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Concerns over fire incidents in public buildings

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Distributed by increasing cases of fire outbreaks in public buildings, built environment experts have called for enforcement of fire safety designs and measures that could mitigate further outbreaks and the attendant loss of lives and properties.

In recent weeks, major public buildings in Abuja such as Accountant General of the Federation Building, the Corporate Affairs Commission head office, Independent National Electoral Commission headquarters, among others in the country, had experienced fire outbreaks. Markets have not been exempted.

While most of the incidents are not due to human errors, experts say, that buildings need to be designed to offer an acceptable level of fire safety and minimise the risks to lives and valuables from heat and smoke from whatever sources.

They posited that fire service stations should be established in some locations across the country and that the goal of safety designs in the building shouldn’t be compromised.

Speaking on the development, a former President, Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers, Dr Victor Oyenuga, noted that its always part of design criteria that there must be an allowance for 30 minutes, one hour and two hours fire cover in building designs.

He said in most cases building designs are done to one hour fire, stating that the practical implication is to allow a distance between the building reinforcement, edge and outer edge of the concrete called, cover.

The structural engineer explains, “the assumption is that if you designing for one hour fire, once you provide that thickness, the concrete structure in the building should be able to withstand fire till one hour. You may not design for more than that because the more the thickness, the more expensive the structure as engineering is based on safety and economics. We limit design for one-hour fire. The implication is that if a building is subjected to fire for one hour, there wouldn’t be any major structural failure. In most of the time that cover is not respected especially if a building is not properly designed and constructed.

“For pillars, it’s supposed to be 40mm/one and a half inches cover in thickness, for decking it is 20mm and different covers for slabs, staircase and others, but you discover that most people don’t allow such and ones that cover is not adequately provided for there is fire on structure and reinforcement is subjected to one hour or thirty minutes fire, it loses strength due to heat from a fire by 50 per cent and there’s the tendency for the building to collapse. If the cover is provided for, we expect that within one hour, somebody should have put off the fire and if it’s more than that, then there could be a problem with the structure. If the standard is well respected, there won’t be a problem in the time of the fire but the problem is that cover is not respected.”

Oyenuga advanced the need for fire designs by electrical and mechanical engineers with elements of fire warning like smoke detectors stressing that there will always be smoke before fire outbreaks in buildings.

According to him, although nobody prays for fire, people need to behave as if a fire could come at any time of the day especially in public buildings while efforts at ensuring the functionality of the fire systems that already in place must be strengthened.

“If the fire systems are in order, they are automatic and they would trigger themselves on. Once smoke is detected, fire warning should be on; the sprinkler systems, which are like supplying water, should be activated immediately. Most of those buildings are designed by highly competent professionals/consultants; probably some of those systems are not functional. If the smoke system alerted the water system and there’s no water in the pipe, in such case there is nothing anybody could do.”

Immediate past Chairman of Lagos Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Building, Adelaja Adekanmbi who lamented absence of fire stations in major markets in Lagos and other public facilities, urged authorities to make such facility available in public places across the nation to stop persistent outbreaks even when the temperature is considered normal.

He particularly raised concerns on the recent fire outbreak in the Accountant General’s Office in Abuja, stating that with the magnitude and quality design of the building, fire safety precaution must have been inbuilt into the project. He lamented that fire outbreak in such building could, therefore, be political and not as a result of lack of fire safety design in the project.

Adekanmbi said, “It is worrisome for professionals to see that those kinds of structures are catching fire. If you say some markets catch fire, it’s okay because the fire hazard system has not been designed in local buildings. But the structures we are talking about, fire safety has already been considered. Why are they catching fire, it is because people are on holiday or the nation is on lockdown I sure that wouldn’t have happened during the working period”

“Authorities should, by all means, establish fire service stations that work 24 hours in all public buildings and close to all markets to prevent further loss of money, goods and other valuables to fire.

The head of the Department of Architecture, University of Lagos, Dr Anthony Adebayo opined that a lot of things call for question when fire incidents are experienced in big public facilities stressing that ordinarily, fire alerts and automatic fire extinguishers, installed water sprinklers and other devices should take care of any fire outbreak scientifically in modern time.

Adebayo there was a need to enforce fire safety measures in all public buildings as a precautionary step in taming the increasing number of such accidents in the country.

He stated, “In every serious public building design, the architects that design must have built-in the fire safety design into it. Of course, those measures could have been compromised by some people in the process of design and building approvals process.”

According to the immediate past president, International Facility Management, (IFMA) Nigeria Chapter, Mr Pius Iwundu recent fire outbreaks in the country, opt to be an eye-opener on the need to yield to the call for the establishment of fire safety department/team for every public building. He said the team should be saddled with the duty of working round the clock and in conjunction with the building maintenance operatives who must be subjected to regular training on global best practices in the management of fire outbreaks.

“In every building, fire safety should be taken very serious right from the design stage by incorporating systems that can enable early detection of fire. If early detection is tackled, you have automatically stopped the spread of fire.”

Iwundu said in facility management it is better to manage well so that structures could reach the maximum useful lifeline to get the best out of the facility.

He observed that outbreaks often come because of the lack of having the right systems in place, lack of maintenance, failure to maintenance operatives who manage buildings and absence of fire drills on a regular basis.

“By the time you do all these, everyone in the buildings would know what to do in case of any fire. Sometimes, there could be a false alarm and in that case, you got to have fire safety section in every building. We have advised some state Governors in the course of managing their buildings, insisting that there must be a fire safety department where people work 24 hours on shift to respond to any call from fire detection alarm or any systems of any of the residents.”

He said if the country starts to implement such procedure, fire outbreaks could be reduced drastically in public buildings, markets and other facilities in the country.


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