As Populations Grow and New Hazards Emerge, Understanding Global Trends and Research Can Help Us Chart the Course
SEPTEMBER 6, 2023 UPDATE: The fire that broke out in a ramshackle five-story apartment building in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 31 killed at least 73 people, including many who were homeless. The fire underscores global concerns about fire and life safety, particularly among developing nations and areas where housing pressures create additional risks for the poorest and most vulnerable populations.
The conditions in which the Johannesburg occupants were living directly contributed to the large loss of life, reinforcing the need for established building codes and provisions that work to effectively protect people and property. This blog, which I originally wrote almost two years ago, touches on this and associated issues. Additionally, the NFPA Journal article “Ultra Urban,” published in the Winter 2021 edition, speaks to a wide range of fire and life safety concerns that have emerged as populations increasingly move to more urban settings.
The following blog was originally published October 8, 2021.
More people living on the planet creates pressure, on so many levels, in society. Fire and life safety is one of those pressures. Some fire safety challenges are directly related to the increase in population and urbanization, while others stem from our desire to mitigate the impact of having more humans on the planet.
Population growth overall has precipitated an upward shift in the number of people living in urban areas. In fact, the UN estimates that the world’s population living in urban settlements will increase to 60 percent by 2030 with one in every three people opting to reside in cities that have at least half a million inhabitants. Furthermore, it is projected that 2.5 billion will be added to the world’s urban population by 2050, with almost 90 percent of this growth happening in Asia and Africa. The magnitude of this population growth puts enormous pressure on our built environment and has already spurred the construction of more tall buildings and denser cities.
As population grows, it is important that we mitigate the impact we have on our planet by ensuring that current and future development is done in a sustainable way. This shift has resulted in significant changes to our built environment in recent decades, and has ushered in new products, alternative energy sources, unique energy storage solutions, and the use of more lightweight materials with higher levels of insulation. The need for sustainability and energy efficiency is clear but unfortunately prioritizing the impact on our fire and life safety in the process is less so. We continue to see solutions developed with sustainability and/or energy efficiency in mind but fire and life safety components for these technologies are not being adequately explored. Need some examples? Just think about the dramatic fires we have seen running up the facades of high-rise buildings in the last decade. Or explosions in modern energy storage systems. How about the car fires that are challenging parking garage structures? And don’t forget the fires caused or complicated by the integration of photovoltaic panels on our buildings.
While fire and life safety should always be at the forefront, we must also choose solutions that are sustainable for the long haul. When identifying and implementing new fire protection solutions, it is most critical to avoid any “substitution regret”. Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) are an example of a solution, which had been used as dominant Class B firefighting foams for decades, and eventually were found to have an adverse environmental impact due to its chemical composition. Today, replacements foams and agents are tested and studied for its effectiveness to satisfy the immediate needs, as well as the long-term safety of all involved.
To complicate matters further, life safety challenges are often most prominent in areas where income levels are lower. So, with rapid growth in cities, it is inevitable that there will be insufficient affordable housing thus prompting larger numbers of people to live in informal settlements where housing may not comply with planning, building, and safety regulations. It is tempting to dismiss this as a systemic issue in low- and middle-income countries but the fact is that low income areas exists in all countries, including the United States, and are often where the fire problem is the most significant. If we want to eliminate the fire problem, we simply cannot ignore its impact in low-income areas.
Reading all this, one can easily get discouraged and think that we will never be able to eliminate the fire problem. But do not despair, because researchers have been working on all the issues mentioned above and more, so that we can continue to come up with solutions that will help us to improve safety.