Building Resilience Against Fires

  • Chan Kai Foo assistant vice president, senior engineering specialist, Asia Operations, FM Global, Corporate Risk and Insurance; October 31, 2019

Why a fire safety culture is key

In densely populated 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 industrial, commercial and government buildings to upgrade to meet stricter fire safety requirements. Among these are older buildings constructed decades ago and conforming to the fire safety regulations appropriate for their time.

The Singapore example is a timely reminder for organizations in other markets. Taking precautions against fire should not be left only to regulators. No matter how efficient the local fire service is or how stringent the national codes are, everyone must adopt better fire-prevention habits. Businesses should maintain a boardroom-level awareness of fire mitigation practices and instill a fire safety culture.

According to statistics, storage facilities are especially vulnerable to fires. The biggest increase in the number of fires on industrial premises in 2018 came from warehouses. The Singapore Civil Defense Force reports that there were 39 warehouse fires in 2017 but 58 in 2018—a 48.7% increase. These tragic fire incidents hold important lessons that should prompt property owners and businesses to be more conscious of fire safety.

First, it is important to understand what materials have been used in 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 for better-performing building materials that come with improved insulation properties, greater resistance to surface denting, materials that are lighter in weight or easier to install. On the other hand—and in many cases—these are 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, 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 has found that such tests are not representative of actual fire performance. A better way to gauge the severity of the hazard is to conduct large-scale fire testing.

Second, businesses and property owners need to be aware of the fire risk of the items on their premises. Innovation in warehousing technology and storage means many facilities can now contain 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 not adequately consider fire risks.

Third, some practical fire mitigation tools still have a slow take-up rate. There is some reluctance to use these tools—mostly based on a misconception that sprinklers will accidentally trigger without a fire, irreparably damaging priceless contents 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 damage from sprinkler leakage. That means fire loss is more frequent and costly than sprinkler leakage.

The sobering reality is that fire is the costliest and most dangerous risk to occupants, building owners and businesses located on the property. Fire is still the No. 1 cause of loss, and accounts for about 40% of all claims FM Global manages globally.

Instilling a fire safety culture is an important element of building business resilience. Businesses and property owners need to embrace the need to balance fire protection and space efficiency with practical fire mitigation tools such as sprinkler systems.

The onus is on building owners and tenants alike to demand a safe working environment that also minimizes business disruption. The majority of these losses are preventable, and the decision to become more fire resilient is in the hands of owners and businesses.

As originally published in Corporate Risk and Insurance.


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