top of page

A Firefighter’s Perspective on Evolving Fire Risks

Fire Safe Europe

6 Nov 2020

Melle Keppel is a full-time logistical manager for the Dutch railroads and has been a volunteer firefighter for over 17 years. Despite a substantial experience in firefighting, he still considers himself a rookie as firefighting is an always evolving field – from its techniques to the tools used.

In my almost 20 years of firefighting, I have seen a lot of changes on the “hot side” as I like to call it: techniques kept evolving after (big) incidents (including some in which firefighters had lost their lives). There have also been changes on the “cold side”, namely the area of expertise for fire prevention and building codes for fire safety.

These two sides have the same goal: keeping people (or animals) safe and trying to keep incidents as small as possible. But, they take two separate roads to reach it: fire prevention (the “cold side”) tries to prevent or detect early fires (and even tries to keep them under control), while we (on the “hot side”) actually come in when these stages have failed. Some of the biggest changes I have witnessed in my time as a firefighter are:

  • A change in the way people decorate and furnish their houses, the produces marketed over the last 20 years are often highly flammable which creates a huge pile of smoke, heat and eventually a non-controllable fire.

  • New building insulation: Houses’ insulation keeps getting better and better, which is great in terms of the living environment, but more challenging for us as firefighters. Indeed, for us that means we also get to a fire where there is less oxygen, that’s what we call an “under-ventilated fire” (causing a flashover/backdraft when a door gets opened and oxygen gets to the smouldering fire). This situation creates a bigger risk of injury or extremely fast-changing fire behaviour that we can not control. The biggest risk is not the fire per se, but the smoke from it.

  • New ways to increase buildings’ sustainability and live in a more environmentally friendly manner: solar energy, wind energy, E-bikes, E-cars but also smart tools inside the house (smart controlled doors, windows). These all bring bigger risks for us but also for the people in the houses, for instance, the batteries of some of these innovations can keep burning for days, releasing an even more toxic smoke than just your regular smoke (which is also toxic).

  • New ways to build buildings: countries grow in population, which leads to the need to strike a balance between building more houses and safeguarding the surrounding environment. This can only result in buildings that will grow higher and higher to provide the growing population with the needed space to live and work in. This type of high-rise buildings brings specific challenges, both from the fire prevention standpoint and for firefighters, who are for instance faced with hurdles to reach the location of a fire when it is situated 20 floors up and has to evolve in a bigger fire.

When it comes to addressing these challenges, on the regulatory side, in the Netherlands, the national fire prevention regulations- for example regulations on Christmas decorations, on fire detection systems, on compartmentalisation in large buildings etc. are renewed every few years and making it possible to address new challenges in these instances and potentially require new fire resilience levels in new buildings.  The rules are very strict and closely monitored by the government.  

In terms of technical adaptation, in the Netherlands, we are looking into addressing the challenges linked to high-rise buildings. We are currently exploring the idea of fire ladders than could go beyond the regular 30 meters, and we are testing fire detection drones and fire extinguish robots and drones.  

Talking about fire safety in general: it needs to be a concern from the design stage and remain a priority until the end product is delivered. It is crucial to get the occupants involved and enable them to make informed choices about the designs, materials or products they pick. We should start educating people on fire safety from a young age, starting at school and hold regular pieces of training to update this education, so it becomes something they naturally think of in their everyday life.

Where I am stationed in Amersfoort, we started to do house call visits. It began as a “pilot project” in one neighbourhood, which was inspired by a similar initiative in Manchester. As volunteers, we would visit the people at home and deliver fire prevention tips (give them a checklist and walk them through it), we also placed smoke detectors for free. After having a chat with a firefighter who had been witnessed different fire scenarios, people became more aware of the dangers in and around the house. This initiative project also helped to save a few lives when people got alerted by the smoke detectors we had placed when fires broke out during the night!

To conclude, we need to focus on improving fire safety and make the appropriate changes now, and it is crucial for those to address both new buildings, but also old ones as those will be standing for the next +40 years, and it is crucial for their fire performance to evolve as their use evolves and meet the highest fire safety standards.

bottom of page