Embed fire safety into urban planning

Fires can cause up to 180,000 deaths globally each year. This, according to The World Bank, is three times as high as the annual average of deaths due to all-natural hazards. The extent of fire-related injuries is even higher, let alone the cost of property damage and economic loss which runs into billions annually. Whilst it’s critical that we look at advancing the fire safety of products and systems that are used on and in our buildings, reflects Gary Strong, Chairman of IFSS coalition, there’s also an increasing risk from wildfires, which can wipe out whole communities.

We’re seeing this all too often in California and Australia, resulting in many people losing their homes.

Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) fires are on the increase, but it’s not just the physical buildings being lost that needs consideration, many are having to consider whether the location of that property is one that is sustainable for the future. Scores of people are having to decide whether to uproot their life to a new place and leave communities that some could have resided in for decades. One of the most effective ways to avoid this happening in the future and improve fire safety standards across the world is by embedding them into our planning systems, and at an early stage.

Many countries will already do this in varying but limited ways, particularly around access for emergency vehicles, but all can go further. It’s true that change is only likely to come from Governments (national and local); but land-owners, urban planners, surveyors and architects, as well as many other professions of the built and natural environment have great power to transform communities and protect them from the risk of fire.

Failure to consider fire risks in sustainable and resilient developments only increases the potential for fire spread and it’s why it’s vitally important for fire safety issues to be integrated into planning and zoning of buildings and infrastructure at a very early stage. Successful, sustainable and resilient communities are intrinsic in delivering economic growth.

There could be arguments that without making building materials and systems more fire resilient or improving the fire safety infrastructure, communities can’t really tackle this, but all parts of the built and natural environment have a role to play in reducing the risk of fire in properties and across land and infrastructure.

Some of the ways that communities can look to improve their fire resilience is through:

  • Including fire safety impact assessments as part of all planning and development decisions.
  • Institute effective firefighter access and development control procedures in place to prevent unsafe developments.
  • Provide due consideration to wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire risks including failure of electricity assets (clashing of conductors, conductors contacting trees and inefficient fuses).
  • Develop fire resilient structures as part of property protection measures, particularly at the WUI.
  • Fire safety should be integral to land use, urban and WUI planning. Consideration should be given to the holistic use of fire management, resilient construction and related means to limit fires, the spread of fires when they occur, and their impacts on people and communities.

In addition to adding considerations to the planning systems, collecting data is equally important. As the professions designing our future communities, built environment professionals are best placed to start implementing fire data collection and analysis systems to not only understand the area they’re proposing to build communities on but to inform future regulations and encourage Governments to improve fire safety standards.

None of this is new, and many communities will have some of these measures in place. It’s also not a new concept. The World Bank looked into the increase of urban fires with their results published in 2020 in their Urban FRAME: Urban Fire Regulatory Assessment and Mitigation Evaluation Diagnostic which looked at how improving fire safety closely aligned with reducing poverty across low to middle income countries (LMICs) especially in the Global South.

It is only through a higher level of competence, regulations, codes and standards for resilience of the built environment that people can be confident in their investments and feel safe in their homes, and it will take a lot for people to understand the benefits of going beyond the mandated often minimum regulations. But investment in fire-safe buildings and infrastructure is critical to economic success.

Fire safety regulations are the backbone of all buildings and infrastructure, and in turn communities. Therefore, to reduce wasting our assets, governments and the private sector should look to purchase, operate and maintain assets that offer advanced fire safety technologies and high levels of occupant and property protections. If there’s a gap in achieving this, then fiscal and other incentives should be used to discourage continued use of new or used buildings and infrastructure that have reduced fire safety standards.

With an increasing climate change, we can’t stop wildfires, but we can ready our buildings and prepare our communities to ensure they’re protected.

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