Where did the recommended 2.5 minute evacuation time come from? Answer
The Empire Palace Theatre Edinburgh (1911), was an example of safe escape being made, where although ten of the performers and stage staff died as a result of the fire the whole of the audience of about 3000 apparently cleared the building in just under 2.5 minutes while the band played the National Anthem.
Where did all those heights and distances used in the fire safety guidance documents, approved documents and codes of practice come from - science or history? Answer
Most of the distances recommended in the various guidance documents and codes of practice regarding travel distance, fire appliance access, reversing distances, distance to a fire extinguisher or fire alarm call point, or increasingly more onerous fire protection measures as buildings get taller, deeper or larger, have their roots in the availability of fire appliances, the type and height of ladders they carried (and even the safe distance a horse could reverse while attached to a horse drawn fire engine, before it suffered an injury to it’s legs), in the early part of the last century and earlier.
Who formed the first local authority fire brigade? Answer
Edinburgh’s authorities formed the first properly organised brigade in 1824.
How was the insurance sector involved in providing fire brigades? Answer
During the middle ages many towns and cities simply burned down because of ineffective fire fighting arrangements and because of the building materials used at the time; mainly wood. Following some spectacular losses, some parishes organised basic firefighting, but no regulations or standards were in force.
The Great Fire of London, in 1666, changed things and helped to standardise urban fire fighting. Following a public outcry during the aftermath of probably the most famous fire ever, a property developer named Nicholas Barbon introduced the first kind of insurance against fire. Soon after the formation of this insurance company, and in a bid to help reduce the cost and number of claims, he formed his own Fire Brigade. Other similar companies soon followed his lead and this was how property was protected until the early 1800s. Policy holders were given a badge, or fire mark, to affix to their building. If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right company attended!
Many of these insurance companies were to merge, including those of London, which merged in 1833 to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, whose first Fire Chief was James Braidwood. Braidwood had come to London after holding the position of the Chief Officer of Edinburgh Fire brigade.
The various fire safety guidance documents, approved documents and codes of practice all provide advice on how wide exits should be, how many are needed and how far apart they should be, in relation to how many occupants of a room or storey there are. How were they established – was it a scientific study?
Prior to 1952 numerous ‘tests’ were carried out in the UK, the USA, Canada and France by a number of organisations who produced various documents supporting their findings which included; Home Office Manual of Safety Requirements in Theatres, Appendices to the Factories Act, 1937 Means of Escape in Case of Fire : Memorandum for the Guidance of Local Authorities as to the granting of Certificates under Section 34 of the Act., U.S. Bureau of Standards, Design and Construction of Building Exits (1935, Paris Fire Brigade with firemen under controlled conditions (1938 and 1945), London County Council Building Code, City of New York Building Code, London Passenger Transport Board tests., Building Industries National Council code., Canadian Building Codes, National Fire Protection Association Codes, Californian Building Code, National Board of Fire Underwriters.
In 1952 a Joint Committee of the Building Research Board of the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research and of the Fire Offices’ Committee, published Post-War Building Studies Note No. 29 - Fire grading of Buildings, which included Part 2, Personal Safety. This document could be described as the fore-runner of today’s fire safety guidance documents, approved documents and codes of practice.
The committee found that the flow of people through one unit of exit width varied from 19 to 107 per minute, however, this was for stairs. Even the width of one unit of exit width varied between different codes some being as narrow as 18 inches (approx. 460mm) and up to 22 inches (approx. 660mm). The vast majority of these ‘tests’, however, were based upon the actual speed of people (persons per minute), moving through a single unit of exit width under different motivational factors, which included; normal walking pace, during a fire drill, hurried without AND with pushing. A wide variety of types of occupancies were also involved. Upon looking at numerous factors the committee felt that the following were the most important;
I. Urgency motive controlling speed of movement,
2. Pressure and flow from waiting crowd,
3. Relative effectiveness of wide and narrow exits, and
4. Other characteristics including factors such as differences between movement up or down stairs, through doorways and on ramps,
The committee felt that “urgency motive” played a big part in the reasons for such wide variations.
For a number of reasons they decided to opt for a figure of 40 persons per unit of exit width per minute, which had already been adopted in some previous codes and been broadly validated by the Paris Fire Brigade test where the urgency of the fireman flowing through the single exit width they felt represented an actual evacuation. After considering the evidence of ‘flow rates’ from the various ‘tests’ and the associated widths of a ‘single unit of exit width’ a figure of 40 persons per minute was to be adopted where the most appropriate width for a ‘single unit of exit width’ would be 21 inches (approx. 530mm).
In adopting these figures and formulating supporting tables for this publication, the committee also accepted the 2.5 minutes evacuation time, where the supporting ‘evidence’ was taken from the Empire Palace Theatre fire in Edinburgh in 1911 where there was a large audience in this building when fire broke out on the stage, and the available evidence indicates that the time taken to clear the building was about 2.5 minutes. These recommendations are broadly still the accepted factors in current day publications.
Did Nero truly play his fiddle whilst Rome burned? Answer
Popular legend claims that Nero played the fiddle at the time of the fire, an anachronism based merely on the concept of the lyre, a stringed instrument associated with Nero and his performances. (There were no fiddles in 1st-century Rome.)
Tacitus's account, however, has Nero in Antium at the time of the fire. Tacitus also said that Nero playing his lyre and singing while the city burned was only rumor. According to Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire, Nero returned to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds. Nero's contributions to the relief extended to personally taking part in the search for and rescue of victims of the blaze, spending days searching the debris without even his bodyguards. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless, and arranged for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. In the wake of the fire, he made a new urban development plan. Houses after the fire were spaced out, built in brick, and faced by porticos on wide roads. Nero also built a new palace complex known as the Domus Aurea in an area cleared by the fire. This included lush artificial landscapes and a 30 meter statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero. The size of this complex is debated (from 100 to 300 acres).
To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, tributes were imposed on the provinces of the empire. According to Tacitus, the population searched for a scapegoat and rumors held Nero responsible. To deflect blame, Nero targeted Christians. He ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified and burned.