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Dublin Fire Brigade doesn’t have the training or equipment that it needs to tackle blazes in high-rise buildings, says firefighter John Mahon, a SIPTU committee member.
The tallest apartment block so far in the city reaches up 22 storeys at Capital Dock in the Docklands.
But developers have submitted planning applications for high-rise apartment complexes that rival Capital Dock in height – or push higher.
And, shorter towers are still an issue too.
The tallest ladders that the fire brigade has are 30 metres, says Mahon, which only allows them to rescue people at seven or eight storeys.
“Anything above that would be classified as a ‘tall building’ and is outside our comfort zone,” he says.
Dublin Fire Brigade has one set of equipment for tackling high-rise blazes, which is kept at the Tara Street Station, he says.
But there are tall buildings all over Dublin and most firefighters, including fire officers who give the instructions, have not been trained for high rise, says Mahon.
“You have to train people up in high-rise fire-fighting techniques,” he says. “You have to give them the high-rise kit and provide them with ladders.” New recruits are being trained, he says.
Dublin City Council said on Tuesday 27 July that it couldn’t provide a spokesperson to comment on whether the Fire Brigade has the necessary training and equipment to tackle blazes at those heights.
On land north of the River Liffey opposite Heuston Station, Ruirside Developments has sought permission to build more than 500 rental apartments.
Part of its first application was granted. Still to be ruled on by An Bord Pleanála is a second application for 198 of the homes in a 30-storey tower.
In February 2020, An Bord Pleanála granted permission to the Ballymore Group for more than 700 apartments in its “Connolly Quarter” on CIÉ land near the train station in the north inner-city.
That part of the city is earmarked as being suitable for height in the city development plan, said the inspector’s report.
If built, it would have included a 23-storey block that reached up 79.5 metres and was set to contain 84 studios, 40 one-beds and 41 two-bed homes.
That permission, though, was quashed in the High Court. A spokesperson for the Ballymore Group said that following a judicial review concluded in November 2020, it no longer has a live application for homes on that site.
Meanwhile, south of the city in Carrickmines, Bowbeck DAC applied for permission for a complex with 489 apartments, which tops out at 22 storeys.
A spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council – which includes Carrickmines – said that “specific high-rise firefighting training modules and standard operating guidelines have been researched, established and tested in line with international best practice”.
Dublin Fire Brigade has incorporated the latest equipment and techniques and has high-reach aerial fire appliances within the city, one of which is stationed in Dun Laoghaire district, the council spokesperson said.
“Given the rapid nature of change in a modern built environment, Dublin Fire Brigade research and training in this area will remain ongoing, progressive and dynamic,” said the spokesperson.
Phil Murphy, a former firefighter and independent fire safety expert in the UK, says that it takes a fire brigade 20 minutes longer to begin to tackle blazes that break out at 20 storeys, than those on the ground floor.
“In England, the average time to get to the address is 7 minutes and 45 seconds,” says Murphy, who has co-authored research into high-rise fires alongside academics at the University of Leeds.
“If you are in a house they are going to have water going in your window within a minute [of the fire brigade arriving] or somebody going into the house to rescue you,” he says.
“But if you are at the top of a block of flats you have another 20 minutes to wait and you could be dead,” says Murphy.
Mahon, the firefighter with Dublin Fire Brigade, agrees that it takes a lot longer to get started in a high rise.
When they arrive on the scene, fire officers first have to figure out the nature of the building, where the fire is, and who needs to be evacuated, he says.
“You have to get the manager there, get all the keys, get the fire-alarm panel and any CCTV that is available,” he says.
Then they set up an incident room two floors below the one where the fire is, he says.
In many cities in North America, the fire brigade can tell people to remain in their flats because they have confidence that the fire-proofing was adequate when the building was built, says Mahon.
But Dublin Fire Brigade have to evacuate all apartment complexes because they cannot be certain that the quality of the building materials were sufficient, he says.
If there are people trapped more than eight floors up, that is challenging to do, he says. The highest ladder they have is 30 metres.
Dublin Fire Brigade has ordered a 42 metre ladder, says Mahon, but it hasn’t arrived yet and firefighters will need to be trained to use it once it comes.
Aerial appliances are machines with baskets that people can climb into. They are 33 metres tall and great to rescue people from the eighth floor or below, says Mahon.
There are only three in Dublin though, he says. Two are currently in operation and one is in maintenance, he says.
Dublin Fire Brigade should have six of those aerial appliances spread out around Dublin, says Mahon.
Fire doors are great but to run a hose pipe through the apartment complex the doors have to be open, says Murphy.
“That creates a path then where the heat and smoke might then go into the stairway and trap everybody in the building,” he says.
So the fire brigade use “portable smoke curtains”, he says, creating a tunnel of fireproof fabric that the firefighters can crawl under to run a pipe.
Dublin Fire Brigade has those, says Mahon, but they only have one set, in Tara Street.
Fire brigades should look to examples of best practice from abroad, says Murphy, particularly in Toronto, where the fire brigade has specialist teams trained and equipped to deal with fires in tall buildings.
They also have special pipes that are “just like a big hook” which they use to pour water into a window below them, he says.
They also have a special communications system, says Murphy, because fire can affect radio waves, as can steel structures in high-rise buildings. Radio systems often stop working in high-rise fires, he says.
Lately, new recruits to Dublin Fire Brigade are being trained to tackle fires in tall buildings, says Mahon. But that is fairly pointless, he says, since the officers who give the instructions on the ground have not been trained.
Experienced firefighters have also not had the training, he says.
When the port tunnel was built, the fire brigade set up a specialist team in the North Strand Fire Station, which regularly trains for how they would handle a fire if it was to occur in the port tunnel, says Mahon.
The same thing didn’t happen for tall buildings, though, and he doesn’t understand why, he says. “There have been tall buildings in Dublin for a long time now.”
Anything over eight storeys is tall to them, so there are lots of buildings that are of concern, he says.
Mahon doesn’t agree with the government guidelines on the number of staff required at such fires, he says. The Fire Safety In Ireland guidelines from the Department of Housing say that a crew of 11 to 13 firefighters is needed for a high-rise fire with people inside.
That is “garbage”, says Mahon. There would normally be 15 firefighters at an ordinary house fire and high-rise fires are much more complex and labour-intensive, he says.
He suggests that around 35 firefighters plus fire officers are required to enter a high-rise building, evacuate safely and tackle the fire from within.
High-rise buildings are allowed so the authorities need to put training, equipment and staffing in place to meet that new fire risk, he says.
“You can build to the moon if you want to but you have to put in safe systems and carry out a proper risk assessment,” says Mahon.