to its logistical services. In light of the role of trade in GDP, Dubai has paid close attention in the facilitation of trade by providing easy licensing procedures, communication, storage, and transportation facilities, and commercial centres.

Shopping Malls are now firmly positioned as major attractions for visitors to the GCC with both the Dubai Mall and Mall of Emirates in Dubai providing a complete tourist experience. Emergency planning for any type of incident including fire is a key consideration to both the facility operators and Civil Defence.

Many shopping malls in the region are not only shopping and leisure experiencs but also provide direct interfaces to hotels, apartments and the transportation infrastructure. The evacuation strategy for the whole building must consider all potential users including those who are awake and familiar with the building and those likely to be asleep and unfamiliar with the building layout.

Common fire hazards 

The occupancy profile and density combined with the potential for high fire loads raises concerns when issues are highlighted over inadequate fire safety provisions such as passive building design, active fire protection and fire safety management. When considering the design of a new shopping mall or an assessment of an existing facility a review should be undertaken to ascertain the geometry of the mall and the associated facilities, fire safety provisions including means of escape, fire service access and facilities and the transient occupant loading.

Fire hazards to be considered include electrical malfunctions and open flames, sparks and hot surfaces, commonly found in most restaurants. Large numbers of people, expensive property and large stocks of merchandise rely on a full fire protection solution to keep them safe. And on-going maintenance and functionality of the fire systems are critical to maintaining a safe building for staff and shoppers alike.

To ensure a successful fire safety regime within a shopping mall it is vital to develop a sound understanding of the key elements that provide the basis to develop and implement a successful fire strategy. This should embrace the moral, legal and financial reasons for promoting good standards of safety and should be transparent to all relevant stakeholders. The awaited updated UAE Fire & Life Safety Code will provide a framework for the regulation of fire safety and best practice in the region.

The failure to manage fire safety adequately can often result in death or injury and loss of business confidence can have a significant impact on physical and economic wellbeing. A serious fire in a shopping mall associated with inadequate management of fire safety can begin a spiral of events that may result in total business failure.

Whether looking at a new development or an existing mall it is important to understand the fire risks likely to be encountered during its operation. Because of the fundamental role risk assessments play as a starting point for developing designs and safety management systems, they must be conducted systematically. This approach will help satisfy the law and ensure that nothing which could present a risk is inadvertently omitted and can be relatively easily achieved by a straightforward progression through a number of logical steps.

There are a number of different methodologies that can be used to achieve a systematic approach to risk assessment. In essence the fundamental themes are:

  • identify the hazards
  • decide who might be harmed and how
  • evaluate the risks (in terms of likelihood and severity) and decide whether the existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done
  • record the significant findings
  • review the assessment and revise if necessary

There are many procedures for evaluating risk and these can be applied for any particular risk and should consider a number of factors, such as the complexity of the activities carried out and the type and nature of the workplace.

The key to effective safety management, once the risks have been identified, is to establish and implement a control strategy. The control measures that are implemented to secure the safety of all those at work or who may be affected by the work or work processes, should reflect the local requirements, as a minimum standard, and any technological advances that have been made.

A large, crowded, shopping centre represents a significant potential for loss of life in fire. It therefore requires the highest standards of management to ensure that risks are anticipated and covered by the best possible systems for life safety and property protection.

Often, the one common element in multi-fatality fires is the failure of the occupants to take the right action when fire is discovered, or when the alarm is raised. Only effective fire safety management combined with adequate and appropriate training can ensure that the correct actions are likely to be taken.

Fire engineered solutions

During the development of a fire strategy for a shopping mall it is common practice to follow relevant local guidance contained within fire codes. Due to the size and complexity of many shopping mall developments strict compliance with code is often difficult to achieve and an alternative performance based fire engineered solution is often developed in consultation with the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). A fire engineering design basis should embrace the requirements of all relevant stakeholders and for a shopping complex this can include owners, developers, facility managers, tenants, hotels etc..
All of these stakeholders will have different requirements and objectives but all of these muse be considered within the fire strategy.

Key concepts

The fire strategy should provide information on the design basis for the project and can generally follow a Prescriptive code based approach or Performance based fire engineering approach. As part of the initial design team start-up meetings it is often good practice to conduct a Qualitative Design Review (QDR) to which all relevant project stakeholders should be invited to attend.

From the initial concept fire strategy, the existing fire safety management of an organisation can be appraised and data on existing fire system audit protocols provide useful information that can be analysed. This review would include in-house standards, policies, and existing strategies, etc. The fire systems audit would determine how the fire protection is working in existing buildings. If concerns are raised over existing standards of management and maintenance then future fire strategies for new projects should be cautious of making design assumptions based on a high level of fire safety management and maintenance. A fire system health check involving a third party validation of fire systems is often a worthwhile exercise to establish `if you’ve got what you think you have?’

Mandatory framework

It is important to ensure that the fire strategy clearly states the applicable legislation and mandatory framework relevant to the country and/or region to ensure approval by the AHJ. This should not be limited to building control or municipality requirements but should encompass all relevant stakeholder requirements including insurers and special interest groups in the country/region.

An important factor when developing a fire strategy is to record and set objectives, not necessarily performance or legislatively driven but should consider:

  • Life safety – considering the occupants of the building, the likely number and type of visitors, contractors and in the event of a fire incident the responding firefighters
  • Property – the building structure and type, the fabric, fixed and movable assets
  • Business – the business mission, confidence, long and short term operations
  • Environment – long term, locality, external and internal

Many codes and legislation have evolved following fire events often resulting in large loss of life. Codes often inherently mitigate risk from lessons learnt and provide guidance on basic fire safety concepts such as:

  • occupancy type
  • construction type
  • travel distances
  • number, size and location of exits
  • time to escape
  • Fire Service access requirements
  • fire safety management

Although a code compliant solution can be recorded in a fire strategy, a risk and hazard assessment should be carried out and can follow a qualitative or quantitative assessment methodology. Risk profiling can be incorporated to accompany a hazard assessment and fire modelling can also be undertaken to support the overall analysis.

A conceptual understanding of how different risk profiles require different levels of resource (cost) to arrive at similar residual levels of risk. As an example, a shopping mall will have a different risk profile to an offshore installation, hospital or to an office complex. For similar equivalent levels of risk, different risk profiles will require different levels of investment in fire safety and protection. Similarly, the same level of spend on different risk profiles will result in different residual levels of risk. Consequently, a budget will need to be commensurate with both the risk profile and the acceptable level of risk remaining.

Unique features

Building Characteristics require special considerations to be included in the fire strategy. Starting with the actual location of the building; are there any other buildings or risks nearby? What is their proximity to the relevant building and its boundary?

How is the building to be constructed and what advice can be given to the design team as to the length of fire resistance period required. Also consideration should be given to seismic events and the potential for damage to structural fire protection and fire systems after any seismic activity.

Based on the area, does the building need to be compartmented? Are there any high risk areas or processes requiring special consideration and compartmentation?

Where are the emergency doors and is access to them for fire service vehicles adequate? How many are required?

What are the requirements for the internal linings of the building?

Occupancy Characteristics are also a very important issue to be considered within the fire strategy and building design and should review the following:

  • Occupant profiles – are the occupants awake and familiar with the building (office building) or asleep and not familiar with the building (hotel)?
  • Visitors – number and type – young, old, infirm, family groups, nationality etc.
  • Contractors – permanent site contractors or short term, or one off visits
  • Mobility Impaired Persons (MIPs) – does the building have persons working or visiting the premises that require special assistance? This could be on a permanent or short term basis following an injury?
  • Evacuation Analysis (including pre-movement time) may be required and should acknowledge human behaviour to an alarm/incident
  • Evacuation Modelling and/or people/crowd movement may need to be undertaken to review various fire and other types
    of incidents

Every fire strategy needs to be realistic and pragmatic. Consequently, a number of practical issues should be taken into account including an understanding of the technical, logistical and commercial constraints.

The fire strategy should recognise that it can be easy to over specify and thus overprotect the building with more than that is necessary. The strategy should provide guidance to specifier’s that illustrates this point, that applying more and more fire protection will lead to a point where the marginal value of the protection gets less and less even though the costs continue to be applied.

A process for the development of a fire strategy should be used and this would highlight the key aspects involved in its production. For new build projects the International Planning Stages that cover preparation, design, tender, construction and use can be used and may include German (HOAI), British (RIBA), American (AIA) and Middle East (D) processes.

When reviewing the fire strategy various interactions may be necessary to achieve two main objectives – to get people out and to put the fire out. Fire detection is only the start … Not the solution. To properly meet the key objectives, arrangements may be more complex than realised. To properly meet the key objectives systems will need to work in a complementary fashion and detailed systems cause and effect must be developed and recorded for on-going testing of systems and future expansion.

The importance of engaging an experienced fire safety engineer can assist a design team to determine how important each of the key factors of a fire strategy are to the end result. For example, how reliant is a fire strategy on active fire systems such as sprinklers when compared to fire compartmentation? Can structural fire protection and compartmentation be reduced based on the inclusion of fire suppression systems?

Having developed the fire safety disciplines through the design process for a project the fire strategy should encompass an organisational statement and management procedures, plus strategies for evacuation, fire protection, fire and smoke control and firefighting.

The final Fire Strategy should be in an agreed format style containing the appropriate level of detail for approval by the AHJ. The document should be a controlled “live” document and it is recommended that it is reviewed annually and updated at least once every 5 years and should form the basis for any future building projects and works.