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Docklands high-rise fire 2014 – case study
The ‘Learning from incidents’ section of Brigade magazine includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management. Here, we analyse the 2015 Docklands high-rise fire.
A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.
If you have any observations or initiatives you would like to submit from your own experiences in emergency management, visit the Observation Sharing Centre: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1449131/observation-sharing-centre
On 25 November 2014 at 2.24am, MFB crews responded to an exchange call for a reported multi-storey apartment fire in Latrobe St, Docklands in Melbourne’s CBD.
When crews arrived at the scene at 2.29am, they saw that the fire had spread to include around six levels above the room of origin, which was on the sixth floor. By 2.35am the fire had reached the roof of the building, which was above the 21st floor.
The rapid, vertical spread of the fire has been attributed to the external cladding of the building, which is being reviewed by a number of organisations. The fire was started by a cigarette butt placed in a plastic container on the balcony of an apartment and it travelled vertically to each floor, penetrating a number of apartments.
The apartment tenancies in the building included a large number of student residences, with some two-bedroom apartments containing up to eight students. Fuel loads within some apartments were excessive, with makeshift partitions and additional bedding.
Due to the fire travel within the building, the emergency warning and intercom system (EWIS) was compromised on some of the fire-affected levels, which meant firefighters had to evacuate residents at every level. More than 400 residents were safely evacuated from the building and taken to Etihad Stadium because it was unsafe to re-enter the building.
It was reported that the building’s sprinkler system operated well above its design criteria, which helped the 120 firefighters on scene to contain the fire. Electricians isolated the power to the building, but this stopped the operation of the pumps to the sprinklers and hydrants, so the power to these pumps was reinstated. Only power that was not required to operate the fire safety systems was shut off.
At the height of the firefight there were 22 firefighting vehicles on scene, as well as two ladder platforms and four specialist vehicles. The fire took around 30 minutes to bring under control. Incident control was established using AIIMS ICS structure and an emergency management team was established on site with Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, SES, Melbourne City Council, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Red Cross.
Multi-storey buildings in areas covered by CFA
Typically, the term ‘high-rise’ is used to describe buildings greater than 25 metres high and is based on the National Construction Code requirements for fire safety. In terms of building safety requirements, these buildings generally include fire safety systems such as pressurised stairways, sprinkler systems, fire separation and EWIS systems. Although CFA doesn’t have a large number of these buildings in its jurisdiction, it does have some residential buildings up to 15 storeys, with an effective height of around 46 metres, and a number of similarly-sized commercial buildings.
The majority of multi-storey buildings within CFA areas are less than 25 metres in height. According to the National Construction Code, buildings less than 25 metres effective height (seven or eight storeys) don’t require the same level of fire safety systems. It’s likely there will be no sprinkler system or air-handling devices (which force smoke into certain areas) to help fire management in these buildings. But seven or eight-storey buildings, which are common in regional cities, holiday resorts and alpine areas, can house a large number of residents.
MFB identified several lessons from the Docklands fire which CFA members can apply to their own areas.
Fit-for-purpose building materials The installation of fit-for-purpose and approved building materials ensures the robustness of fire safety design in building construction. There is currently no practical method to predict full-scale fire performance from small-scale tests for the broad range of exterior wall systems commonly used. Building surveyors, architects, developers and designers should pay careful consideration to the external wall construction and all associated cladding materials.
Intercom warning system A failure or absence of a building occupant warning system will delay the self-evacuation of residents in a building. The evacuation of a large residential building requires the ongoing management of a large number of evacuees well past the initial evacuation. A safe location will need to be found for those evacuated in consultation with the municipality, DHHS and Ambulance Victoria. A significant number of resources are needed to do this.
Isolating the power The isolation of electrical services in large residential buildings may hamper ongoing firefighting efforts and, when the fire-affected building is fully isolated, it will take significant time to reinstate. As this could affect the fire services’ ability to fight a fire, it might be worth isolating only the fire-affected areas. Local building management can help to safely isolate parts of a building.
Accumulation of combustible material Building management needs to implement and enforce a good housekeeping policy to prevent the accumulation and storage of combustibles and other items on balconies, ensuring there is minimal material to fuel a fire.
Fire extinguishers Building management should be encouraged to ensure that all installed fire extinguishers are unobstructed, clearly identified and correctly maintained. Sometimes goods and materials are stored in fire safety equipment enclosures, such as hose reel cupboards. This should be regularly monitored and prevented.
Smoke alarms Building occupants need to be made aware of the importance of smoke alarms in providing early detection of a fire. By removing the backup battery or covering the alarm to prevent false alarms, they are putting themselves and other occupants at greater risk of serious injury or death.
Preparedness Understanding the risk and having a well-developed plan is vital when working with high-rise buildings. A strong relationship with the building owner will help with this preparedness. Knowledge of the fire safety systems in the building, the intended use of the building versus the actual use and the fuel load, will help brigades understand how a fire will behave in the building. The intended emergency evacuation process is also important, because occupants may or may not behave as you’d predict. The Docklands building occupants conducted a fire evacuation drill in the days before the fire.
Access Understanding the layout and access to the building will help with an integrated initial attack of the fire. It’s vital there is access for aerial vehicles, which provide maximum reach and potential rescue capability as well as using boost points to provide required pressure for fire service mains to operate. Understanding the egress options and emergency assembly points may give the incident controller an opportunity to limit the convergence of other emergency services and evacuees.
Resources needed The rapid escalation and understanding of the numbers and types of resources needed to deal with a complex residential fire will help protect the community. These types of fires also result in a significant incident management workload. For this reason, it’s essential that sufficient command are available to support the incident controller. The opportunity to conduct both practical and table-top exercises with all emergency services and support agencies will help to manage any incident that occurs.