Building fire protection layers

On the 14th of June 2017, a devastating fire broke out at the Grenfell Tower in west London, killing 72 people. The incident is the deadliest building fire in the UK. However, this was not the first facade fire that resulted in fatalities. The Summerland Leisure Centre fire on the Isle of Man on August 2, 1973, killed 50 people and shares many similarities with the Grenfell fire. What have we learned since either catastrophe?

Respected industry publication, Fire Protection Engineering, recently published a story reflecting on the lessons learned, not just from the Grenfell Tower fire, but the Summerlend Leisure Centre fire some 44 years earlier.

Here are some excerpts from that article... the full article can be downloaded using the link below.

"The Summerland building was a single, large, transparent structure with limited compartmentation. During the 1973 fire the building lost five of its six fire protection layers: prevention, detection, evacuation, compartmentation, and suppression."

"These layers were meant to work with each other to keep the building users safe during a fire."

"Investigation into the incident found that the failure of these layers was mostly due to human negligence that resulted in:

  1. the use of flammable materials
  2. unauthorised modifications on the building
  3. the lack of staff training to deal with emergencies."

"As a consequence, emergency services arrived after the fire was well developed, and the evacuation process was severely delayed, resulting in the high death toll."

Has the lesson been learned?

"Ten years after the Summerland Incident, Dennis Harper, part of the three-man commission that investigated the incident, noted that many lessons from Summerland were not learned. Indeed, after the 2017 Grenfell incident, an independent review into building regulations and fire safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackett found the building industry was “an industry that has not reflected and learned from itself, nor looked to other sectors. ”The reason the Summerland fire spread so quickly was due to the failure of both the prevention and compartmentalisation layers. The failure of both layers can be attributed to the lack of understanding of the fire properties of innovative materials, failure to follow good practices when constructing the building, and failure to consider the effect of modifying building components on the system’s overall flammability. Similar failure was seen in the 2017 Grenfell incident where the cavity barrier was found to be poorly fitted, and building refurbirefurbishment allowed a kitchen fire to develop into a disastrous fire."

"This tragic outcome could have been avoided with fire expert input at various stages of construction to identify potential breaches in fire safety and allow time to fix the problem."

"Forty-seven years later, the Summerland fire still echoes, with many similar failures to be found in modern building fires. The lessons from the Summerland fire should and must be learned, for if they are not, a similar disaster will repeat itself in the future."

Authors Benjamin Khoo and Guillermo Rein, PhD are with Imperial College, London, UK.

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To learn more about this story call Mark O'Brien on 0418 814 538 or send an email to