Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on September 1, 2017.

A Matter of Will

After a string of recent tragedies, is the world finally ready to do what’s needed to protect people?

The world knows a lot about fire; we know how to prevent it and how to keep people from dying from it. But as the string of recent tragedies in Oakland, Iran, Hawaii, and now London illustrate, common-sense safety measures keep getting lost in the noise of everyday life—and we are paying with human lives. It is unacceptable.

The Grenfell Tower apartment fire in London in June, where at least 80 people died, is a prime example of our failings. In past columns, I’ve talked about the challenge of high-rise fire safety in developing nations, but here we are, in one of the most sophisticated and affluent cities in the world, looking at many of the same fire-safety deficiencies that I’ve seen in some of the world’s most impoverished cities. Most of these fire tragedies share similar factors: the owner wanted to save money; construction plans weren’t reviewed; tenant complaints about safety were ignored; the fire protection systems weren’t maintained; bad decisions were made about the safety of building components; the contractor wasn’t knowledgeable about fire safety; people didn’t know what to do when the fire broke out. Based on what I’ve read and what I learned on a recent trip to England, many of these factors were at play before, during, and after the Grenfell Tower fire. Sadly, these systematic fire safety failings aren’t unique to the developing world, or to England.

Every day, high-rise buildings across the globe are built with only one stairwell and no automatic sprinkler protection, just like Grenfell Tower; in many cases, the stairwell is not even enclosed to prevent the vertical spread of fire and smoke, a basic and essential concept of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®. Each day, thousands of people all over the world come home or go to work in high-rise buildings that are clad with highly combustible insulating material like that used in Grenfell. For years, we’ve been holding our breath, wondering when a fire in one of these buildings would turn deadly—and it finally happened in London.

Beyond high-rises, every day thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh still go to work in buildings with inadequate exits. Every night, people around the world crowd into unsafe entertainment venues that don’t come close to meeting the basic principles of NFPA’s Life Safety Code concerning egress, occupant load, interior finish, fire protection features, and crowd management. Every day, families around the world move into substandard, newly built homes that aren’t protected with fast-acting residential sprinkler systems.

Why is any of this considered acceptable? Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. Frankly, I’m incredulous that there isn’t even universal acceptance on the need to include automatic fire sprinkler protection in new construction, especially in high-rise residential buildings. While we don’t know for certain what the loss of life in London would have been if a sprinkler system had been installed, we know that sprinklers played a critical role in preventing casualties in similar fires in Dubai and other locations.

I’m sure that many policies, procedures, and actions will be investigated and turned upside down in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. I and many others hope that Grenfell will be a global call to action to make the necessary changes—such as more timely code adoption, more diligent regulation, and more effective oversight and enforcement—to increase fire safety across the globe. We have the knowledge; what we need now is the will.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA.