Fewer Stairways and More Open-Plan Apartments Makes Dublin High Rises Less Fire Safe, Firefighter Says

Firefighter John Mahon says he worries about tackling fires in high-rise buildings where there is only one set of stairs leading out of each corridor.

High-rise apartment complexes should have two sets of stairs, so that if one is blocked with smoke, the fire brigade could evacuate people down the other stairs, says Mahon, who works for Dublin Fire Brigade and is a SIPTU member.

With only a single staircase, firefighters could be going up the stairs with equipment, while evacuating residents down the same set of stairs, says Mahon.

“Is the one stairwell full of smoke? Can we pull up all our gear while people are coming down?” he says. People might panic on the crowded stairs and that situation could “create havoc”.

Architects have also expressed concerns about safety and escape routes in open-plan flats, especially when combined with a single staircase.

Any building taller than 20 metres – which is around six storeys – must have fire-fighting lobbies with a fire-fighting lift, says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

The building regulations for fire safety are “undergoing a fundamental review”, and a draft of the new guidelines should be put out for public consultation later this year, they said.

The review is looking at emerging building trends and developments globally, as well as “matters relating to external fire spread, external fire resistance, internal fire resistance, cladding systems, sprinklers, etc”, they said.

Stairs and Lifts

Current building regulations allowing for a single set of stairs don’t match up with Dublin Fire Brigade’s policy of evacuating all apartments in case of a fire, says Mahon.

In some cities in North America, the material used in the fire-proofing between apartments is reliable, so in high-rises people usually stay put in their apartments if there is a fire in their complex, he says.

In Ireland, though, there is uncertainty around the quality of the materials and whether the fire-proofing between the individual apartments is good enough, he says, so the national policy is “get out and stay out”.

There appears to be a mismatch between that policy though and building regulations that allow for many storeys of apartments all accessing just one staircase, Mahon says.

The spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that all tall buildings above six-storeys must have a firefighting lift.

A firefighting lift is a high-quality lift that is fire-proofed, says Mahon. They’re good to have, but all high-rise apartments should still have two sets of stairs, he says.

The fire-fighting lift won’t work if there’s an electrical fire, he says, and regardless of that the fire brigade will always need to use the stairs.

“You are sending a team up not only to firefight but to search and rescue as well,” he says. “You will always have traffic up and down the stairwells.”

Around 35 firefighters are needed to tackle a high-rise fire, he says, and only a few people can fit in the lift at any one time. To rely solely on the lift would waste too much time, he says.

If the single stairs are blocked up with smoke there is no fall back plan for evacuation, he says.

Mahon has previously said that Dublin Fire Brigade does not have the proper training or equipment to tackle fires in high rises. Even as developers are proposing more taller buildings for the city.

Open-Plan Flats

Architect Mel Reynolds says that under old regulations open-plan apartments were permitted on the first and second floors because at those heights windows are considered reasonable escape routes.

(Otherwise an open-plan flat had to be within 9 metres of the stairs.)

So most apartments above the second floor had to have a hallway separating the bedrooms from the kitchen and escape routes that didn’t go through the kitchen, he says. (The kitchen is a common place for a fire to start.)

Last year, new regulations allowing open-plan apartments 20m away from the stairs were introduced. Since then, most of the planning applications for large residential schemes he has looked at seem to use that design, he says.

Putting open-plan flats together with the fact that some of the same schemes are designed with a single stairs as an escape route, the accommodation is “extraordinarily poor” in terms of fire safety, says Reynolds.

In February 2020, Eoin Ó’Cofaigh, former head of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, wrote to the Irish Times to criticise the fire-safety provisions in the new building regulations.

He cited single escape routes, open-plan flats, and a lack of escape routes from bedrooms.

“Have the officials lost their reason altogether? Have they forgotten what can happen in a block of flats if people are asleep when a fire starts?” he wrote, asking whether sprinklers can put out a chip-pan fire.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that high-rise buildings with open-plan apartments must have sprinkler systems installed.

As well as sprinkler systems, building regulations require that fire alarms be installed both in private apartments and in the public areas of the complex.

All open-plan flats should have protected escape routes including stairs that are fire-proofed, corridors that are ventilated, and emergency lighting to guide residents to safety, said the spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

Each flat should be built with fire-resistant walls and floors to stop fire spreading to neighbouring flats, he says, and the entrance halls should also be fireproofed.

There should also be refuge spaces in stairways or lobbies where people with disabilities can remain in safety, with communications systems so that they can call for assistance, he says.

Sprinkler systems, if well maintained, are a great addition to firefighting, says Mahon. “Sprinklers will assist with putting out the fire. But you still have to have firefighters in there.”

It is best not to rely on systems that can fail due to human error, he says.

The fire brigade regularly encounters practical problems that they could not have foreseen, such as mechanical failures and human error. “It’s all great on paper and it looks absolutely fantastic, but guess what? That is not reality,” he says.

Mahon says firefighters would prefer if there were always two sets of stairs accessing each corridor of a high-rise apartment complex.

Says Reynolds: “You are reducing the number of vertical means of escape, strategically, by reducing the number of cores.”

The only reason for doing that appears to be to make it cheaper, he says.

Totally independent research is required to assess the impact on fire safety of removing internal entrance halls from apartments, he says.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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