The historical development of fire safety legislation, regulations, codes and standards has all too often followed significant fire incidents resulting in extensive property damage and/or loss of life. Codes, regulatory requirements, standards, specifications and recommended practices are used in all aspects of construction including fire safety.
One of the earliest examples of the introduction of new regulations followed the Great fire of Rome on the 19th July AD 64, which resulted in large portions of the city being destroyed by fire over a period of 10 days. Emperor Nero ordered that the external walls of new buildings were to be constructed of non-combustible materials and regulations to back the order up were introduced. From a historical perspective, uncontrolled fires have occurred throughout the centuries affecting our homes and cities.
Readers will be familiar with the great fire of London (see below) but may not be so familiar with the fire which occurred in Southwark, London in 1212. It swept through ale houses and the St Mary Overy site of Southwark Cathedral, a fire resulting in the death of 3,000 people. Following the incident, the construction of certain buildings was controlled and during the summer months a water butt was to be made available in case of fire.
The Great fire of London in 1666, although not the only city destroying fire worldwide, did lead to embryonic building regulations with King Charles II proclaiming after the fire that ‘all buildings should be built from stone and roads and streets to be widened’. The commonly used construction materials at the time of thatch and timber and the densely packed narrow streets in London presented a serious fire risk. The aftermath of the Great Fire of London also saw the formation of the first organised fire brigades.
The 18th Century saw the development of fire insurance companies and the introduction of firemen. As now, people paid a premium to insure their property and were provided with a fire mark which they would attach to the outside of their property in order to distinguish their insured property from those which were not. The men employed by the different insurers; the ‘firemen’, would then only fight the fire at a property which was insured by the company they were employed by; using early water engines and wheeled escape ladders.
Places of public entertainment, including Theatres, have seen over the intervening decades several large fires around the world and therefore strict regulatory control governs their design. The Coconut Grove nightclub, 1942, resulted in the death of 492 persons. The lessons learnt from this incident included:
- unsuitable combustible materials and sources of ignition,
- rapid fire spread,
- not enough adequate escape routes,
- locked fire exits,
- inward opening doors,
- curtains over fire exits,
- boarded up windows.
As it can be seen the impact on society by such tragic fires has led to an on-going development of legislation, codes, standards, specifications etc. over time.
A building code is a set of rules that specify the standards for buildings and non-building structures. Buildings must conform to the code to obtain planning permission, usually from a local council. The main purpose of building codes is to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. The building code becomes law of a particular jurisdiction when formally enacted by the appropriate governmental or private authority.
Building codes are generally intended to be applied by architects, engineers, interior designers, constructors and regulators but are also used for various purposes by safety inspectors, subcontractors, manufacturers of building products and materials, insurance companies, facility managers, and others. Codes regulate the design and construction of structures where adopted into law.
The practice of developing, approving, and enforcing building codes varies considerably among nations. In some countries building codes are developed by the government agencies or quasi-governmental standards organizations and then enforced across the country by the central government. Such codes are known as the national building codes and they are generally mandatory across the nation. As an example the Saudi Building Code 2018 is now mandatory across the Kingdom following a decision by the Council of Ministers and it is a group of terms and requirements as of laws, regulations and annexes related to buildings and constructions to ensure safety and public health. In Europe, the Eurocode is a pan-European building code that has superseded the older national building codes. Each country now has National Annexes to localize the contents of the Eurocode. Similarly, in India, each municipality and urban development authority has its own building code, which is mandatory for all construction within their jurisdiction. All these local building codes are variants of a national Building Code, which serves as model code proving guidelines for regulating building construction activity.
The purpose of building codes is to provide minimum standards for safety, health, and general welfare including structural integrity, mechanical integrity (including sanitation, water supply, light, and ventilation), means of egress, fire prevention and control, and energy conservation.
As the UAE is now witnessing a comprehensive and accelerated development phase in line with its future vision a new version of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice was released in 2018. This code prescribes the minimum guidelines for determining design, construction, modification and installation of buildings, structures, occupancies, fire detection systems, fire protection systems, fire prevention systems and life safety systems to achieve safe societies.
In the United States, fire codes are developed primarily by two model code organizations, the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The terms building codes and fire codes have been used synonymously over the years, but fire codes were originally developed to regulate the hazardous material or processes that may be present in an occupancy, including combustible construction. Across the world, fire codes have continued to develop into comprehensive documents which are now intertwined within the building codes. Fire codes regulate fire department access roads, maintenance of both active and passive fire protection systems, maintenance of egress and exits and much more. Fire codes determine, within the building code, which occupancies are required to be provided with sprinkler protection and/or fire alarm systems, and at what threshold.
Fire standards are, and have been developed by many organizations. Many fire standards involve the testing and evaluation of the ignition, burning, or combustion characteristics of certain materials. Most of these standards are inclined towards the testing of the flammability of interior and exterior building parts, as well as common household and commercial furniture. These fire and flammability standards are instrumental in the establishment of building codes, insurance requirements, and other fire regulations that govern the use of building materials. The fire standards also define the appropriate criteria for the storage, handling, and transport of highly flammable substances. Other fire standards include testing and evaluation of equipment used for fire suppression, firefighter equipment, communications, training, and reporting.
Table 1 illustrates hierarchy of fire safety legislation within the UK and is an example of how different countries legislation evolves.
The Building Act of 1984 (primary legislation) provides the secretary of state with the power to make Building Regulations (secondary legislation).
In the Building Regulations 2010, specific requirements are set out in the form of functional requirements. Part B contains the functional requirements in terms of fire safety.
The secretary of state has issued guidance documents as to how these functional requirements may be complied in the form of the Approved Documents (supporting documents). Guidance on fire safety is provided in Approved Document B or ADB as it is commonly known. Although this is not legally enforceable. ADB makes references to other guidance documents (non-statutory relevant documents) for specific building types such as BB100 for schools as well as the British Standards such as BS 9999 and BS 7974 – The standard for fire engineered approaches.
Following the guidance in the ADB, is the most generally used way of demonstrating compliance with the functional requirements of the Building Regulations. However, they are not legal documents.
Other documents that are used as guidance are published research papers. Also the Loss Prevention Certification Board documents are at this level. They apply to property protection instead of life safety. European standards have exactly the same status as British Standards and their use is increasing.
Lessons learned from major fires throughout history have influenced the evolution of fire prevention legislation, codes and standards along with Civil Defence services. Geographic isolation, local conditions, cultural diversity and political structures have resulted in different service delivery models to deal with the phenomena of fire. It is important that we must move from being reactive to proactive, eliminating the need for lessons learned from preventable tragedies that should never had occurred.
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