The recent fire incident in the suddenly added corona unit of the United Hospital, Dhaka, is a sharp reminder of our lack of knowledge, neglect and apathy for fire safety in hospitals and high-rise commercial buildings (i.e. FR Tower in Banani). I also think that more than 90 percent of high-rises, both residential and commercial buildings in Dhaka are lacking in fire control, fire suppression and fire safety planning and mechanisms and safe building exit provisions.
For all non-combustible buildings above six stories, all structural and load bearing structural materials must have Underwriters Laboratories (UL) universal fire-resistance ratings above 2 hours. For fire exits or building cores in high-rise buildings, these ratings could rise up to 4 hours, depending on building heights, floor areas and occupancy loads. All elevators in high-rise buildings must have self-levelling features, i.e. in case of electrical failures or smoke alarms, all elevators must come to a lower level floor and doors should open automatically. Elevators must not be used during fire alarm or actual fires.
All high-rise residential and commercial buildings must have at least two separate means of fire-rated exits (corridors to travel) and a minimum of two sets of fire-sealed (rated minimum 2 hours rating) and fire-controlled non-combustible stairways, placed not too far apart from the exits. In case of greater distances of separated exits, more fire-resistant stairs must be installed in between the two designated exits. There should be no dead-end corridors where a rated and designated fire exit (staircase) is not available less than 30 ft away. No open or additional staircases on two or three storied central lobbies should be planned in high-rise buildings and hospitals designed above six floors, as these open foyers may act as chimneys and allow fire and smoke to rise and spread on all floors and cause death.
All high rise residential and commercial buildings must have active extinguishing and suppression systems. These include basic hand-held fire extinguishers, central pressurised fire hose cabinet systems, and active fire control systems, such wet sprinklers and dry pressurised systems. The requirements may vary depending on various factors such as area and load of occupancy, type of use and height of buildings in various countries. The fire suppression hand held extinguishers should be placed (in a cabinet) at a distance not greater than 120 ft apart. On buildings higher than nine floors, each floor must also be equipped with pressurised fire hydrant cabinets connected to a reserved water tank in the building. In specialised buildings with large floor areas that exceeds 7,000 square ft, each floor must be equipped with a sprinkler system, activated by smoke and fire within 30 seconds. Smoke alarms and fire detectors should also be mandatory in high-rise buildings.
On each floor of every building, there must be exit plans displayed on strategic locations and in front of the fire escape staircase, clearly showing the direction of exit. All exit doors must be fire rated and lead directly to the ground level.
It is a common perception that if a building is constructed with concrete and bricks, then it must be fire safe. This perception is not true. The idea of fire control is to save lives first, then the building later. People occupying a building must be granted safe exit first before every other consideration. Even if the building's structural system cannot burn, the flammable furniture, drapes, curtains, office stationery, etc. can certainly burn and create toxic smoke that can kill people before they are burned. In fact, many people can choke and become unconscious before they are engufed by the fire.
The FR Tower incident in Banani last year has major consequences for Bangladesh in fire safety design, operation and management. The fire happened on the 9th floor of a 15-floor office/commercial building. From what I could see from the floor plans made available to me, the typical floor plan had a central open core with two elevators and an open stair from ground to top floor. The rest of the building comprised of usable commercial spaces and some washrooms. There was no second and or separate safe means of exit from the floors. On top of this, it is alleged that the owner/ builders built several unauthorised floors on top of the approved plans. While building beyond the number of permitted floors is a major violation of building authorities' approval (in this case that of Rajuk), it is beyond my comprehension how a qualified architect can design such a commercial high-rise lacking in safe fire exit knowledge. It should be noted that all high-rises (residential, commercial and or office complexes) designed with open and single stair exits are at great risk of causing death to its occupants from potential smoke asphyxiation and actual fires.
Building with an open staircase and no second means of exit is a recipe for disaster. All the designer has to do is to review multi-rise building plans in Architectural Building Standards and consult NBC (National Building Code) Bangladesh and International Building Codes. And it is surprising how Rajuk authorities could have passed such a plan. Once the fire started, it got to the open staircase quickly and stopped people from using it as a safe means of exit. Smoke also rose rapidly through the open staircase and spread to other floors, making them impossible to escape from without a second means of safe exit. People broke some glasses for ventilation, but it was not enough to save many from smoke asphyxiation and death. I suspect that there are many high-rise towers in Dhaka, both in residential categories and commercial/office complexes, where such types of plans exist currently.
The new corona unit at the United Hospital, as I understand from media reports, did not have an approved fire exit plan and a second independent means of fire exit leading directly outdoors. Most of the hand-held fire suppression systems had expired and were not working properly. It was a plan poorly designed and implemented by people lacking basic knowledge of fire exits, fire suppression and fire controls, and was thus destined for disaster.
Architects and building regulatory authorities need to educate themselves in these fields thoroughly to prevent such tragedies from recurring in the future.
Tanwir Nawaz is an architect and chairman of Urban Habitat Consultants. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org