Mankind often takes electricity for granted. For all the benefits it undoubtedly provides, its use comes at a cost as virtually everything which uses electricity as a source of supply has the potential to cause fire.
In the United Kingdom there are, on average, 25,000 fires a year where there is an electrical source of ignition. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just confined to the UK alone; it is a global issue, with electricity being acknowledged as a major contributory factor in fires worldwide.
This issue has just been tragically highlighted by one of the worst fires in living memory. It was first reported at 00:54 hrs on 14 June in a 4th floor kitchen at the 24 storey Grenfell Tower in West London, and rapidly escalated into a major incident with an attendance of 40 pumps and supporting appliances with more than 200 firefighters tackling the blaze. Many heroic rescues of trapped residents were undertaken by firefighters in breathing apparatus braving horrendous and dangerous levels of spreading fire, heat and smoke on the upper floors.
The aggressive external and internal vertical spread of flames was probably unprecedented in its speed, completely engulfing most of Grenfell Tower’s floors.
It took until 01:14 hrs the following day to finally bring the smouldering tower structure under control, with the fire having severely damaged most floors of the building and destroyed 151 homes.
The Metropolitan Police have since confirmed that, whilst 80 people are currently missing and presumed to have died, the final toll could be higher once extensive forensic investigations have been completed.
The cause of this appalling inferno would appear to have been a domestic appliance, namely a fridge freezer – something that we all have in our homes. Located in a 4th floor flat of the building, an electrical fault is believed by both police and London Fire Brigade investigators to have been the source of ignition.
In the aftermath of this catastrophic event, attention has been almost exclusively focussed upon the fire performance of the cladding, installed on the exterior of the building as part of a refurbishment programme completed in 2016. Calls have been renewed to retrofit sprinkler systems to similar high rise residential buildings and a complete overhaul of both Building and Fire Regulations has been promised. There will be a Public Inquiry which, it is hoped, will be wide-ranging in scope and provide outcomes which must be acted upon as quickly as possible, if we are avoid another such fire.
However, if we are to learn anything from this tragedy then, as fire professionals, ought we not to question the whole ethos of what we consider to be fire safety? When assessing fire risk, we should take electrical sources of ignition into account. Yet, how many of us view white goods, office equipment and the like as fires waiting to happen?
In 2015 a report was published in the UK which stated that 12,000 fires had been caused by faulty household appliances in the previous 3 years. The response by manufacturers and others was to seek improvement in the product recall system, in order that they can inform users of known problems when they arise. Whilst any effort to improve product safety is to be applauded, it should also be said that the Hotpoint fridge freezer thought to been the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire was not subject to any recall. In this particular instance, the best product recall system in the world would not have helped.
Our armoury in the fight against the scourge of fire largely comprises post-ignition measures. We seek to detect fire as rapidly as possible and contain its effects as best we can, through design and construction techniques and the installation of sprinklers and suppression systems. Focussing upon these means that we have an inherent tendency to overlook the vital importance of fire prevention, something which should actually be first on the list, our number one priority.
But how do you actively prevent fires of an electrical origin when the causes can’t readily be seen? Thermal imaging has long been used as a tool for detecting “hot-spots” within electrical equipment, those points of abnormal heat which can subsequently lead to fire. But use of this technique has limitations as it only offers a snap-shot view – the condition at that one moment in time.
Thermarestor extends the principle of thermal imaging by providing a simple yet highly effective means of detecting heat on a permanent basis. Individual electrical connection points and components can now be monitored at all times, with any incidence of excessive or unexpected heat being instantly reported to building occupants, allowing them to take immediate action. Thus, the response now becomes one of investigation and maintenance – instead of an emergency one.
Originally designed and developed to provide protection against the risk of electrical fires within electrical installations, Thermarestor are now working with a forward-thinking manufacturer of white goods to develop a range of domestic appliances with enhanced fire safety.
Too late to prevent the horrific multi-fatality fire we have just witnessed in London but in the hope and expectation that we can do so in the future.
For more information, go to www.thermarestor.co.uk
Image courtesy of Thermarestor.