Fire safety guide for residential, office & business premises in highrise buildings

fireBy Accommodation Times News Services

by Late Shri V.V.Rao,

Former Chief Fire Officer, Mumbai Fire Brigade

Introduction :

The increasing emphasis on industrialisation has given rise to rapid spread of industry and commerce in metropolitan cities as well as in smaller towns. The trend towards the construction of high rise buildings is on the increase, partly because of the scarcity of land caused by rapid urbanisation and consequential spurt in the prices of land. When the land available restricts horizontal growth of the city, the tendency to go skywards comes in.

In recent times, number of serious fires have occurred in offices/business buildings compared to residential buildings all over the world resulting in large scale loss of life and property. One of the worst disasters that had occurred in a high-rise bank-cum-offices a 25 storeyed building on 1.2.1974 at Joelma Building, Sau Paulo, Brazil, which took the toll of 227 innocent lives as well as damaging the building from 11th to 25th floors completely.


Special Problems of high rise buildings.

The fires in office blocks of a fourteen storeyed “Gopala Towers” and twelve storeyed Ansal Bhavan at New Delhi on 6.6.83 and 29.6.87 respectively are glaring examples of the difficulties experienced in rescuing the occupants of the building safely as well as fighting the fire effectively due to non-compliance of number of safety requirements related to :

a)   Fire safe building design.

b)   Adequate and protected means of Exit.

c)   Smoke control and installation of early warning system, like smoke detectors.

d)   Independent emergency lighting and communication system.

e)   Built in fire fighting systems.


Controlling a fire in a high rise building is quite a task for the following reasons :

i)             Rapid vertical spread of fire :

Due to ‘chimney effect’ there is a very rapid vertical spread of fire in a high rise building. Hot air and combustion products during a fire tend to go up, creating a draught and accelerating flow of cooler air form down below, which sustains and spreads combustion. Fire spread through air-conditioning ducts in absence of fire dampers through electric cables shaft / layouts and voids over the false ceilings is also quite swift. Heat due to convection and radiation, rising vertical from floors below and mushrooming on the upper floors, can ignite combustible materials on upper floors, thus spreading the fire rapidly.

ii) Due to presence of high occupant load in most of the high-rise buildings, evacuating occupants in case of emergency poses enormous practical difficulties. The problem gets compounded and complicated further in the case of invalids, old persons and children. Lack of preplanning for evacuation leads further to panic and confusion, since staircases are the only means of escape and evacuation in such situations.

iii)          Electricity operated passenger lifts behave erratically during fires, often getting stuck at the fire floor where the fire is raging. This had happened in the case of State Bank of India fire on 14.1.72 and Express towers fire on 29.1.97.

iv)          Upper floors of many of high rise buildings are beyond the reach of aerial fire fighting equipment available with Metropolitan Fire Service.

v)           Fire in multi-storeyed building being the reach of the ladders, has to be fought necessarily from within the building making it difficult due to smoke-logging and has to be necessarily fought by firemen wearing self-contained breathing apparatus for their own safety.

vi)          Presence of large number of ignition sources (electrical, smoking, pantry etc.) as well as large quantities of combustible materials (papers, office furniture, wooden cabins, wooden partitions, carpets, wall linings etc.) fire fighting, rescue and salvage operations become not only severe tasks, but also very difficult to deal with effectively at that heights.


Common causes of fire and fire risks :

a)   Careless Disposal of cigarette butts, burning embers and other smoking materials.

Precautions :

i)             Forbid smoking in common and hazardous areas.

ii)            Where smoking is permitted, provide sufficient receptacles (say ashtrays) for safe disposal of cigarette ends and matches. These receptacles should be non-combustible and should not be used for any other purpose. They should be emptied at the end of each working day.

iii)          Apply a ‘No Smoking’ rules half an hour before the work ceases for the day.

iv)          Premises should be inspected at the close of each day by the concerned staff.


b)   Electrical fire risk :

Precautions :

i)             Do not overload, tap or over heat electrical equipment.

ii)            Electrical installations should be inspected and tested periodically.

iii)          Test the insulation of all circuits.

iv)          Check the efficiency of earthing.

v)           Renew all perished or damaged flexible wiring.

vi)          Check that pilot lamps are incorporated in all non-luminous appliances and these lamps are in good condition.

vii)        Repeat or renew all defective apparatus.

viii)       Keep temporary extension wiring to a minimum.

ix)          Switch off from the mains when equipment is not in use.

x)           Use connectors, instead of insulation tape, for joints.

xi)          Do not permit loose and hanging electrical wiring, appliances and equipment.

xii)        Use only I.S.I. certified electrical wiring, appliances and equipment.

xiii)       Necessarily use E.L.C.B. (Earth Leakage Circuit Breakers).

xiv)      Replace old wiring and installations periodically.

xv)        Provide adequate ventilation to the room areas where electric switch boards / Distribution Boards are house.



Precautions :

i)             Guard against leaking gas cylinders.

ii)            Do not keep stove / any heating appliances very close to the gas cylinder.

iii)          Do not use substandard tubing, Replace it before it develops cracks or broken.

iv)          Be alert about slightest smell of leaked gas before lighting burner.

v)           Cylinder should not be kept in horizontal position.


Carrying out repairs and hazardous operations like welding, gas cutting and cable jointing using naked clams, during maintenance and repair programmes.

Precautions :

i)             Ensure adequate supervision on the workers carrying out these operations.

ii)            Issue of Hot works permits to be scrupulously followed.

iii)          Fire Watch (trained personnel with first aid fire fighting equipment like fire extinguishers) should be posted throughout the period of hot repairs and maintenance work.


Bad House keeping lends instant support for the occurrence of fire :

Precautions :

i)             The side open spaces provided around the building to be maintained free from encroachments and obstruction.

ii)            Maintain good housekeeping throughout the premises by keeping materials and articles in a methodical and orderly manner.

iii)          Do not obstruct Escape Routes such as passages, common lobbies and staircases by any construction or storage of any combustible or flammable materials.

iv)          While doing renovations, ensure that the wooden shavings and sawdust are removed daily before closing for the day. Avoid largescale use storage of timber or wood in the renovation.

v)           Do not accumulate garbage or waste materials, dispose them daily.


Some Useful Hints :

a)   How to Prepare yourself for a fire ?

i)             Familiarise yourself with the exit staircase and the route leading to the staircase.

ii)            In case of invalids, plan for their safe exit in case of a fire.

iii)          Fix a place outside your building where people (occupants) can assemble in case of a fire. This way it would help you in finding out any one missing and yet to be rescued.

iv)          Memorise the Fire Brigade Telephone numbers.

v)           Summon the fire brigade even on slightest suspicion of fire or minor fires.

vi)          Find out how to operate the Manual Fire Alarm. Learn to distinguish between the fire alarm and other bells in you building.

vii)        Discover the location of the first-aid fire fighting equipment (hose, reels, fire extinguishers etc.) in you building. Learn how to operate them.

viii)       One arrival of the fire brigade, give the details of fire, such as its location, extent nature etc. and co-operate with them for carrying out effective fire fighting and rescue operations.


What to do in case of a fire ?

i)             If you smell something burning, or spot, a wisp of smoke where you would not normally expect it, or if you spot even a small fire, raise the fire alarm in your building, security personnel or the personnel manning the fire brigade simultaneously.

ii)            Fight the fire by using portable fire extinguisher and the first aid hose reel. All fires start small. The can be easily put out by using fire extinguishers and the first aid hose reel in time.

iii)          In case, if you feel the fire is big for you to handle, get out of the room / section yourself.

iv)          Close the door of the room after ensuring that every one has come out of the room, thus confining the fire and smoke to one room only till the arrival of the fire service.

v)           Use the staircase to go down. On no account, should you use the lift. Please ensure that fire door of the staircase is kept closed (not locked).

vi)          Assemble at the predetermined or refuge area. Count the number of people and find out if any one is missing.

vii)        On arrival of the fire brigade, give details as accurately as possible.

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