Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Gentlemen, could I welcome you to the first of four sessions this morning into the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems. Could I thank you for coming, and ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Mr Evans) I am Glyn Evans from the Fire Brigades Union. On my right is my colleague Jack Ford, also from the Fire Brigades Union.
  (Mr Harper) My name is David Harper from the Fire Safety Development Group. I am Vice Chairman of the Group. To my right is Dr Bob Moore, Chairman of the Technical Committee for the Fire Safety Development Group.

  2. Do any of you want to say a few brief words to start with?
  (Mr Evans) Just to say, Chair, we welcome the Committee's deliberations on this. As you are probably aware, the FBU represents 50,000 local authority fire fighters and that is why we are interested very much in this matter.

  Chairman: Could I stress to you, gentlemen, when we ask the questions if one answers and you all agree please do not feel you need to repeat it; but if you disagree please come in quickly.

Mr Donohoe

  3. What exactly is this cladding we are talking about?
  (Dr Moore) Cladding is the external skin of a building. It is a non-load-bearing material. Very often it is a sheet material; it could be of brick, concrete or fibre cement, these sorts of materials. It is essentially there to prevent the weather entering the building. There is something else called "overcladding", which is an extra sheet put on the outside of a building, usually to renovate a building as opposed to a new building, but it is being used for new buildings as well. It is mainly used as a renovation exercise to upgrade the performance of materials in terms of appearance, particularly thermal insulation, and to prevent moisture entering the building. There are two different sorts of cladding: one, which is the new building of the first instance; and then overcladding which would be classed as a repair and maintenance product.

  4. What risks are posed by such cladding with regard to fire safety?
  (Mr Evans) The main risk is the problem of vertical envelopment of a building in fire—that is the real problem. Cladding systems in the round are not going to burst into flames spontaneously, or without an ignition source. However, being as they are put on the outside of a building, if a fire occurs within a building it leaves the building through a window opening in an external wall, and the strong probability is that the cladding will be involved. If the cladding cannot resist the spread of flame across the surface then it will vertically envelop the building; in other words, the fire will spread to the outside of the building and it will go vertically. The problem we have to a certain extent, touching on one of the later questions, is that we do not currently consider vertical envelopment in fires. To a certain extent we are hoisted by the petard of what happened here in 1666, the Great Fire of London, and we look at fire as a horizontal problem, with a fire in one building affecting the exterior of another building, and that is how the Building Regulations work. The problem with cladding is that it will, if it is able, spread fire and it will spread it vertically. The other problem is that we do not really recognise the problem of vertical envelopment. If you get multistorey buildings you will get fire spread up the outside if the cladding will permit it.

  5. Do you think it is right that should be allowed to be the case?
  (Mr Evans) No.

  6. What is wrong with the Regulations?
  (Mr Evans) Basically the problem is, first of all, the Regulations do not really cater for vertical envelopment; they deal with a fire in another building affecting the exterior face of that building. They also deal, in the case of roofs, with burning brands falling on the roof. The problem that then develops is we use space separation to determine the combustibility of the cladding. The further the building is away from another building then the cladding can be of limited combustibility; that means it does not burn very well. The problem we as fire fighters have is if you get a high-rise building, which is over, say, 25-30 metres in height and the fire spreads up the outside of the building—all the fire fighting facilities in multistorey buildings are inside the building. They are there to allow fire fighters to fight the fire within the building; they are not there to allow fire fighters to fight a fire on the external face of the building. Our aerial appliances will go up to 25-30 metres (that is a hydraulic platform or a turntable ladder); above that height, if the fire is on the external face of the building, we cannot get to it. Our people have either got to hang out of windows, above, below or to the side of the fire, and try to reach it. That in itself is extremely difficult and is dangerous, as you will appreciate. That really is the problem we perceive there.

  7. As a fire fighter do you actually practise on the basis of some fire of this nature taking hold in a multistorey flat? Do you go out and practise what you do in these circumstances?
  (Mr Evans) It is a very difficult situation. Most of the fire service training is to fight fire from within a building, because that is where the fire fighting facilities (the fire fighting lifts and the dry riser installation, which is a long pipe throughout the building) are. The quick answer to your question is, no, not particularly; but I would guess, given recent events, that may very well be looked at. The other problem it poses is that you get what is called "roll up" the building. When the fire comes out of a window it rolls up the building; and you can get fire re-enter the building through windows at levels above it, and by that the fire can jump floors. I have to say in fairness, that is not always purely a cladding issue—roll up occurs on an ordinary building. That is what happens, the fire rolls up the building. You can end up being presented, certainly in a multistorey, with a series of floors with rooms on fire because the fire has rolled up the building.

Mr Olner

  8. You mentioned all these risks and, as I understand your answer to Mr Donohoe, you are not satisfied that the Regulations governing the fire safety of cladding is adequate?
  (Mr Evans) That is true.

  9. Could you perhaps tell the Committee, so we can get a feel of it, just how rapidly does this fire spread? How many incidents are we talking about? Are we talking about a minimal risk or are we talking about something that does occur or may occur regularly?
  (Dr Moore) There are not a great number of fires, as I understand it, with this type of product. There are a large number of fires in what are called "composite sandwich panels"; these are well known and there have been a large number of these throughout the country. These are composite materials with foam insulation between metal. I do not think this overcladding is quite the same situation as that. I think the problem is relatively small in the number of fires that do occur by this fashion. There have been one or two others, which have meant the Fire Regulations[1] in England and Wales have been modified. There was a fire in this sort of system at Knowsley Heights about eight years ago and, as a result, the Regulations[2] were changed in order to ensure that that problem did not occur.

  10. What has happened during the previous eight years? How many situations are arisen like the Knowsley one?
  (Dr Moore) I could not say there were more than about two or three, to my knowledge. The Fire Brigades Union may have knowledge of this type of system. In composite cladding areas there have been a very large number which I think we should not overlook in this particular inquiry.

  11. What would you be recommending to us as to what should be done to minimise the risks you have indicated?
  (Dr Moore) There is a certain amount of lack of clarity as to whether an overcladding system is covered by the Regulations[3], or whether it is a refurbishment activity which is outside the Regulations[4]. I think this is unclear to us as experts. There may be a difference in what goes on between the Scottish situation and that in England and Wales. Again, I think there is insufficient clarity. Our colleague from the Fire Brigades Union did not mention there may be a need for cavity barriers to stop fire going behind an overcladding system; because that is one of the areas which is a very common method of fire to spread, where the fire travels up the inside of the cavity; you should put in some form of barrier to stop this, and I think that should be clarified. The other area, which is perhaps pertinent to this particular fire, was the fact that the window frames I believe actually melted and allowed the fire to go in via that route. I think it should be made abundantly clear that window frames should be protected from the fire going up through the cavity or from the outside. I think there is not sufficient, as I see it, in the Regulations[5] specifying how you should fire-protect the window areas.

  12. So you are not too happy then with the test for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems?
  (Dr Moore) We are not happy, but perhaps the Fire Brigades Union have got a further point to make on the actual test methods for exterior products.

  13. Are you happy with them?
  (Dr Moore) Not really, no. The actual test methods, as such, are not really the full-scale tests we would like to see. We are particularly unhappy with what we call this Class `0' rating. Particularly with plastic products, you can obtain this rating by putting chemicals in; you can cover up plastic foam or a combustible material with a metal sheet or a foil which, in effect, still allows the fire to burn and destroy the plastic material underneath; and in effect you may even meet the requirements for a Class `0' material, but the actual product can still contribute to the fire, can still cause problems and can still give off fumes, toxic chemicals when they burn and, if they are the right sort of plastic, can drip plastics on people who are trying to fight the fire. Overall there are a number of reasons why our Group is unhappy with the Regulations[6], particularly in relation to this Class `0' rating which is actually used both in Scotland and in England and Wales.

Mrs Dunwoody

  14. In aircraft now, because of the toxic fumes that killed so many people in Manchester within a very short period of time, there are very strict Regulations on the internal as well as the external materials. Are you really saying to us that in buildings, particularly multistorey buildings, the same sort of restraints do not apply?
  (Dr Moore) I do not think there is anything in any of the United Kingdom Regulations[7] regarding smoke and toxic fumes given off. It is of concern that it is not covered. It is very difficult perhaps to legislate for this, because obviously you have got these sorts of fumes being given off by the content but, nevertheless, one does not want added fumes being given off by the materials used in the building.

  15. Yet there is a wealth of evidence in aviation alone of the effect of toxic fumes. People started to die in Manchester within six seconds.
  (Dr Moore) Yes, indeed. There have been other fires where it has been the fumes and the toxic fumes being given off by some of the products which have led to more deaths than perhaps for other reasons, so I think this should be looked at.

  16. They do know the properties of the materials being used?
  (Dr Moore) Yes, and there are British Standards Working Parties trying to work on this but have not actually reached a conclusion yet.
  (Mr Evans) I would like to support what Dr Moore says. The situation is that the current test for cladding is a small-scale laboratory test, which is not particularly relevant, we would argue, to the system that is used. What has happened, and since you have set up this inquiry, Chair, is that the British Standards Institution have now published a draft BSI for tests for external cladding systems, which is a far more relevant test; it is a large-scale test because some of these systems can be 10-20 metre panels,4"-6" thick. To test them in a laboratory, we would argue, is not relevant to how they are used in real life. The other problem, as Mrs Dunwoody quite rightly points out, is that there is no requirement for smoke or toxicity testing and that worries us. You have the potential for products being defined as fire-resisting (which they are) which smoke, and which are capable of smoke-logging a building. That is the problem, and it is something we the FBU have been arguing about for some time. There ought to be a smoke and toxicity test for building materials, particularly those which are going to be used to line walls, ceilings and escape routes.

Mr Donohoe

  17. If that draft becomes a reality, what does it mean in real terms?
  (Mr Evans) What it means in real terms is that for a product which was an external cladding system, if this standard becomes a full standard and is then called up by the Building Regulations as a standard to be achieved by external cladding systems, then they would have to meet that standard before they could be fitted or used in buildings.

  18. Can we have a copy of that?
  (Mr Evans) Yes.
  (Dr Moore) As I understand it (and the FSDG, as such, was not specifically involved) I believe there were some draft tests set up with the Fire Research Station with some of the people who manufacture external claddings; so there are methods in some draft form perhaps related to the standard the FBU representative is referring to. There is a test and perhaps we may well hear about this later on. There have been steps already taken to draw up such a test.

Mr Cummings

  19. Approved Document B (fire safety) is at present being revised. Have your organisations made any representations to the DETR on this subject during the consultation period whilst revision is taking place?
  (Dr Moore) We have made a relatively small comment in that particular aspect. We made a very long reply to the whole thing and those were the areas affected. The area here today was actually in Part 4, the spread of flame on the outside of buildings. We said we did not feel, like the Fire Brigades Union, that the test methods for these sorts of materials were adequate, and that a large-scale test should be used.

1   Approved Document B, Fire Safety to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales). Back

2   Approved Document B, Fire Safety to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales). It also includes Part D Structural Fire Precautions of the Technical Standards supporting the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990. Back

3   Ibid. Back

4   Ibid. Back

5   Ibid. Back

6   Ibid. Back

7   Approved Document B, Fire Safety to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales) and the equivalent Guidance document in Northern Ireland. It also includes Part D Structural Fire Precautions of the Technical Standards supporting the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990. Back

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