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Retrospective fire strategies: The good, the bad .... and the downright dangerous!

Following on from my article 2 weeks back on the dangers of "cheap and cheerful" fire strategies, I thought I would detail what I believe are the key ingredients of a proper fire strategy. But first, I want to make it clear that a fire strategy is not the same as a fire risk assessment.

A fire risk assessment is somewhat based upon a relative subjective inspection of a building over the duration of that inspection. A fire strategy is a detailed document specifying the various means used to provide for the fire safety and protection objectives determined for that building. The objectives are usually to provide for compliance with national regulations but they may also include for asset protection, business continuity and environmental issues.

It was 10 years since I wrote the British Standard Specification for Fire Strategies, PAS 911. The document was designed to describe the sequence and methodology behind the preparation of both new fire strategies and retrospective fire strategies. It was also intended for an international audience. The Specification was written as a result of many not knowing what exactly a fire strategy is, and what it should contain. Note that the document is not a "how to do it" guide, or explains what the strategy should look like. In the UK, for instance, many fire strategies follow the sections of the UK Building Regulations - Approved Document B.

In many ways, the formulation of a retrospective fire strategy requires fire engineers to be a bit of a detective. They will need to rummage deep to get a proper understanding of the building and its uses. They will also need to be inventive by taking various strands of the fire safety as seen and combine them into a coherent set of provisions. And they will need to pull upon their fire engineering knowledge and experience to verify if what is provided is also what is expected. Here are some pointers:

  • A retrospective fire strategy needs to understand how the original design strategy was formulated. Did it use prescriptive standards or was a performance based approach adopted? If it was the latter, are the performance objectives available to review as things may well have changed?

  • The fire engineer will need to re-evaluate means of escape - both horizontally and vertically as the occupancy profile and internal layouts may have changed since the building was originally conceived. This is more than a simple judgement exercise and should include re-calculations. In some cases, it may require smoke and evacuation modelling.

  • The evacuation strategy should be clearly described. Also to be considered, is how the cause and effect sequence from detection of a fire impacts on the evacuation strategy. Other aspects of the evacuation, such as suitability and location of assembly points need to be stated. I think a map or plan of these points is always helpful.

  • Factors such as smoke control can be hard to determine retrospectively. Ideally the strategy should be able to explain the methodologies incorporated and provide, as appropriate, relevant performance criteria.

  • Evaluation of the structural and fire compartmentation elements of the building will also need to be re-evaluated. Ideally the strategy should include drawings of the compartmentation layout with the appropriate rating specified.

  • The means to fight fire should be clearly specified. Aspects such as firefighter access and fire fighting water supplies should be described. The fire engineer should personally assure themselves that the systems are available and still compliant. I am not suggesting, however, that this is an actual test of the equipment.

There are many, many other aspects that may need to be included in the strategy. A good fire strategy will take time to prepare. Each section will need to be fully considered before the final document is produced.

Strategies that contain incorrect statements, or have not considered key aspects of the provisions, are not just bad but potentially dangerous.

Back to the subject, I also wrote a book "Fire strategies - strategic thinking" in 2013 that is designed for fire engineers and those who have an interest in the subject. This may be of interest for those who want to know more. (Available from Amazon).

Many thanks for your time.

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