Designs critical to building safety, say experts

Fire scene in Lagos

To reduce the possibility and impact of fire outbreaks, professionals say building designs in cities must include safety regulations.

Amid of the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, which engulfed the 24-story apartment building in London recently and the persistent outbreaks of fire in several Nigerian cities, experts have raised concerns over safety regulations in the built environment.

They urged homeowners and authorities to make the issue of fire precautions a critical component of buildings and public facilities rather than an afterthought, especially during the Harmattan period.

The Harmattan season is usually more susceptible to fire outbreaks as recent developments indicate in Oyo, Delta, Lagos, Kaduna, Ogun States, and others, were commercial, and residential buildings, as well as public properties worth millions of naira, were destroyed.

Late last year, the popular Balogun market in central Lagos and other adjoining five-story buildings on the edge of the market were engulfed in fire.

Three buildings and four shops on the Oke- Itoku road in the Abeokuta South Local Government Area of Ogun State were gutted by fire late last year even as victims lost university certificates and other valuables in the incident. According to an eyewitness, the fire started from one of the buildings in the area and later spread to the others.

Similarly, the Akesan market in the Oyo state has also been consumed in inferno. Harmattan fire has also engulfed a story building at First Marine Gate, Warri, and Delta State, destroying property worth millions of naira.

Fire disasters have become inevitable occurrences that have to be dealt with from time to time. In some parts of the world, wildfires have been raging, causing extensive havoc, particularly, in Australia, and other parts of Africa. Australia keeps battling its catastrophic bushfire, which has killed about 25 people and destroyed more than 1,700 homes.

Available statistics show that fires, floods, and other disasters cost the world about $150 billion in 2019 while losses for businesses and economies are expected to increase as the dry weather thickens.

As a result, there is the need to take fire fighting as an integral part of the necessities of town planning. The most common causes of fires in commercial buildings are cooking equipment, heating equipment, electrical and lighting equipment, smoking materials, and others.

Essentially, to reduce the impact and possibility of fire, town planners, facility managers, and architects believed that the building codes of most cities must include fire safety regulations. In other words, alarms, and exit signs; to isolate equipment and materials that could cause a fire or explode if exposed to fire, and to install fire-extinguishing equipment at regular intervals throughout a structure.

Furthermore, fire-retardant building materials have also been developed, such as the paints and chemicals used to coat and impregnate combustible materials, such as wood and fabric.

To reduce the hazardous effects of fire, building experts advocated that the most basic mechanism is an alarm system, which warns people to leave a building at once, alerts the fire department, and identifies the location of a fire within a structure.

During the design of buildings, an architect must consider not only public health and safety but also the fire protection of the property. Critical consideration must be given to the materials used in the design for proper flow and layout for rescue. The materials employed in a building’s construction will significantly influence the fire safety of the property, but also the ease of access for first responders. Commercial and residential architecture of buildings must not contain excessive amounts of combustible or smoke producing materials.

Expounding on precautionary measures to curtail fire outbreaks, in an interview with The Guardian, an architect/ Professor of urban and regional planning, at the University of Lagos, Leke Oduwaye, said people must ensure that their buildings are fire-certified during this season, by installing the necessary specifications that could mitigate the impact of fire, should such incidents occur or prevent fire occurrence out-rightly.

Oduwaye disclosed that technology has made it possible to design fire alarms into buildings stating that such measures automatically alerts occupants once the temperature of a building rises beyond an acceptable degree.

He explained that the architects who design buildings should make sure that they are safe for an emergency, which could come as a result of negligence so that people could be evacuated easily and fast.

He said one of the best defenses against fires in buildings, is to understand and mitigate the risks by increasing public understanding of the causes of fire and learning effective reaction to a successful fire-prevention program.

“As much as possible, there should be proper cross ventilation in buildings and public education for Nigerians on how life fire operates. Fire is like gas and its smoke is usually on top. People should lie down if there is a fire indoor if you want to run out, try to crawl because the smoke will be on top. It is the carbon that people inhale that is really the problem and not the burn directly. The way we organise our lifestyle should be reviewed especially the gas burners must be locked at all times. Our cities are not networked with gas lines and so occasionally there are gas explosions.

“In estates, one would expect that there should be piped gas so that there would be a service centre where there would be metering of gas consumption and people won’t be allowed to use bottle gas as part of conditions before selling lands to buyers”.

“There are many automatic devices that can detect the presence of fire. These include heat-sensitive devices, which are activated if a specific temperature is reached; a rate-of-rise detector, which is triggered either by a quick or a gradual escalation of temperature; and smoke detectors, which sense changes caused by the presence of smoke, in the intensity of light, in the refraction of light, or in the ionization of air.

The effectiveness of these systems has been proved in data accumulated from throughout the world: in buildings protected by sprinkler systems that had fires, the system extinguished fires in 65 percent of the cases and contained fires until other fire-fighting measures could be taken in 32 percent of the cases. A major problem with sprinkler systems is the potential for water damage, but it has been found that in most cases this threat is minimal compared with the damage that a fire could cause.”

Importantly, he urged authorities to regulate the habits of people selling gas in shops close to residential areas during harmattan adding that there should the standard for locations and sellers must be made to get approvals from the government.

He said there is a need for a fire hydrant in locations for the firefighter to easily key into should there be fire. Fire hydrants are a connection point by which firefighters can tap into the water supply as a component of active fire protection.

“When we talk about big buildings, there should be planning for fire hydrants and owners suppose to get clearance from the fire service. With fire hydrants in strategic locations, there won’t be a need for people to bring water tankers”.

The acting president, International Facility Management Association, (IFMA), Mr Segun Adebayo said to reduce fire outbreaks, it is high time for stakeholders, to begin to deepen sensitisation around fire-related incidents in private and public infrastructures.

He noted that for every infrastructure, there are required processes around the quality of materials and products that should be used. This, he said people must learn to comply with. According to him, it has become necessary for people, to have smoke detectors and fire alarms in every building.

“From the point of smoke detector, you will be able to discover the source of fire and have your fire fighting materials properly placed, to fight the fire. If we are buying cables, it should be original that is certified for that purpose. Ensure that specifications are used in line with standard operating procedures. We shouldn’t overload the sockets or cables that could lead to a fire incident. We are fast becoming a reactive nation and people. Most the markets don’t conform to safety emergency consciousness. We need to be emergency prepared.”

“We must ensure that buildings are clear of any combustible materials and there must proper installation of fire fighting devices which include fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers because they have a way to help fight fire at the initial stage. We must also have properly trained people that could fight fire at the immediate”, Adebayo said.

A facility manager, Lekan Adewunmi stressed the need for provision of powder extinguisher for electrical fire outbreaks and the ‘water-like one’ alternative for other causes of fire in buildings as a crucial fire emergency procedure. He said building managers and owners must create escape routes devoid of loads in their facilities.

Adewunmi said, “In the kitchen environment, we have to make sure that there are no careless naked wires or fire. If it is a heavily populated building, you must have your fire extinguisher around. Also when everybody is leaving the house, make sure that all electrical appliances are turned off because there could be a power surge when people are not around. People burning bushes or dirt must have someone stay there in order to control the fire if it goes a-wire because nowadays, the breeze could just take a paper up and then spread to cause fire accidents. If it is a large environment, there should be fire extinguishers in various sizes and residents must be conversant with how to use it”.

“In a high-rise, for example, a 12-floors, each floor must have their own fire extinguishers shower pipe, sprinkle one or fire hose extinguishers. The escape root must be free from any hindrance. It shouldn’t be that where people suppose to take, you have to start packing loads from there. There must be a point- a place where people evacuate to immediately there is a fire in a building”.

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