Page last updated at 14:33 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 15:33 UK

Are tower blocks a fire hazard?

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

The death of six people in a fire in a south London tower block has highlighted the difficulties firefighters face in tall buildings.

So is the high-life inherently more risky than living in a traditional home? What, if anything, can be done to negate the dangers?

The burnt tower block in Camberwell
Three children were among the dead in Friday's fire

When "streets in the sky" began sprouting across the country in the 1950s they were hailed as the future.

But within 20 years the vision soured, as poor planning led to crime and the deterioration of communities.

Now the death of six people in the 12-storey Lakanal House in Camberwell has raised another question of design: whether living in a tower block puts you at greater risk from fire.

Nick Troth is a director of Arup, an engineering company specialising in fire safety.

He said: "The higher you go the harder it is to escape during a fire.

"It is also harder for firefighters because their equipment doesn't reach.

"Firefighters have difficulty getting to anyone trapped above 30 metres (98ft) high."

Nick Troth

Fire regulations in London are over and above those even in other UK cities

Nick Troth
Fire engineering expert

At 125 metres (410ft), the Barbican's Shakespeare Tower - London's tallest residential block - is four times that height.

But the risks extend to more than sheer size.

"It comes down to the human factor," said Mr Troth.

"With a greater number of neighbours under one roof you can't control whether someone living four floors beneath you is minimising their risk."

So while you can prevent cigarettes igniting waste paper bins in your own house, the careful householder is powerless in a building where 100 families live.

And the risk is compounded by the social blend of people living in most tower blocks, who Mr Troth says are statistically more prone to leaving their homes at risk.

"Many people who can't afford electricity heat their homes with naked flames, which are more dangerous," said Mr Troth.

"They might also have old furnishings which are not up to modern safety standards."

Shakespeare's Tower in the barbican
The 43-storey Barbican tower is one of Europe's tallest residential buildings

Furthermore the smoking charity Ash says people from the lowest social-demographic groups are twice as likely to smoke as those from the other end of the spectrum.

Carelessly-disposed cigarette ends are the most common cause of domestic fires.

But the good news for tower-dwellers is that, if well-built and managed, fire risk can be negated.

Architect Harley Sherlock MBE, who has built two tower blocks, said: "Tower blocks were built with fire in mind.

"They are usually not made from flammable materials. Floors dividing flats are concrete and staircases are built on the outside with loads of windows."

Blitz lessons

Professor Stephen Gage, of The Bartlett architecture faculty, said when most tower blocks were built in the 1960s memories of the Blitz were still fresh in people's minds and "they certainly knew about fire".

The UK's tower blocks - especially London's - are built to the world's highest safety standards, Mr Troth said.

He added: "London has always taken fire seriously - it goes back to the Great Fire of London and the knowledge of what fire can do in a metropolis.

2005 - A 31-storey block in Madrid, Spain, is gutted after an electrical fault. It takes 150 firefighters 20 hours to extinguish the city's biggest ever blaze but no-one is hurt
2000 - A fire at a 14-storey block in Dundee spreads from the ground floor to the 14th floor via the lift-shaft. Two are treated for smoke inhalation
1999 - One resident dies after a 14-storey block in Ayrshire goes up "like a match".

"Fire regulations in London are over and above those even in other UK cities."

Currently any new residential building 30m tall or more must be built with a sprinkler system.

The higher a building is above that, the stricter the rules.

But the new regulations only came into force in 2006 - and were not retroactive.

It is not clear how many of London's 2,700 tower blocks, almost all built before 2006, have sprinkler systems or internal single staircases such as that being blamed for deaths in Friday's fire.

Fire historian Bob Wilkinson said of the Camberwell blaze: "I have never seen anything like it - and I was a London firefighter for 20 years.

"The only example is the Ronan Point incident [when four died in an east London tower collapse in 1968] - but that was a gas explosion.

"It's very rare for fire to spread like that. Towers are built and designed to be safe."

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