The annual Firex show at London’s ExCeL convention centre last week was an excellent chance to obtain an overview of the current state of the fire protection industry, one of the sectors in which Tyndale has been working for a number of years. The big players in the industry were well-represented but it was the smaller booths that most attracted the attention of Tyndale’s director, Robert Pallant.
One theme that quickly emerged from talking to exhibitors was that the shockwaves caused by the Grenfell disaster two years ago are still reverberating around the industry, and this is likely to continue for some time yet, especially as the government’s response to the tragedy is not yet fully formed. However, some changes have been implemented, such as much more stringent (and costly) testing of fire doors, which has caused many smaller manufacturers to struggle or even go out of business. It has also focussed attention on the intumescent layers in the doors – the strips of plastic that are fitted around the rim of the door and expand to seal the air gaps when the door is heated by a fire. There are firms available with technical expertise in these materials that can help door manufacturers design a material that conforms to their precise specifications and ensure that they can pass the more rigorous performance tests.
Another area that is seeing growth is the use of fire curtains. Long used in theatres to protect the auditorium from fires backstage, they are now increasingly being installed in open plan homes and offices, and even larger spaces such as warehouses. They introduce compartmentation in the event of a fire to prevent the rapid spread of smoke through the building and allow time for people to escape. They can be hidden discreetly when not in use but will deploy simply and quickly, even in the event of a power failure, and can withstand fire temperatures for 2-4 hours.
While progress has been made in the design of public buildings to allow access by those with restricted mobility, such as wheelchair users, some exhibitors felt that there isn’t enough attention being paid to getting these people out again quickly if a fire breaks out. This is also an issue for the increasing number of residents and patients in care homes and hospitals. There were a number of manufacturers of evacuation devices at the exhibition, including chairs fitted with skids that allow a single person to safely lower another down a flight of stairs.
Finally, even the venerable water sprinkler industry is arguing for a change in attitudes and culture in how we view their use. Life safety has rightly been the overriding priority for fire safety systems, but an industry association is suggesting that it is not sensible to design systems that allow occupants to escape from a block of flats, school, warehouse or factory, who can then only watch as it is destroyed by fire. Many fire services can evacuate and rescue people but do not have the capacity to rapidly control large fires and salvage property. Making the inclusion of water sprinklers mandatory in such buildings would, they argue, help prevent the total loss of facilities and infrastructure and greatly shorten the recovery time for organisations – surely a significant benefit to the nation which would justify any increased costs in the initial building construction?
With incidents such as Notre Dame in Paris and, very recently, the loss of a number of new flats in Barking, West London, reminding us that our centuries-long struggle to combat unwanted fires continues, it is encouraging to know that there are efforts in progress to challenge conventional thinking and change the culture of how we fight this battle. What seems to still be needed is clear leadership and coordination to drive these efforts forward.