COMMENTARY: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire?

Some two weeks after the horrific blaze at London’s Grenfell Tower, we await a final body count, as officials warn that it could be months before all bodies are recovered, and a final toll may never be known. Understandably, such a spectacular regulatory failure in the heart of a world capital, has roiled British politics, and the unavoidable spectre of race and class were thrust into the “sterile” world of the design and engineering community.

The reaction of UK authorities – inspecting existing buildings that may have similar cladding materials, and the drastic step of evacuating some residents until such materials can be replaced, is admirable. Undoubtedly, there will be ample blame to go around, and investigations will hopefully bring into the light a full and public accounting for 1) how this happened; 2) how the materials were approved; and 3) the response of emergency services to the fire itself.

While the cladding materials now appear to be inappropriate for use in tall buildings, some in the US fire engineering community have quickly invoked the “It can’t happen here” defense, citing standards including NFPA 285 Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components and its incorporation into the International Building Code.

Of course, it CAN happen here. Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS) as these are known, are complex, and require careful attention to installation and use of a “system’ of components — all of which must be according to specification. These materials are also visually difficult to distinguish, making compliance even more challenging. Should non-compliant materials be introduced to a construction site, it would be left to local building and fire inspectors to assure that materials were approved.
Unfortunately, our building regulatory system is fractured, with model codes applied with varying degree of diligence by local authorities with varying levels of expertise, and architects and engineers working under differing regulatory schemes.

The problems of the existing stock of tall residential buildings is in dire need of attention. The only acceptable responses to the Grenfell Tower Fire are:

1. Each and every installation of exterior panel systems must be reviewed and field checked to assure that only appropriate materials were used, and such information should publicly reported;
2. A complete, public, and thorough inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire to include 1) documentation of fire spread; 2) collection and analysis of calls to emergency services, social media, and loved ones form those inside the building; 3) documentation of fire services response.
3. Minimum standards for high-rise residential buildings MUST include retrofit of public address systems, and two-way communication capabilities building on long-documented lessons from US fires in which occupants were killed while attempting to evacuate;
4. Publicly-owned social housing should receive priority for installation of sprinklers for reasons of occupant safety and protection of public investment. Research has established that poverty exacerbates fire risk.
5. The architectural/design/construction industries must support human factors and emergency response research into building management and occupant management during emergencies. The is largely NOT a fire science problem, but one of policy – driven by psychology, organizational behavior, firefighting, and ergonomics. An international investigative and documentation scheme following large or noteworthy fires must be developed, so that we can learn from fires in other countries, and effectively establish emergency operations and building procedures that will be effective in the future.

— Charles R. Jennings, PhD, FIFireE, CFO

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