Last reviewed 12 July 2016

We all know that playing with fire is dangerous. But how many of us realise that having too little water to put out a fire can be almost as serious? Alan Field says it is something all dutyholders should consider when looking at fire risk assessments for their buildings.

With most buildings, a fire risk assessment assumes that the public fire service will be on the scene quickly in the event of an emergency. Some insurance companies might ask questions if, for example, the building is in a rural area (and even in some smaller suburban locations) where the first fire appliance may be 15–20 minutes away. However, the assumption is that once fire services arrive, they will have all they need to fight the fire.

However, it is always worth considering, at risk assessment stage, what can be done to make the fire service’s work more straightforward. This can only support the responsible person in protecting the building and premises.

On 29 April 2015, Clandon Park in Surrey, an 18th-century mansion, was severely damaged by fire. During the many hours of fire-fighting operations, water was obtained from a number of sources including water carriers (these are fire service road tankers that carry a large volume of water to supplement other fire water supplies) and also water drawn from a lake in the grounds of Clandon Park using special high volume pumps (HVPs). Subsequently, it was suggested that some of these water resources should have been made available earlier in the incident, although a recent report from the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service found this was not the case in the particular circumstances of that fire.

However, it is an interesting lesson for all property managers to learn from; they should discuss with the local fire service any local water resources and how these would be deployed in the event of a fire. For example, drawing water from a lake using an HVP may take well over an hour to set up, due to the various hose connections needed for water relays. Even in a built-up area, once local hydrants have been deployed then laying hoses to more distant hydrants will cause delay. These are time-consuming tasks, even for experienced firefighters.

What should be taken into account?

With all risk assessments, there is a danger of assumptions being made. In the case of water supplies, it is necessary to check when the water availability for a particular site was last verified. With a modern office building or shopping centre, reliable provision for fire-fighting water should have been considered at design stage. A regular review is still advisable, of course, because mechanical and electrical services in buildings can evolve and relatively minor structural issues could impact on pipework, for example.

If there are dry risers in the building, these should be regularly inspected and tested if specified.

Where public fire hydrants are utilised, check that they are in the same place as they were at the previous review and that they are still accessible for the fire service. The author once saw an instance where a building extension had made it difficult for the fire service to access the main building with their hose lines from the hydrant in the street. Not an insurmountable issue, but something for building managers to take into account.

With an older building, especially if it is some distance from the main road, consideration should be given as to how practicable it will be for the fire service to access a public hydrant and draw hose lines across grounds or car parks. While many fire appliances have a water tank (typically with a capacity of around 1300 litres) this is only sufficient for dealing with relatively small fires.

Access to the site for fire-fighting equipment should also be considered — the more difficult the access, the slower the response will be in dealing with a fire. In a town or city centre, the fire service will simply park in the street. If a building is set back from the road then, again, it will be necessary to consider how access will be gained.

Getting fire hoses above first floor level in older buildings, where there are no dry or wet risers in the building design, could necessitate the use of aerial ladders or platforms. Access to the site for such equipment will need to be thought through.

Most fire and rescue services will be pleased to receive such enquiries as it will help them plan for any future incidents at a particular site. For the organisation, it means there is a greater chance of any incident getting an appropriate response.

If a site is complex — or in a rural location — all the fire-fighting water sources that have been identified, eg water towers, bowsers, boreholes, lakes or rivers, need to be regularly reviewed, ideally in consultation with the local fire service.

In the case of boreholes, lakes and rivers, water levels can vary or access can be difficult in wet months, eg conditions can be very muddy, and this will impact on speed of access to water resources. Also, if a fire breaks out during the hours of darkness this can create its own issues in that water sources may have to be floodlit for safe access by the firefighters, which will cause delay.

Salvage

The Fire Industry Association (FIA) reported that Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General at the National Trust, said: “The fire at Clandon was a terrible blow, with the loss of such a significant historic interior and so much of the important collections it housed ... The fact that we had a well-rehearsed salvage plan meant that we were able to save a number of significant items from the fire.”

This advice does not apply just to old masters — an organisation may have valuable stock or equipment that needs to be protected in the event of a fire and the issue of salvage possibilities can always be considered. Sometimes employees will be working in a listed building and salvage will be an active consideration. In this case, ensure that there is a trained resource available to manage any salvage operation.

If salvage issues are important, an estimation of what needs to be protected must be made. It may be a particular part of the building, particular machinery or even artefacts (this can be the case if the business is long established).

Sometimes it may be possible to relocate machinery or artefacts to a safer area of the building or to a more accessible area so that in the event of fire, they could be more easily removed. However, the first priority is always safety of life. In reality, this is why many organisations rely on their fire insurance and the limited amount of salvage the fire service can do.

Be aware that a lack of water, as well as increasing damage from the fire itself, can result in additional damage from smoke and other gases, although in most instances damage from firewater run-off is more likely than damage from fire or smoke.

Conclusion

With fire risk assessments, the dutyholder should always remember that assumptions might have been made about such matters as water supplies, how quickly they might be accessed and whether anything can be done to reduce water and smoke damage. Reviewing and consulting on these assumptions can only be beneficial to protecting the building itself.