Fighting fires on tall buildings

Fires in tall buildings over the years have led to many improvements in designs that prevent them from starting or from taking hold, and then if they do, to slow down their spread. Thankfully they are very rare. Existing technology is also very limiting. Ground-based fire appliances can only rescue people from lower floors and can only spray water onto a few floors above that. Fire extinguishers and internal sprinkler systems can obviously help put fires out or slow them spreading if they are actually present and if a few people are willing to take risks. That there were none in Grenfell Tower is simply beyond comprehension. Negligence, incompetence and complacency don’t begin to cover what needs to be said.

However brave firefighters are, and nobody doubts their bravery, they will need better tools to do the job, they are simply not equipped to fight fires in skyscrapers such as we just had. People should not die if there are potential solutions. Some are feasible now, but I am not aware of their use.

External fires such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London recently can’t be fought fully by either internal sprinklers or ground-based hoses. We need new techniques capable of dealing with such fires. A quick googling on future fire fighting is surprisingly disappointing. Even googling future firefighting doesn’t turn up much. Most is about fancy new imaging kit or protective uniforms with embedded sensors. All great stuff, but it won’t stop another Grenfell. I’m no expert in this field, so maybe I just haven’t used the right search terms, but it shouldn’t be as easy as it is to think up solutions that are not already in use. Maybe there are good reasons why the following are not in conspicuous use yet, but I can’t think of any. None of what follows is rocket science.

Water tanks on roofs could be attached to tubing around the perimeter of the building roof, and remotely operable valves could then be used by ground crews to release water in curtains down a side of the building. Obviously capacity is finite, but after initial quenching, continuous water flow from the roof would help, however little. Large tanks could be installed if none are present to add safety to existing building with poor cladding.

A way of getting firefighting kit high up is to use the platforms provided for window cleaning. They could be lowered to below the fire and fire pumps could be put on them, or at least anchorages for steerable hoses. This does not need firefighters to be on them, they could stay below. Clearly, roof kit might eventually fail and wires might break, but meanwhile they could help alleviate the problem and buy time at the very least. If firefighter lives are not put at risk to do it, there is little penalty.

External sprinkler tubes could also be fitted that could be connected to water supplies just below and external fire. This might buy one of two floors of relative safety above and greatly reduce smoke from outside. They don’t even need to have sophisticated nozzles. All they need to do to be useful is to spray some water on some of the external fire. Even if sub-optimal, they would buy a little time.

Drones offer one potential assistance route. Two types are relevant. One is very well known already and I would expect is already in use: Conventional drones can carry cameras and other sensors to higher floors to monitor what is happening, offer assisted networking for internal firefighters, offer firefighters alternative views of the action, enable local and accurate positioning systems, and provide computer-enhanced imaging to augmented reality helmets.

Secondly, high power tethered drones could be powered by connected electrics from the ground, so avoiding the battery and power limitations of conventional drones. They could reach high floors and stay there while supporting hoses from the ground or from lower floors, and might even be able to hold pumps if ground pressure can’t be made high enough. These would offer helicopter-type functionality or lifting capacity without having to go back and forth to refill with water or fuel. Cost would be relatively high, but fire departments would not need many.

Once an external wall is made free of fire, drones and window-cleaning platforms could be used in rescues.

Obviously a lot has been written about futuristic imaging, sensing, navigation and bio-sign monitoring for firefighters, as well as deploying robotic firefighters that can work down from roofs, relatively immune to fire and smoke, so I won’t bother repeating here what is already known well. What is apparently lacking sometimes is low-tech kit and making it actually present.

If these systems are already well known but there are good reasons why they don’t feature, then I have wasted your time.




One response to “Fighting fires on tall buildings

  1. Robin Helweg-Larsen

    Fireproof cladding must be part of the answer.


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