Spate of Joburg fires calls for proactive fire-safety planning

February 2024 Fire & Safety

The most recent incident of a fire breaking out in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD) in the early hours of Saturday morning on 3 February highlights the importance of the rational design of performance-based fire-safety systems for residential buildings in particular, according to ASP Fire CEO Michael van Niekerk.

The latest fire broke out in a building at the intersection of Kerk and Goud streets. Fortunately, no fatalities were reported. Emergency Management Services (EMS) responded swiftly, with preliminary investigations underway to determine the exact cause of the fire.

The incident follows the tragic fire in Nugget Street two weeks prior, which resulted in two fatalities and four injuries. In August 2023, the Usindiso building in Marshalltown was engulfed in a fire that claimed 76 lives.

“It is crucial to address fire safety measures and support those affected during such challenging times,” comments van Niekerk. “Proactive planning, education, and collaboration are essential to prevent building fires and enhance overall safety in urban areas.”

It is crucial to ensure fire safety in high-density urban areas like the Johannesburg CBD. Mitigation measures include adhering to stringent building codes and inspections. Regular building inspections must be carried out to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations. Strict enforcement of building codes, including the use of fire-resistant materials, correct electrical wiring, and emergency exits, is equally vital.

Public awareness campaigns can educate residents, business owners, and building occupants about fire safety best practices. It will promote awareness of fire hazards, evacuation procedures, and the importance of basic interventions such as smoke detectors and the presence of fire extinguishers.

It is vital that building managers, security personnel, and emergency responders receive adequate training in fire prevention and response. “Conduct regular fire drills so occupants are familiarised with evacuation routes,” adds van Niekerk.

It is also important for the city to upgrade ageing infrastructure, including electrical systems, to prevent electrical fires. Fire hydrants, water supply systems, and firefighting equipment need to be maintained and inspected on a regular proactive basis.

Prioritise fire safety during design

In terms of the importance of rational building design in fire safety, van Niekerk urges architects and engineers to prioritise fire safety during building design. Rational design accounts for the behaviour of a building during a fire. It means the structure must be designed to minimise any potentially devastating impact.

“A rational design is the performance-based design of fire safety and prevention mechanisms and strategies in a building in order to provide the same or better fire safety levels as prescribed in the National Building Regulations,” explains van Niekerk.

The process commences with a fire-risk consultant, such as ASP Fire, visiting the premises or reviewing a set of new building plans to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of all areas of the property to inspect fire safety and risk in detail.

Correct and proper fire-engineering principles are applied to ensure that the design complies with the life, building, fire behavioural and environmental fire-safety objectives as required by law. All buildings in South Africa need to comply with the requirements of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, 1977 (Act No. 103 of 1977), Fire Protection, as set out in SANS 10400 Part T: 2011.

Upon completion of the fire risk assessment and drafting of the rational design report, ASP Fire provides the client with practical actions to implement. The report comprises a detailed and documented objective fire-risk assessment, as well as fire-engineering calculations and analysis where required, covering all aspects of fire risk and safety.

Other measures include compartmentalisation and adequate escape routes. Fire suppression systems should focus on automatic sprinkler systems, fire alarms, and smoke detectors. High-rise buildings should have pressurised stairwells for safe evacuation.

Collaboration with EMS can mean the difference between lives lost or saved. This calls for bolstered coordination between the fire department, police, and other emergency services. “A swift response during emergencies can minimise damage and save lives,” concludes van Niekerk.

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