You’ve probably heard of the King’s Cross underground station fire in 1987, where 31 people died, and the Bradford City football ground fire in 1985, where 56 people died. Both fires involved old, wooden structures and years of accumulated combustible rubbish – under the escalators at Kings Cross, and under the stands at Bradford. But even those who have studied their NEBOSH fire safety certificate might know about a fire in a shiny new building, less than two years old, that killed more people than Kings Cross, and almost as many as Bradford. It is a story that deserves to be re-told, for the children who lost one or both parents, and for the parents who lost children – including the father who lost his wife and all three children. And it deserves re-telling as a lesson to us not to be complacent about our own fire management.
Summerland was an indoor multi-storey leisure complex built in Douglas, on the Isle of Man. It was hailed on opening in 1971 as the largest and most innovative indoor entertainment centre in the world, and included pools, theatres, roller skating, fun fair rides and a disco. Adults could leave their children at a children’s show, and head off to play bingo, in the knowledge that their children would be looked after.
One of the features of the complex was a wall and roof of transparent acrylic sheeting, bronzed to give the illusion of constant golden sunshine inside the building.
When three boys discarded smoking materials in a fibre-glass kiosk adjacent to the building a small fire started. At the first signs of smoke, the organist played on and told people not to worry. When the kiosk collapsed into the building, the fire spread rapidly along the flammable walls and across the roof of Summerland. Internal structures warped and melted. Staircases collapsed. But no alarm sounded, no announcements were made on the public-address system, and no one knew what to do. Some parents tried to find their children. Finally, a boat out at sea saw the smoke, and alerted the coastguard, who in turn called the fire brigade. By the time 16 fire engines and 96 fire fighters turned up there was little they could do than help those who had managed to escape. 10 children and 40 adults died, and many more suffered life-changing injuries.
It would be easy to dismiss Summerland because of the failures in the original design – surely the buildings we work in are inherently safer?
But There Are Lessons To Be Learned
1. Whilst our workplaces will have been built to higher standards, risk assessments for any modifications should consider how such work can change the fire worthiness of the building. Holes made in walls to allow data cables to connect computers on another floor, or even changing a lock or replacing a window or a hinge on a fire door can void the fire protection properties built in.
2. How many times have you been in a workplace with acres of paper stuck on a wall? Expensive materials might have been used to ensure that a wall does not quickly transmit a fire from one side of an office to the other, and we undermine it with a bridge of paper, providing a fast route for flame transmission.
3. Some of the problems at Summerland arose from commercial arrangements – different parties with unclear responsibilities. If you work in a shared building, do you know who is responsible for extinguisher maintenance in the communal areas? If you rent your workspace, are you responsible for fire alarm and emergency lighting checks or the landlord? Even where a single organisation owns and operates a work site, are the responsibilities of contractors clear?
4. There was a serious delay in calling the emergency services, and delays in telling people to evacuate. The lack of the alarm meant most people didn’t start to evacuate until they saw flames or smoke. How 3000 people would be evacuated from the building had never considered in detail. Make sure your staff know how they would escape, alternative escape routes, and what they would be expected to do to assist untrained visitors or customers. The commission into the accident reported “A proper evacuation system is not established or maintained merely by putting up notices…It must be maintained by training and practice.”
5. The signing of emergency exits in the complex was inadequate – related probably to the lack of consideration given to evacuation processes. Try to walk around your worksite with a stranger’s eyes, and consider how easy – or how difficult – it would be to find your way out of the building if it were full of smoke and the main exit was unavailable. Include regular inspections to check the exits work – at Summerland some were bolted to prevent people getting into the complex for free.
4. One of the victims of the fire first helped her mother to escape, and then returned for her coat. I’ve witnessed similar behaviour during fire drills. We must convince people that during a fire, lives, not coats, laptops or mobile phones are the priority.
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