How this fire happened
This fire occurred within a sheltered housing complex consisting of 88 individual flats plus common areas. The building was constructed in the 1980’s.
Fluorescent lighting was situated throughout the common areas including the means of escape. These light fittings were fitted with “thermoplastic” diffusers made from polystyrene.
A fault within a fluorescent light fitting ignited the plastic diffuser rapidly producing large amounts of thick black smoke.
Flaming molten plastic quickly involved the carpet within the corridor adding to the already dense smoke, making the means of escape impassable within a very short period of time.
This resulted in 8 residents having to be rescued by the Fire and Rescue Service.
The building was visited by Fire Safety Officers in June 2010 and found to be broadly complaint with current fire regulations (the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005) and had a particularly high standard of fire protection; in particular there was a comprehensive fire alarm system providing early warning and which was remotely monitored and all fire doors were in good condition and had been fitted with intumescent strips and cold smoke seals.
The photos taken after the incident show how the fire doors and intumescent strips helped to contain the smoke within the fire compartment, preventing it from affecting adjoining flats and corridors.
Within certain limitations, the use of thermoplastic lighting diffusers in escape routes is currently permitted under approved guidance to the Building Regulations.
Following this incident, East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service has been made aware of several other cases of fire starting in similar lighting units where thermoplastic diffusers have caused very rapid smoke production affecting the means of escape.
Following reconstruction and testing, as can be seen in the accompanying videos, it was found that the diffuser can be readily ignited and will rapidly create very large amounts of smoke accompanied by flaming droplets.
This effect is also shown on actual CCTV footage taken from a similar fire in a different sheltered housing scheme.
East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service is currently carrying out further investigations and work on this matter and in particular, will be seeking to appropriately raise the issues arising with relevant persons, so that consideration can be given to the appropriateness of current guidance.
In the meantime, we would particularly welcome anyone who has experienced a similar fire to come forward and let us know so that a more complete picture and a better understanding of the issue can be made.
Once we are in a position to update further on this matter, we will do so by adding to this case study as well as promulgating in any other appropriate manner.
Intumescent strips and seals
Fire doors fitted with intumescent strips and seals preventing products of combustion compromising further means of escape.
The effect it had
“We had only recently completed the upgrading of the fire doors as part of a £7m programme to improve the fire safety at our Blocks throughout the South East.
It has been a real eye-opener to see the results of how good fitting fire doors operating on automatic door closers linked to the Fire Alarm had managed to contain not only the fire in the corridor but the large amount of smoke generated from the fire.
The difference between the conditions of the corridors either side of the fire doors was astounding.
This has highlighted the importance of well managed fire safety measures within our schemes.
For the other Scheme Managers across the Group to see the results of how this fire was contained has driven home to them the necessity to carry out regular fire safety checks in their own schemes and report any inadequacies as soon as they are noted.
An incident like this has highlighted the importance of all Health & Safety issues to the lives of their residents, visitors and staff alike."