The burning challenge of fire safety

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By Sandrine Tranchard
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A fire can occur anywhere, even where we least expect it. With losses caused by fire estimated at 1% of the global GDP each year, fire safety must be viewed in the broader perspective of risk management and disaster mitigation.

The building industry is a key sector for fire safety activities. But fire can also be associated with other important areas such as transport, industrial safety, wildland fires or urban development.

Standards help prevent the risk of fire, manage the damage and protect human life; and they are part of a fire safety strategy.

Patrick Van Hees, Chair of the ISO technical committee on fire safety (ISO/TC92), explains the challenges we face in these areas and how International Standards play a leading role. He also sheds light on the work that needs to be done in areas that have not yet been explored.

Fire safety is about risk reduction for people, property and the environment. Tell us about the main challenges in these areas?

The main challenge is perhaps fire safety in itself, irrespective of whether we are talking about people, property, the environment, the preservation of historical heritage or industrial production. Fire safety must feature higher on our list of priorities because, all too often, it is put in place to solve problems after the accident.

In all of the above areas, the challenge of protecting people is about coping with an ageing society and high concentrations of people in densely populated areas. Human behaviour in this regard becomes increasingly important. For the protection of property, the challenge is to ensure that modern technology and innovative products or materials are introduced with the same level of safety.

The environment has become the number one priority on all agendas and we need to ensure that we have the appropriate measures and standards in place to preserve it from fire. We often forget that the pollution caused by fire is as almost as high as the exhaust created by energy production and transportation, such as cars. Reducing the risk of fire is therefore central to environmental protection.

Fire safety must feature higher on our list of priorities...too often it is put in place after the accident.

Fire safety engineering is growing as a specialized field? What benefits can ISO standards bring to the fire safety market?

Fire safety engineers already use ISO standards. In fact, fire safety engineering uses new tools and methods, so there is a clear need to provide commonly agreed standards. ISO has been a major driver, developing many standards in this area. This is why it is important that national and regional players look to these standards before developing new ones.

Are there any new fields worth investigating with regard to fire safety, such as transport, industrial fires or forest fires? What are the main challenges in these areas and what standards are needed?

A major area in need of standardization is the interface between forest/wildland fire and urban zones. ISO should be active and start the ball rolling in this area. The challenge, however, is finding experts who are willing to be proactive in ISO’s work. And the need is global as we must ensure that we have the proper methods to observe, predict spread and mitigate forest fires, but also to protect people, property and the environment in case of wildfire.

Another area of investigation could be industrial fires. The challenge here is the diversity of activities, and more support is needed for risk-based fire safety engineering and methods that generate input for these risk analyses.

Finally, we should try to introduce many of our standards into subsectors of transportation, such as cars, buses, trains, ships and airplanes. A perfect example of the use of International Standards in this area is the International Maritime Organization, which refers to a number of ISO standards in its fire test procedures and has, in many cases, even requested development work from ISO.

Cost benefit analysis is also essential in fire safety and a number of recent studies have shown the advantages of protection measures. This might also be an area of standardization within ISO.

What about fire safety in developed and developing countries? Is there a difference in their needs, in their priorities…?

We certainly observe a difference. While developed countries might also want to focus on regional, or even national, standards, developing countries have a much greater need of International Standards. The standard development process is time-consuming and ISO is a good forum to hold this debate within an acceptable time frame. However, it is also important to see more countries involved worldwide, regardless of whether they are developing or developed countries.  

Fire safety is regulated in every country. What is the relationship between International Standards and national regulation? How can International Standards play a role at a national level and in which sector?

Patrick Van Hees, Chair of the ISO/TC 92, Fire safety.

In many cases, there is a clear use of ISO standards in national and regional regulation. What is important here is to disseminate the knowledge and existence of these International Standards, which can play a role in many sectors of industry and in regulation. ISO fire safety standards are often used on a national, or indeed a regional, level for regulatory purposes.

One prime example is the European test standards with regard to the reaction of building materials to fire. The test methods for the Euroclasses are based on several ISO standards, originally developed by, or in cooperation with, ISO/TC92. The methods form a basis for the classification and product standards in Europe. Broadly speaking, this means that, for fire properties, many of the product standards that serve as a basis for CE markings have links to ISO standards. An example that should give us plenty of food for thought to expand fire safety standardization to other areas!

If you want to know more on fire safety or to bring your experience to the committee, you can contact ISO national members.

Facts and figures

  • The cost of fire is estimated at about 1% to 2% of the annual GDP
  • About 1% of fires are responsible for more than 50% of the costs
  • The number of people dying in fire is estimated at 2.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (based on 35 countries)

Sources: World Fire Statistics, Geneva Association, International Association of Fire and Rescue Services

    Sandrine Tranchard
    Sandrine Tranchard

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