Opinion: recent fire disasters demonstrate the need to transfer knowledge gained through research into everyday fire safety practices

Recent events worldwide have shown the importance of fire safety. A huge number of people lost their lives in this week's wildfires in Greece which followed the tragic events last year at the Grenfell Tower in London and huge forest fires in California, Portugal and Spain.

Over the years, the pursuit for the control of fire has become the holy grail of fire safety engineering. In terms of safety management, wildfires and building fires are the two main threats to be addressed.

How do wildfires spread so quickly?

Wildfires are complex in many ways as they include numerous physical mechanisms and phenomena. The main difference between building fires and wildfires are the scale of the phenomena and the prevailing conditions. They involve a wide range of scientific areas that mainly include flaming and smouldering combustion, pyrolysis, fuels thermal degradation, physical, flow dynamics and radiative heat transfer. The main parameters that influence how wildfires develop are vegetation properties, topography and environmental conditions such as wind.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Miriam O'Callaghan, a report on the worst wildfire to hit Greece in over a decade

What are the causes and impact of fires in high-rise buildings?

New façade design concepts and construction materials constantly challenge established fire safety regulations. Due to the ever-stricter energy performance requirements, there is a growing trend of installing thermal insulation materials, which are usually flammable, on building façades. This energy saving practice is adversely affecting the building’s fire safety characteristics. The impact of recent high-rise building fires around the world include loss of life and injuries, property and infrastructure loss, business interruption, ecosystem degradation, soil erosion and huge firefighting costs.

What's required to ensure a building's fire safety?

Requirements for the design of a building are an essential part of the planning procedure. When a building is designed, the issue of fire prevention should be dealt with, among other things. The measures taken are divided into two categories, namely active and passive fire protection measures. The former include all the actions of constructions, equipment, training and operations related to suppression when the fire has occurred, including fire detection systems, alert and firefighting mobilisation procedures and all extinguishing procedures.

New design concepts and construction materials constantly challenge established fire safety regulations

Passive fire protection measures include all the measures, tasks and constructions required to prevent fire initiation and spread in the interior of a building. This can be achieved by selecting components with a satisfactory degree of fire resistance depending on the occupancy requirements to guarantee the existence and proper design of the necessary escape routes for safe evacuation.

From RTÉ One Prime Time, could a Grenfell Tower fire occur in Ireland?

What should people look for in their own homes and buildings?

On average, 35 people die each year because their smoke alarm is not working so the most important preventing action is the proper positioning and regular (at least monthly) check of certified fire alarms. Residents must ensure they are aware of the evacuation plan if the smoke alarm goes off.

In case of evacuation, you should remain calm, inform the fire and rescue services and not try to put out the fire yourself. If there is smoke, evacuators should keep their heads down where the air is clearer and make sure a door is not warm before opening it. In high-rise buildings, residents are advised to remain in their room and inform the rescue services of their locations if they cannot safely evacuate. If they are located high up, they are also advised not to use the balconies and the lifts, but to use the stairs if it’s possible to evacuate.

Though fire is a problem that we have tackled since antiquity, the question of how best to respond to fires to minimise their consequences is yet to be answered

A more direct way to prevent fires is to make sure they don’t start in the first place. Key areas of origin in residential fires are kitchen (34 percent), bedroom (12 percent) and living room (six percent). Most common ignition sources include cigarettes, candles, heaters, electrics and cables, overcharged plugs and cooking accidents. Kitchen pans should be always watched and children should not be left unattended. If a pan catches fire, no water should be thrown over it and the heat should be turned off if it's safe to do so.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Louise Byrne reports from London's Grenfell Tower ahead of the one-year anniversary of the fire that claimed the lives of 72 people

Regular checks before bedtime can easily prevent house fires and such a checklist should include the following:

· Close all interior doors

· Unplug devices

· Check the cooker is off

· Do not leave the dishwasher or washing-machine on at night

· Turn off heaters

· Put a fire-guard around the fireplace

· Check doors to the outside are clear

· Easy access to keys

· Put out candles and cigarettes

How can science help us to understand and control fire disasters?

There is a large fire engineering community actively studying and contributing to our common knowledge of fire and prevention. Though fire is a problem that we have tackled since antiquity, some of the fundamental questions of how fire and climate affect each other, how people behave in emergency and how best to respond to fires to minimise their consequences are yet to be answered.

Despite the fact that fire engineering community has acquired the necessary scientific tools over the years to make significant advancements, there is still a lack of funding invested to further develop and implement proper safety technologies, as pointed out in Nature. Everyday fire events around the word demonstrate the need to transfer knowledge gained through research into everyday fire protection practices. It’s time to treat both wildfires and urban fires as serious disasters and help implement proper regulations and fire tactics to improve our life safety, reduce losses and increase environmental protection.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ