Lessons from London
Our interview with a former fire investigator and current faculty member on ways homeowners can protect themselves.
By Tim Carroll
With the tragic recent fire in London, we turned to MSU Denver lecturer in the Fire and Emergency Response Administration and former fire investigator Kevin Hammons. He gives us an insider’s perspective on how fire investigators work to determine cause and protect homeowners.
What parts of the investigation happen immediately and what needs to wait until the building is fully extinguished and secured?
Intelligence gathering can begin immediately. That would include a review of the building plans, inspection records and applicable codes. The fire investigators might also want to review past emergency service responses to that location and, most importantly, witness statements from residents escaping from the structure.
An inspection of the fire scene would be dependent upon a structural/environmental hazard assessment, permissions from the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction), and consent for investigators to enter from the property owners.
How is the origin of the fire determined? Does fire always behave consistently in how it progresses through a building?
The area of fire origin and, when possible, point of fire origin are determined via an evaluation of the fire effects – e.g., smoke patterns, fire patterns and melting of materials. Fire effects are identifiable, as they are based upon the laws of fire dynamics. Nonetheless, fire effects are a part of the larger picture evaluated along with building design, as-built construction, structure contents and witness statements.
How much does the construction and design of a high-rise building play into its level of safety during a fire incident?
Building design and construction are important factors affecting a fire’s growth and spread. The use of a structure and its fuel load (contents) are also important factors in any fire-spread analysis. Consequently, building and fire codes have been promulgated with the primary goal of life-safety. Since building materials, techniques and utilizations constantly change, the codes are updated on a regular basis in order to keep pace with the life-safety challenges. High-rise buildings can sometimes present fire and evacuation problems that are unique to those types of multifamily dwellings.
Is it wrong to assume that a newer building is safer? Do fire codes vary from city to city or country?
Assumptions are prone to pitfalls. Many older buildings were well constructed and have stood the test of time. However, each structure is unique and must be judged on its own merits … or lack thereof. Codes do vary from city to city and state to state. Colorado is a “home rule” state, and each AHJ may adopt the codes that best serve its population. In lieu of local codes, the state codes may apply.
With rising apartment and home rental costs in Colorado and nationally, people are turning to higher density living arrangements. What should people do to protect themselves and their families?
Everyone should choose the home that best suits his or her lifestyle. Likewise, people should do their homework to learn which code set applies to their dwelling, and which life-safety features are indispensable within it. Families should have a plan and test it periodically to ensure everyone consistently knows what to do. When events like the apartment fire in London happen, use them as a reminder to review the basics of fire safety:
- According to a National Fire Protection Agency survey, only one-third of Americans have both developed and practiced a home fire escape plan.
- On average, seven people die in U.S. home fires per day.
- Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home fire injuries, followed by heating equipment.
- Smoking materials are the leading cause of home fire deaths.
- Three out of five home fire deaths in 2010-14 were caused by fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
- Working smoke alarms in reported home fires cut the risk of dying in half.
- When smoke alarms fail to operate, it is usually because batteries are missing, disconnected or dead.
This summer, MSU Denver’s Fire and Emergency Response Administration program is offering a class in community risk reduction for fire and EMS students on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m.-noon.