A serious fire occurred this New year’s Eve at the Echo Arena car park in Liverpool. The fire is believed to have started in one vehicle and quickly spread to the point that the fire service were unable to get sufficient water onto the blaze to extinguish it. At least three levels could be seen alight at the height of the blaze and its ferocity caused significant damage to the structure of the car park. Thankfully no-one was hurt and a number of animals were successfully rescued by the fire service from vehicles in the car park.
A review of the incident will now be undertaken to establish lessons to be learnt. The car park is relatively modern, constructed in 2008 and is believed to have met all the relevant standards for this type and use of building. It is unusual for fire to spread this rapidly in car parks, usually involving up to a dozen vehicles and the number of vehicles involved in this case, around 1400 out of a capacity of 1600, is unprecedented in the UK where large fires in car parks are rare.
A number of matters will need to be considered in the review, not least the work undertaken by the BRE on behalf of the Government looking at fires in car parks involving modern cars. Whilst the Echo Arena car park met the relevant standards, these are currently based on car designs that are decades old and not representative of the potential fire load of modern vehicles. At the time of the BRE study, there had not been any fires on the scale of this one at Liverpool, although one of the outcomes of the BRE’s work was that “The experimental programme has demonstrated that where a fire starts in the passenger compartment of a car which is well- ventilated (i.e. open windows), very fast growing and severe fires have resulted, leading readily to fire spread to all nearby cars, and, potentially, all cars in the car parks.” The research also found that fires in engine compartments and less well ventilated vehicles do not often spread rapidly, so it may depend on the type and age of the vehicle. Spacing of vehicles may well be an issue, since spaces seem to be becoming tighter and at the same time the general size of vehicles is growing. Additionally, the car park design and construction are important aspects to consider. Ventilation and fire suppression systems will also be key to the review, as will the fire service response to the initial fire, with comments made in the press and social media regarding availability of resources and water supplies.
The level of damage caused by this fire has rendered this car park unsafe and it is likely that it will need to be demolished and re-built. This is certainly a matter for consideration with the consequent unavailability of parking for the Centre, any uninsured losses and the loss of income following the closure of the car park for what is likely to be an extended period. Sprinklers have been shown to be an effective control of fire spread in car parks and may have offered the fire service significant assistance in controlling this fire even though not required. This fire, although severe, rapid growing and with serious consequences, was not a life safety issue. The business continuity aspects should not be overlooked and may well make the installation of sprinklers cost effective, particularly for underground car parks where fire service access may be very challenging.
Managed Fire Solutions have recently been working with Associated British Ports regarding the design of one of the largest multi-storey car parks in the UK, looking at all matters holistically in order to ensure a cost-effective design that provides an appropriate level of safety for the occupants.