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Lessons from the Past: Emergency Evacuation Procedure Insights from Major Fire Evacuations

In the presented case studies of the London Underground Kings Cross 1987 Fire and the London Grenfell Tower 2017 Fire, we can understand the profound importance of having well-defined and rigorously tested emergency evacuation procedures. These procedures are vital in responding to any emergency swiftly and safely, ensuring the protection of lives and property.

WHAT IS An emergency evacuation Procedure?

An emergency evacuation procedure refers to documentation containing the policies and procedures for responding to any emergency quickly and safely. In the event of an emergency, such as a fire or active threat, occupants need to know how to identify and respond in a timely manner.

Case study #1: London underground kings cross 1987 fire

The Kings Cross St Pancras tube station is a major interchange on the London Underground, with various railway lines, including subsurface and underground platforms. On November 18, 1987, at approximately 19:30, passengers reported a fire on a Piccadilly line escalator.

The British Transport Police (BTP) and station staff investigated and confirmed the fire. However, due to a lack of radio coverage underground, they had to send a policeman to the surface to call the London Fire Brigade (LFB). The fire, located beneath the escalator, couldn’t be reached with a fire extinguisher. Water fog equipment was available but unused due to staff lacking training.

At 19:39, the BTP decided to evacuate the station, and the LFB arrived shortly after. By this time, the fire had grown to the size of a large cardboard box.

At 19:42, the escalator was engulfed in flames, producing superheated gases that rose up to the top of the escalator shaft. The tunnel ceiling had numerous layers of old paint, which began to absorb the heat.

At 19:45, flashover occurred, and flames shot up the escalator shaft, filling the ticket hall with intense heat and thick black smoke.

A subsequent public inquiry determined the fire started when a traveller discarded a burning match after lighting a cigarette, which then fell down the side of the wooden escalator serving the Piccadilly line, resulting in 31 fatalities and 100 reported injuries.

This tragic incident underscores the critical importance of having effective emergency evacuation procedures, well-trained staff, and preparedness measures in place. The key issues identified in this event include a complacent approach to fire preparedness, a lack of training, aged equipment (wooden slatted escalator and twenty layers of ceiling paint); poor housekeeping regarding the build-up of flammable materials and lubricant grease under the escalator tracks and smoking violations further adding to the risk.

Case study #2: London grenfell tower 2017 fire

On 14 June 2017, a high-rise fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London, at 00:54 and burned for 60 hours.

The fire originated from an electrical fault in a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. The first two fire engines arrived six minutes after the Fire Services were called, and they initially reported seeing a “glow” in one of the windows. It was standard practice for residents to remain in their flats in high-rise fires, as each flat should have been fireproofed from neighbouring units.

As firefighters attempted to extinguish the kitchen fire, a column of flames rapidly ascended the building. Within minutes, it ignited the surrounding cladding panels, spreading flames and smoke to all residential floors. The combustible aluminium composite cladding and external insulation, with an air gap between them, significantly accelerated the fire.

By 01:30, a towering column of flames reached the roof, and the fire became uncontrollable. It continued to spread horizontally on the building’s exterior and reached the north side by 01:42. Operations outside were hindered by falling debris, including burning cladding pieces.

At 02:47, the “stay put” policy, which advised residents in unaffected areas to remain in their flats, was abandoned in favour of a general evacuation.

This event remains one of the deadliest structural fires in the United Kingdom, with seventy-two lives lost, two individuals succumbing to their injuries later, more than 70 injuries, and 223 people managing to escape.

This event exposed multiple issues, primarily related to non-compliance with building regulations. The fire service’s delayed advice to evacuate, expired firefighting equipment, and a “stay put” policy that was maintained for too long. Insufficient exits, poor maintenance, and non-sealing fire doors contributed to the severity of the disaster.

The key takeaway from these case studies is the critical need for thorough emergency preparedness and the critical need for well-structured and adaptable emergency evacuation procedures. Remember creating an emergency management and evacuation plan, while challenging, can be made more manageable with the right guidance and expert advice. It’s essential to ensure compliance with relevant standards and have well-defined policies and procedures in place to respond swiftly and safely to any emergency. In this regard, First 5 Minutes specialises in creating bespoke emergency management plans to ensure the safety of occupants and property, aligning with Australian Standards.

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