by Chan Kai Foo, assistant vice president, senior engineering specialist, Asia of FM Global
In densely populated Asian cities like Singapore where buildings are located close to each other, fires can spread rapidly and with devastating impact.
The Singapore Parliament recently passed amendments that enhanced Singapore’s Fire Safety Code. While infrastructure quality in Asian cities such as Singapore is excellent for most buildings, the amended law compels owners of about 500 buildings, ranging from industrial to commercial to government buildings, to upgrade to meet the revised fire safety requirements. Among these are older buildings constructed decades ago and conforming to older fire safety regulations appropriate for their time.
The Singapore example holds a timely reminder for organizations in other markets. The scrutiny over the Fire Safety Code is timely but taking precautions against fires should not only be left to regulators. No matter how efficient the local fire service is or stringent the national codes are, it is important that everyone adopts better fire-prevention habits. That also includes businesses that should maintain a boardroom-level awareness of fire mitigation practices and instil a fire safety culture.
Though there is no breakdown of the causes, statistics indicate that storage facilities are vulnerable to fires. The biggest increase for fires in industrial premises last year came from fires in warehouses – with fires increasing by 48.7% to 58 cases in 2018, from 39 cases in 2017, according to statistics from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). These tragic fire incidents hold important lessons that should prompt property owners and businesses to be more fire safety conscious.
Firstly, understand what materials have been used in the building construction and how fire resistant they are. The increasing use of exterior cladding in building construction is a concern. On one hand, the construction industry is always looking out for better performing building materials that come with improved insulation properties, better resistance to surface denting, materials that are lower in weight or easier to install. On the other hand – and in a lot of cases – these involve the use of plastic-based materials that have limited combustibility. Unfortunately, there is no worldwide consensus on the fire testing regime needed to rate the performance of these materials under fire conditions and so, they continue to be used.
The way construction materials are tested for fire exposure is important. Small scale fire tests are widely used but FM Global research found that such tests are not representative of actual fire performance. A better way is to conduct large-scale fire testing to gauge the severity of the hazard.
Secondly, businesses and property owners need to be aware of the fire risk of the items within their premises. Innovation in warehousing technology and storage means many facilities can now hold a lot more plastics and combustibles and in closer proximity. In some cases, new warehouse systems have outpaced existing standards so while companies are designing from an efficiency standpoint, they may be falling short of adequately considering fire risks.
Thirdly, there is still a slow take-up rate to some practical fire mitigation tools. This practical solution has faced some reluctance, driven mostly by a misconception of the effectiveness of sprinklers – not so much from the sprinkler’s ability to reduce the exposure of a fire, but the fear that sprinklers will accidentally trigger without a fire, causing irreparable damage to priceless content within the building.
But data does not support this view. A 10-year study of FM Global data in claims for electronic assembly type facilities revealed the average loss for fire in electronic assembly facilities without sprinklers was seven times that of the average sprinkler leakage damage. That means fire is more frequent and damaging than sprinkler leakage.
While we often think of fire drills as an inconvenience, the sobering reality is that fire is the costliest and most dangerous risk of all to occupants, building owners and businesses located within the property. Fire is still the number one cause of loss, at about 40% of all claims FM Global manages globally.
Embracing a fire safety culture is an important element in building business resilience. Businesses and property owners need to fully embrace the necessity of balancing fire protection and space efficiency, as well as considering practical fire mitigation tools such as sprinkler systems.
The onus is on building owners, as well as tenants, to demand a safe working environment that also minimizes business disruption. Often, the majority of these losses are preventable, and the decision to become more fire resilient is in the hands of owners and businesses.