Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  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 very expensive?
  (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.

Christine Russell

  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 set?
  (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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  408. If you were to get a fire—aviation fuel is a classic example, you do not expect to have to deal with that—for 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 services!
  (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 costs.


  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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 physical side.

  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 of authorisation.

  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.

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