29.04.2013, 13:14

Wrightstyle and arson in the Middle East

Wrightstyle, the leading UK steel glazing company, supplies its fire-rated systems internationally, and has been involved in many commercial, retail, transportation and sports projects in the Middle East.  Tim Kempster, the company’s managing director, points out that not all fires start accidentally.

Earlier this year, the Tunisian mausoleum in Sidi Bou Said, an important cultural and tourist destination, was badly damaged by fire, believed to be arson.  It follows other such attacks in the country.

Last year, in Israel, the headquarters of the Yaffa Islamic Club was attacked by Jewish settlers, who set fire to the inside of the building.   Only weeks ago, soccer fans in Israel torched the team’s offices as a protest against the recruitment of Moslem players.

But arson is more than religious or cultural protest.  A few years ago, a Kuwaiti woman admitted started a fire in a wedding tent that killed 43 people.  She was the ex-wife of the groom.

It’s also a more prevalent problem than people imagine.  For example, there were 24 arson attacks in Kuwait last year.  Statistics will be broadly similar in other parts of the Middle East.

The simple fact is that fire is dangerous, however it starts.  Last year, 117 people died in the Tazreen fashion factory in Bangladesh – a tragic fire set deliberately, and then exacerbated by factory managers preventing people from escaping.

Nor is arson just about setting fire to buildings.  In February 2009, hundreds of fires across the Australian state of Victoria killed 173 people and burned down more than 2,000 homes. 

In the US, arson attacks on industrial/commercial buildings cost on average over $93,000 per attack.  It’s estimated that an arson attack takes place in California every 43 minutes.  The USFA’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) states that the two leading causes of civilian deaths are arson, at 28%, and smoking, at 18 percent.  Arson is, at 26%, the leading cause of property loss.

So, who are the culprits, why do they do it, and how can they be stopped? 

To answer the first question, arsonists are not a homogenous group.  They can be from any social class or age group although, unsurprisingly, the majority is in the 10-25 years age group, with the peak age for offending being between 14- and 16-years-old.  Also unsurprisingly, the great majority are male.

So why do they do it?  Again, there is no easy answer.  Some, of course, are waging an insurance fraud.  Others, it seems, just do it for the thrill; others from reasons of revenge or hatred.  Some have alcohol or drug dependencies.  Others are pyromaniacs.  Most are just, well, children.

Some have more complex problems.  A 26-year-old serial arsonist in Hong Kong, when recently asked about his motivation, said that fire warmed his heart and made him feel safe and secure. It’s been noted that serial arsonists often have often cold, distant, hostile, or aggressive relationships with their parents.

However, it’s often the exception that proves the rule.   For example, the 60-year-old grandmother who started eleven fires in California in 1995. Her motive was to give her firefighter son enough fires to prove himself a hero.

Sometimes, thankfully rarely, firefighters can themselves be the problem.  In South Carolina in 1993, some 33 fire department volunteers were charged with arson. The following year, 47 more were arrested.

However they are started, arson is a significant cause of industrial and commercial fires worldwide, although multi-agency approaches are increasing expertise and reducing threat.

Most such fires are started at night, although not always – particularly in commercial or industrial premises that are either unoccupied or under-occupied.  In the latter, areas such as storerooms or warehouses provide both cover for the arsonist and, importantly, stored materials to fuel the blaze.

Stopping the arsonist isn’t easy, although companies can, and should, take sensible precautions – and, first, as part of a wider fire risk assessment, look specifically at the risk of arson.

A sensible fire risk assessment should look at every aspect of the business, not least how materials are stored to what fire precautions are in place.  Mitigating against arson should also include visitor control, employee training and supervision - and ensuring that flammable materials are protected.  (That includes rubbish stacked outside premises).

But if a fire breaks out, it doesn’t immediately matter if it was started deliberately or not.  The important thing is to get everybody in that building to safety.  The fire risk assessment should, of course, have addressed each issue in the evacuation process.

For example, occupants in a building should generally be able to escape away from the fire.  That means having escape routes protected by fire-resistant materials or self-closing fire doors.  It also means recognising that fire travels upwards, so that stairways must also be protected.

It also means having doors that open outwards to make escape easier so that, if there are large numbers of people, it minimises the crush risk.  (Exterior fire doors should also be checked to ensure that obstructions, such as bulk deliveries, aren’t cluttering them up). 

Where possible, it means making escape routes as short as possible, with clear signage, and building in planned (and rehearsed) contingencies for evacuating the elderly or infirm.  It also means planning for electricity failure and how to evacuate people in darkness.

Most of those issues are addressed in fire and building regulations, and fire departments are always happy to advise.  However, many (particularly smaller) companies don’t properly plan or rehearse fire drills, or regularly check extinguishers or the fire alarm.

At Wrightstyle, our business is about managing the risk of fire.  Our systems stop fire, smoke and toxic gases from spreading unchecked – for up to 120 minutes, and thereby minimising fire damage and allowing occupants to escape.

Our compatible systems, with the glass and steel framing systems tested together, are accredited to EU, US and Asia Pacific standards and our advice is to always specify the glass and steel as one unit: in a real fire situation, the glass will only be as protective as its frame, and vice-versa.  Specify each component separately, and you run the risk of one failing – and therefore the whole fire protective barrier failing.

Psychologically, because fire is such a remote risk, we tend to brush it to one side.  After all, there are always more important things to worry about.  That is, of course, until it’s too late.

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