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What lessons can we learn from the Luton Airport Carpark fire?

Is it possible to put a price on the cost of preventing a fire? Luton Airport bosses have promised to "learn lessons" from the devastating multi-storey car park fire but was the blaze avoidable? The blaze ripped through the London Airport's Terminal Car Park 2, with several floors "partially collapsing" as a result of the damage. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, but 1500 cars were damaged or destroyed and the clean-up will run into the millions. Early investigations by Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service revealed the fire was started from a diesel car and the building did not have a sprinkler system. The questions that remain unanswered at this time is, was this fire preventable and did cost cutting and negligence play a part in this incident? Furthermore, are there any lessons for the vehicle dismantling and recycling industry to learn from this blaze, as we look to mitigate fires in our facilities and operations?

Now, it is important to state that at this time, no-one would appear to have deliberately broken any specific laws in relation to the design and construction of this car park structure, nor were they any apparent corner-cutting or illegal practices. However, what has appeared to be missing during the design, build and sign-off phases of this particular building's development, is common sense. My experience tells me that any building designed to offer temporary storage for nearly 2000 vehicles warranted, as a minimum, a fixed fire suppression system. By which I mean a full fire sprinkler system on each and every floor. Locate that very same building adjacent to an airport and there's even more rationale for doubling-down on your fire prevention capability. So how can it be right that a multi-storey carpark building, designed in 2018, constructed in 2019, and meeting all relevant building control regulation, can signed off and built legally without sprinklers in this day and age?

By in large, we can near eliminate the likelihood of these types of blaze - by which I mean, a fire that is allowed to grow and establish itself to the point that it engulfs everything surrounding it, leading to buildings and structures loosing integrity, and inevitably leading to failure. What usually stops us from "going to far" and eliminating the likelihood of a fire, is down to money. Plain and simple. Its not that eliminating fires is not feasible or practical, its that it's expensive! It's likely that the very same cost versus benefit analysis was done when Buckingham Contracting Group tendered for the £20 million contract to build the Luton Airport Multi-storey. The structure was being built to a price and not installing a fire suppression system would have helped contractors considerably bring the building in on a fixed cost, and ensuring their quote was cheap and attractive. Ironically, whilst doing my research for this article, I recently learnt that Buckingham Contracting Group went into administration five months ago.

Drawing on my own experience as a Health and Safety professional for a moment, in 2015 I was involved with a project to build a freestanding non-automated 3,500 pallet hi-bay warehouse to store crisps for a well know snack producer. The building designers insisted on a state of the art fixed fire suppression system, that was capable of delivering fire water to every bay and on every storey of the warehouse racking, to ensure a fire never had even the smallest of opportunity to establish itself - all that vegetable oil and cardboard would have made for a significant blaze. So why should it be an different for the design and construction of a carpark? Surely, the severity and consequences of a multi-vehicle building fire, with an abundant store of ignition sources and fuel, coupled to the potential loss of life and its unique location slap bang next to a major London Airport, warranted similar fire-fighting capability?

Fire technology is so far advanced nowadays days that these fire suppression systems would simply not allow a fire to get hold to such an extent. Common sense tells you that the key to proper fire control, is preventing a blaze from being able to spread unhindered in those early stages of a fire's development. And this is a key takeaway for any workplace fires including those at scrapyards and within waste/recycling facilities.

So to answer my earlier question, it is always possible to put a price on the cost of preventing a fire! As I said earlier, its not that eliminating fires is not feasible or practical, its just that its expensive! But what investment in fire technology does buy you is protection: Protection for your workforce, for members of the public, for emergency service personnel, for your equipment, for your assets, and for your future business. It will always be cheaper as a business owner, to prevent a large fire, that it ever will be to pay for the clean after a major one!

But doing the right thing isn't just about having a fire prevention plan, evacuation procedures and fire extinguishers - these elements are your absolute legal minimum requirement for all employers to comply with the Law. Fire prevention is about going beyond the legal minimums, drawing on your experience and using your common sense, to ask yourself "what more could we be doing?" It's about investing in the correct equipment and training to prevent your people having to tackle a fire in the first place.

Next week's blog is going to look deeper into the topic of scrapyard and waste fires, focusing on what various pieces of technology and equipment are being used to mitigate fires in treatment facilities. Ironically, the fire prevention equipment we are going to be discussing could had been easily ported to structures like the Luton multi-storey car park, preventing this sort of fire from becoming established, and minimising any subsequent damage. I again reiterate that we are thankful that no-one lost their life or were seriously injured. But that said, that doesn't mean people and emergency service personnel weren't put at risk whilst tacking the blaze.

Having trawled many news articles covering the Luton carpark fire, what I most alarmed whilst reading ITV news's coverage was that the Airport bosses have already stated that no one could have foreseen this fire happening. After reading this article, what are your thoughts?



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