Can Firefighters Trust Compartmentation?

This article aims to discuss whether firefighters can, truly, trust compartmentation. It is based on two separate conversations conducted by Quelfire with Steve McGuirk and Guy Doyle.

Steve McGuirk CBE QFSM DL: Steve has 17 years of experience as Manchester’s Chief Fire Officer and CEO in the Fire and Rescue Service. More recently, he acted as an expert witness to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Guy Doyle MIFSM: Currently, Guy is a Director for Manchester Fire Compliance Ltd and has nearly 19 years of experience for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

Steve McGuirk, CBE QFSM DL

Guy Doyle, MIFSM

An overview

During the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, individual firefighters were praised for bravery; however, the London Fire Brigade, as an institution, was criticised for ‘serious shortcomings’ and ‘systemic’ failures in its handling of the Grenfell Tower fire.

At Quelfire, we wholly believe in early engagement in firestopping and continuously promote that for fire safety to be a priority, all parties need to be involved and firestopping needs to be considered for buildings as early as the design stage. Therefore, we were interested in exploring how manufacturers could assist Fire and Rescue Services when it comes to passive fire protection.

However, following these two enlightening conversations, our attention was shifted to the low confidence in the construction industry and compartmentation due to failings in the past. Consequently, this changed the focus of the article to that of: ‘Can firefighters trust compartmentation?’

What is fire compartmentation?

A building’s compartmentation is a significant element of passive fire protection. The main purpose of compartmentation is to contain the fire to its area of origin to allow time for occupants to evacuate the building, increase the time for Fire and Rescue Services to get the fire under control, and limit the damage caused to the building.

It is achieved by dividing the premises into areas of manageable risk by using masonry and fire-rated plasterboard walls, and concrete and fire-resistant floors and ceilings.

However, it is unlikely that a building’s compartmentation will remain a solid box due to fire-resistant barriers requiring openings. Openings include windows, floors, and service penetrations such as pipes and cables which void the fire-resistance rating of the fire separating element.

Therefore, every opening and penetration that breaks the compartmentation must be adequately fire stopped to reinstate the required fire-resistance rating.

The Grenfell Tower fire

As all catastrophic events have demonstrated: they are not the result of a single failure. The Grenfell Tower fire was a result of many failures such as the refurbishment with unsuitable products (i.e., the cladding), the breaking of compartmentation, internal conditions, and control failures.

The Grenfell Tower fire reinforced that a building’s compartmentation cannot be trusted. However, the problem of Grenfell was not the concept of compartmentation itself but the industry cutting corners that breached the compartmentation.

This brings to light current attitudes and practices within the construction industry. The industry often focusses on prioritising profit, using cheaper products and the quantity of content over the quality of it. This kind of culture not only puts occupants of high-rise buildings in grave danger, but also firefighters who, as Guy highlighted, are reliant on compartmentation to keep them safe.

However, in the event of a fire, Steve said that firefighters go into a burning building expecting compartmentation to have failed; firefighters are there because it has broken down.

Regarding the Grenfell Tower fire, Steve said: “Certainly the London Fire Brigade didn’t know what compartmentation was, that was one of the big problems. Not one person recognised what a breach in compartmentation looked like.”

Guy also reiterated that there is a lack of knowledge on compartmentation and passive fire protection in general.  Overall, this suggests that lives can be saved if firefighters are aware of a building’s fire strategy.

By obtaining an understanding of compartmentation and knowing what it looks like breached, firefighters can know when to trust it and when the stay put policy needs to be abandoned.

Stay Put policy

To ‘stay put’ was first developed in the early 1960s, UK. The British Standard Code of Practice was introduced in 1962 as the first national standard for high-rise residential buildings. This meant that all buildings over 80 feet were to provide one hour’s fire resistance, which would support firefighters when tackling the fire inside the building.

The code ensured that firefighters could successfully put out a fire in one flat, with the help of compartmentation, instead of facing an entire building ablaze. This means that occupants of the building, who are not directly impacted by the fire, could stay inside their flat and wait to be safely rescued.

Confidence in compartmentation was first challenged on 3 July 2009, when a fire broke out in Lakanal House, South London. The fire spread externally and internally due to a severe failure of compartmentation. Six people were killed, three of whom were children. They had all been told to ‘stay put’.

However, there are many advocates for the stay put policy, who look to the data that shows it to be a success in most fires. Peter Apps from Inside Housing reported that: “National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) data shows that there were more than 57,000 fires in high rises between 2010 and 2017, but that only 216 (0.4%) required the evacuation of more than five residents.”

It is understandable that there are mixed opinions about this policy. However, it is crucial to understand that when compartmentation is done correctly, this allows for the stay put policy to work effectively too.

Peter Apps further reported: “Only a small percentage of fires in high rises spread beyond the flat of origin. But it does happen. The government says there have been 8,025 fires in buildings taller than four storeys since 2016/17. Of these, 156 affected at least two floors, with 72 affecting more than two. This is a rate of around one per week.”

While this is a low figure, it has been suggested that there was not much information about the stay put policy until the Grenfell Tower fire.

As emphasised in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the policy was reversed at 2:47 – this was nearly two hours after the fire had started.

Guy said: “There was certainly, in my time, very little discussion about movement from a stay put policy to full evacuation. Ultimately, the stay put policy isn’t dictated by the fire service, it is part of the overall management of the premises. It has been and still remains misunderstood.”

Therefore, to understand the stay put policy, there must be an element of understanding around compartmentation. As mentioned above, the stay put policy cannot work without compartmentation. And consequently, compartmentation comes down to the main problem of ensuring everything is compliant from the design of the building to the tested solutions and installation.

A firefighter’s trust in compartmentation is only as strong as the industry’s dedication to compliance. The industry needs to take a more proactive approach to fire safety by focussing on what products, materials, and manufacturers are used: everyone has a choice.

Cutting corners: the Building Safety Act

Over the years, it has been illustrative to see how disaster often, but not always, leads to legislation changes.

For example, Lakanal House fire brought about the Construction Strategy ‘2025’ in July 2013; Wharfside fire in 2015 saw the introduction of the Construction Strategy ‘2016-2020’ in March 2016; and the Grenfell Tower fire saw Hackitt’s Independent review in 2017, which has led to the Building Safety Act in 2022.

These legislation changes drive standards and law. It shows the consequential guidance due to destructive fire, and the social imperative to make buildings safer than they were previously.

The Building Safety Act overhauls existing regulations to give residents and homeowners more rights, powers, and protections and consequently, places more responsibility on individuals in the construction industry.

Compartmentation is easily compromised: poorly installed pipes, damaged firebreaks, faulty fire doors and vents which can all play a part in the spread of smoke and fire.

For decades the industry has been constructing buildings cheaply and quickly, which has generated issues with fire performance.

However, as Steve highlighted: “Because of the Building Safety Act and the golden thread, in the future, workers will need to tell the responsible person where the hole is going, the product they are using and why it maintains the integrity and the compartmentation.

The regime of regulation requires competent people to make judgements of the ethics of your design: is your design safe? Does it meet the regulations?”

Through these changes, it is clear to see the cultural change the industry is slowly starting to welcome. As well as understanding that regulations alone are not enough: mindsets must change too.

Can firefighters trust compartmentation?

Firefighters should be able to trust compartmentation.

However, it is encouraged for Fire and Rescue Services to further educate their members on compartmentation and to seek out information from manufacturers who have information available.

The industry also must play their part by working transparently and ensuring fire compartmentation is compliant with guidance and test evidence.

Only when all parties effectively work together will occupants of high-rise buildings, as well as firefighters’, trust in compartmentation be completely restored.

The importance of fire compartmentation

Rebecca Croton

This article was written by Rebecca Croton

Content Marketing Executive

Learn More About Rebecca Croton