Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 1, 2017.

Wake-Up Call

Why the Grenfell tower fire will ultimately have a positive impact on fire safety

The Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London, which is believed to have killed at least 80 people in June, is an alarm that should be heard throughout the world. The fire began in a fourth-floor apartment and spread to the outside of the structure, igniting combustible materials in the exterior wall assemblies that covered the building. Flames raced up the side of the 24-story building, engulfing it before many residents had time to escape.

For years, many countries have largely ignored or misunderstood the inherent danger of the type of combustible exterior wall assemblies used in Grenfell and likely thousands of other high-rise buildings across the globe. Grenfell is a crucial and tragic wake-up call, one I believe will be a milestone in the historical fire record that will ultimately serve as a catalyst for sweeping positive change. It’s a crucial moment, since the number of high-rise buildings continues to increase dramatically as the world undergoes the largest wave of urban growth in history.

But addressing this issue will not be easy. The most immediate task is to take stock of buildings potentially at risk—some regions have thousands of high-rise buildings. How many use these kinds of combustible wall assemblies? How dangerous are they?

To assist, NFPA has launched a project to develop a tool that will help building owners and code enforcers evaluate the fire risk of these exterior wall systems used on high-rise buildings in their jurisdiction, based on variables such as materials, configurations, building fire protection systems, exposures, etc. With the tool, officials and owners can begin to prioritize buildings of greatest concern for remediation. NFPA has already assembled a global engineering team that will develop the tool and an advisory panel of global stakeholders and key experts to oversee it. The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

We can also draw from important work that has already been done. A 2014 report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, “Fire Hazards of Exterior Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components,” compiled the technical information needed to start addressing this problem. The report includes information on past exterior fire spread events; approval and regulatory requirements around the world; relevant test methods; listing criteria; fire scenarios; and possible future testing approaches. The report also looked at the effectiveness of NFPA 285, Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components, used throughout North America and other parts of the world (though not the United Kingdom). It found that NFPA 285 has been effective at minimizing exterior floor-to-floor fire spread in real-world applications. Greater awareness, coupled with research, is needed to ensure this and other test methods remain as efficient as possible, while maintaining their effectiveness.

Obviously, there is still much work to do and the charge before us is daunting. Unfortunately, there are no simple universal mitigation measures to effectively make this category of high-rise buildings safe. Replacing exterior walls that contain combustible components is not always the best solution, and when it is, it will likely take years to fully implement.

Those who work closely in the world of model codes are familiar with the continual struggle to represent the will of society on complex technical issues, often against the backdrop of limited resources. In this case, society has finally wakened to the dangers of combustible exterior wall assemblies in high-rise buildings, and the resulting loss of life is unacceptable. Working together, we can respond to and answer this alarm.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.