Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400
TUESDAY 5 FEBRUARY 2002
400. Can I ask you, Dr Roberts, to talk a little
more broadly about safety regulations in relation to tall buildings
without specific reference to September 11?
(Dr Roberts) One thing of interest is that the United
Kingdom regulations do not really envisage very tall buildings,
they have graduations in the rules that we have to follow for
different sizes and different uses of buildings and those classes
stop at a height of 30 metres, which is 100 feet, and which came,
for historical reasons, from the City of London, where there was
a 100 foot restriction. In the United Kingdom there is no differentiation
between what steps you take as a designer if the building is 30
metres, say 10 storeys high, or anything higher. As we know there
are buildings getting on for ten times as high as that here. That
is the first point.
401. Do you think that should be changed?
(Dr Roberts) We need to think about that because of
some of the essential features of particularly tall buildings.
There are structural issues to do with wind, they have to be much
stronger because they are much taller, which is probably the reason
why the World Trade Center survived the impacts of the planes
because the forces that came from the planes were less than it
would have received during a storm of wind. It was not entirely
unsurprising that it stood there with the impact, it was the fire
that caused very severe damage. The issues about the height of
the building are structural but they are primarily to do with
means of escape and fire regulations that apply. We have heard
the comment already that if you were wishing to take action against
a lot of people you would probably land a plane, there are plenty
of other things you could think of doing, but one does not want
to go into too many of them in a lot of detail. Just to take an
example that has been mentioned, every week there are 80,000 people
sitting in Old Trafford, usually, it is a very easy target. The
regulations for Old Trafford require that every single one of
those people have to be able to be evacuated to a place of safety
in eight minutes, otherwise it does not get a licence. There is
no such requirement for buildings which have maybe not 85,000
people in them but a few tens of thousands of people. There are
issues like that.
402. Should there be such guidance?
(Dr Roberts) When you say, "Will regulations
change following September 11?", there is a danger of focussing
on that, but on the other hand it has highlighted these issues.
Most buildings have been designed to contain a fire and to evacuate
people from the floor where the fire has occurred in the immediate
adjacent one above. That is called phased evacuation. Almost always
in Britain you are told not to use lifts during a fire. You probably
read about the World Trade Center that if you tried to and evacuate
that without using the lifts it would take over four hours, it
would have taken over four hours to get everyone out by the staircases,
there physically is not enough room and people just have to wait
and walk down the stairs. If you cannot use the lifts there are
buildings which have very long evacuation times if everyone wants
to get out in a hurry. If buildings have to be fully evacuated
for the whole building due to some emergency we need a complete
re-think about the issue of what has always occurred in the past,
which is to phase the evacuation and not use the lifts.
403. Is it feasible to use the lifts?
(Mr Bressington) Yes, you can use the lifts under
certain circumstance. This brings us probably to one of the main
issues, the management of the building and the on-going management
of the building. If you know, for instance, that there is likely
to be an event and the operators of that building know that then
you do have a certain amount of time. In the time you have then
it is best, if you can, to use those lifts. The difference between
using the lifts in an imminent event is the fact that the building
has not been impacted, the power supply is there and there is
no damage to the building so people could continue to use the
lift until such a point that may happen. If you really want to
make the lifts much more robust then they have to follow the same
pattern as we do in the United Kingdom and other places for fire
fighting lifts, which are actually contained in a two hour fire
fighting shaft with back-up power supplies. Once you get into
that sort of lift then, obviously, you have much greater security
for people to escape. If do you not do that and the building has
been impacted then you are down to using the staircases.
404. If you put a fire fighter's lift is it
(Mr Bressington) I would say it is expensive in terms
of floor area. It would make the building inefficient in terms
of space if you had lots of those lifts. There are middle ways
here. Certainly from what we know of the incident that happened
in the World Trade Center, it is not just that, it could be any
other type of terrorist action which may be threatened, if you
can use a lift to get people out then you do not need to do that
much with them. If you try to use lifts in an impacted building
then you do have to take other design measures.
405. Thank you, Dr Roberts, for giving me that
assurance about Old Trafford because my son sits there every Saturday
afternoon. Can I take you back to the fire risk and ask you if
you can give the Committee your idea of what measures we could
put in place to stop the spread of fires in tall buildings?
(Mr Bressington) In terms of conventional fires, a
fire that you would normally expect in an office floor, a wastepaper
bin fire or any sort of fire, my belief is that the measures we
have in tall buildings are adequate for that now.
406. Do fire safety officers share your confidence?
(Mr Bressington) Yes, they do. If you look at office
fires, particularly casualties and fatalities in office fires
in this country it is very low, it is about 1 in 14 million per
year for someone dying in an office fire. What you have in a tall
office which you do not have in a smaller office building is a
whole range of fire protection measures to contain a fire, that
is sprinklers, fire compartmentation on each floor, you have pressurisation
in the staircases to keep smoke out, you have fire fighting lifts
so that fire fighters can have access without having to use staircases.
There are a range of measures which are required in the codes
for buildings. What we are talking about is this over 30 metres,
and do we get into another level of needs or requirement or performance,
let us call it.
407. What about materials? The materials that
buildings are constructed of have changed rather dramatically
since the 1930s when the current standards, in the main, were
(Mr Bressington) That is right. Manufacturers of passive
measures will make a big thing of this. The other point is, since
they came up with those calculations based on those fire levels
things have moved on in terms of the fire measures. Sprinklers
are required in these tall buildings.
408. If you were to get a fireaviation
fuel is a classic example, you do not expect to have to deal with
thatfor any reason that was not what was expected, a normal
office fire multiplied by five, what is important is clearing
the building very quickly? Are we to assume in tall buildings
you can continue to work on the assumption have you a certain
amount of time? If that is not the case, what, then, is the argument
against forcing the people that build tall buildings to put in
the extra requirement for fire lifts and fire shafts. In the City
of London, for example, in the Barbican, the Fire Service were
very disturbed that above a certain area they were going to be
unable to deal with a fire efficiently. I did hear, although anecdotally,
they insisted on weights on the Penthouse capable of carrying
helicopters, I do not know if that is right. If it is the case
that we have to rethink it, ought we not to be doing it that way?
What is the element that is most important, clearing them quickly
or withstanding an extra sized fire?
(Mr Bressington) They are both the same.
(Dr Roberts) They are both the same. If you look at
what happened in the World Trade Center the ultimate issue was
that the whole building collapsed, therefore the robustness of
the building is what really matters and fire protection is a means
to an end to secure that while people are leaving the building.
There are so many issues that have arisen. For example, when you
leave a building here most fire precautions require you to stand
directly outside it.
409. Not if you know anything about the emergency
(Dr Roberts) You do not have to move away because
it has never been thought if you were outside it the building
would collapse round you. There are all sorts of issues that come
out from this question of whether the building can survive a long
period. It is a bit misleading to think just in terms of the fire
protection of floor or of certain materials, what matters is whether
the building will stand for a long period. There are views that
we should make the building ultimately able to withstand a full
burnout fire, that whatever happens in it the frame of building
will still be standing, even if it causes massive devastation
within a number of floors.
410. I get the distinct impression developers
would not be happy about that.
(Dr Roberts) That may be so, but it depends what is
411. You concentrated so far on the physical
things, how far is there a now a psychological problem that has
to be assessed in that an awful lot of people in tall buildings
will have seen that film over and over again of those events and
therefore their behaviour will be based on what they have seen
on television rather than what is sensible in the buildings that
they are actually in?
(Mr Bressington) That is very true. Most of the things
we have been involved in in terms of talking to our clients, whether
they are developers or tenants, or even people that work in buildings,
is it is very much a people thing. People's behaviour has been,
I think, modified. I think that there are some positives and negatives
with that, the positive is that traditionally when people hear
a fire alarm in a building often they do not move, they assume
that it is a false alarm or someone is going to tell them to do
something, so they sit there. That does not happen so much now,
particularly if you are in a big building.
Christine Russell: It does in Portcullis House.
412. It does in the House of Commons until the
fire officer appears in full gear and says, "Excuse me, madam,
this is genuine".
(Mr Bressington) Everywhere else except for the House
of Commons. On the other side we talked about, and John mentioned
it, phased evacuation. Phased evacuation is a system where in
a tall building or even in a very large foot plate building, like
a shopping centre, if there is a fire in one place you do not
take everyone out because there are measures in place to deal
with the fire and it may be a false alarm. For most fires and
offices this is still the right way forward. Since the events
of 11 September, if people are told because they are on the 10th
floor, "Stay there, this fire is right up the top, do not
worry about it", whether they will do that is another matter.
I think what the owners and the operators of buildings are saying
to us is, if that happens what is likely to result from that.
What we have been looking at it studies using computer simulation
to see how long it does take to get people out of a building,
this can be an existing building or one yet to be designed. There
is ways of getting a better feel for this. People's behaviour
may change again because over time you get this anxiety wave and
it may drop down again.
413. Would the increased regulations needed
to make higher safety standards make the cost shoot up?
(Dr Roberts) We do not really know the answer to that.
All the evidence is that things like changes to fire protection
and, perhaps, standards of lift and, perhaps, the robustness of
structures might add a couple of per cent to the cost of the buildings,
really quite small amounts to the construction costs. These are
mostly issues of detail that if you put them in right at the beginning
are quite easy but to retrofit them might be a different matter.
414. Is there a big problem in the area of non-compliance
with the existence of evacuation?
(Dr Roberts) I would think non-compliance is very
low in the United Kingdom with our building regulations, which
control the physical construction and with the fire certificate
system which controls the fire certification for the user. For
both of those, particularly for large buildings, I think the compliance
is extremely good in the United Kingdom.
(Mr Bressington) Where there is a slight change is
if you look at active systems, sprinkler systems and detection
systems, these are relatively easy to test and check and the installation
of these systems are often part of the certification scheme, where
someone looks at the system, they check it, they commission it,
they give them a piece of paper to say that everything is okay
and then they test it every so often. It is much more difficult
when you talk about passive protection, it is much more difficult
to control the quality of that because what happens often in a
building over its life is it will be changed internally, people
will take partitions down and there are going to be ceilings they
will punch through. I think the way that is regulated probably
does need looking at. In a tall building with lots of people in
there we may need something a little bit more in terms of management
to be able to do that.
415. What is the extent of the problem in that
area, where the building may be meeting all the regulations and
then it changes adaptations?
(Dr Roberts) In the United Kingdom building regulations
are not retrospectively applied unless you change the use to certain
key uses, which basically revolve round whether people are living
or sleeping in the building. New building regulations do not apply
retrospectively to existing buildings at the moment unless you
have a change of use to a hotel or residential accommodation and
then the fire requirements can be retrospectively applied. The
issue of control of people removing fire partitions is a more
serious issue. Although new buildings are really very well policed
in the United Kingdom existing building amendments are probably
not so well policed.
416. Has that been identified as an area for
concern in your Committee?
(Dr Roberts) No, it has not at the moment because
we are not really focussing quite so much on pure physical issues,
it is a sort of combination of management issues as well as the
417. You have identified between you as an issue
of concern in terms of safety?
(Mr Bressington) For certain it has been identified,
amongst others, by the London Fire Brigade. They did a workshop
and I gave a paper there and from the questions that people had
and talking to people I think this whole issue about the lifetime
of a building and the way that it is used and whether there should
be an operator's licence so that you have to make sure all of
these things are in place, so they can be picked up, perhaps it
can be part of the fire certificate or whatever, it is the on-going
on management of these buildings. These events are very rare,
even a conventional fire. If the systems are not there to deal
with it or people do not have the training to be able to deal
with it that is where it will fall. It will not fall by the systems
themselves. That is the key to all of this, particularly now if
we are having to look at different evacuation regimes, it is not
just phased evacuation now, we have to look at simultaneous evacuation
or other situations where we may have to move people up from the
ground floor if there is a bomb in a car outside, it gets more
complicated. We need to have procedures in place where people
can consider those, I think.
(Dr Roberts) The question of licensing people to occupy
tall buildings generally is a vexed question because you do not
have to do anything on an annual basis to continue to occupy major
office buildings. That is in contrast to things like sports grounds,
where you have to have an annual safety certificate. Close to
my own heart, because I am not a tall building designer, but I
"safety engineer" for the London Eye, you are probably
aware that that has to have an annual safety certificate otherwise
it cannot be used and yet we have buildings with thousands of
people in them that do not have to have any renewal permit arrangements.
418. Who is the responsibility body?
(Dr Roberts) The employer is responsible through normal
legislation to have safety certificates in place for the fire
escapes but no management issues are tested out through any kind
419. Are you saying then that there is no official
body who would automatically make checks in these areas?
(Mr Bressington) The Fire Service check and issue
fire certificates. Obviously they are going to limit that, they
have lots of things to do, to a view of what is there. In large
or complicated buildings the management is the main issue and
it is how you monitor the success of that. I know some time ago
I went to Basildon Shopping Centre and met the guy who managed
that and also the fireman. They were very happy about the way
things worked there because what used to happen is they would
put on a fire certificate for that centre, which was renewed every
so often, certain requirements in terms of displays, so what they
did between them was to develop this type of thing. They said,
okay, the fire certificate is not just dependent upon a checklist
or ticking a box.