Wednesday 2 January 2008

The Royal Marsden Hospital fire

Saved from fire

Obviously, evacuating everyone from a building under fire is paramount and news that only two firemen and a patient suffered from smoke inhalation leaves one prayerfully thankful because it could have been a lot worse.

The Royal Marsden Hospital on Fulham Road in South-West London has today suffered a serious fire which has since been brought under control.

One can only imagine the stress and distress of patients especially the two undergoing surgery when the fire broke out – certain of the evacuated laid in mattresses in nearby streets as some who could walk were lead away in blankets. Third-World country pictures flash through my mind.

Quenching fire the old way

One must however observe that there is something a bit primitive about the circumstances - evacuation and fire-fighting - and is need of some modern-day thinking and innovation.

The fire broke out on the top floor and roof areas and it was contained in those areas but greater damage would be done to the whole building first by smoke and then by the amount of water that was used to douse the flames.

That we still douse flames with water most of the time, then at times with foam or sand, sometimes carbon-dioxide shows we are in need of some innovative thinking on fire-fighting.

Obeying the basic law of gravity all that water with the debris that it can carry would wash down through the building soiling and damaging anything in its path – this brings an interesting architectural challenge.

Beyond sprinklers

Beyond sprinklers, fire-retardant elements and other physical fire containment devices, we need to be able to fight fires exposed to the open air in ways that would contain the fire to its localised points and prevent further damage to the building and other equipment where the fire has not reached.

It would mean either avoiding the use of water entirely, or where water is used, part of the fire-fighting defences in the building should allow the water to be channelled off the just the affected floor, saving floors below, where it is known that the fire is just on a particular floor.

If the fire affects more floors, the channels should be opened to allow sprinkling on the lower affected floors.

Floor-sealing fire safety

Think of it as a kind of floor-sealing with built-in gutters where the water can be collected at ground level and passed on to filtration systems nearby, this can then by recycled to fight the fire till it is completely doused.

This means the way multi-storey buildings are designed and built will have to change whilst taking good care for the issues of access and evacuation in occupied buildings.

As for The Royal Marsden Hospital, founded in 1851 and the first dedicated cancer research hospital, I do hope that those evacuated would receive respite wherever they are moved to and the reopening of that hospital to it full functionality would be very soon.

As a saying in Yoruba goes – The burnt down palace offers the opportunity for something more beautiful – we can only have such optimism for bringing the hospital back to life.

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