By Joselyn Biira Mwine

Despite rapid globalisation, with investment flowing across borders, money pouring into construction and the increasing numbers of different professionals operating across the world, the industry currently lacks a consistent set of high-level principles for design, construction and management of buildings for fire safety. For many years, buildings have been designed and built according to an established set of rules intended to meet any and all circumstances. However, due to the ever-increasing costs and the increasing height and density of modern construction, buildings are beginning to be designed with more consideration given to how the pieces work together as a whole. For instance, the fire resistance of one part of a construction may not necessarily need to be as great as others.

The prevalent fires in the country have put the spotlight on the level of robustness of buildings to mitigate such disasters. For many issues, there is a definite relationship between cost and effectiveness. Should we design buildings to withstand a severe impact which may be of very low probability of occurring? Probably. However, should we design routes and methods to prevent, manage and respond to such incidents? Of course we should.

A fire can occur anywhere, even where we least expect it. With losses caused by fire estimated at 1% of the global GDP each year, fire safety must be viewed in the broader perspective of risk management and disaster mitigation. The building industry is a key sector for fire safety activities. But fire can also be associated with other important areas such as transport, industrial safety, wildland fires or urban development.

Standards help prevent the risk of fire, manage the damage and protect human life; and they are part of a fire safety strategy.

Standards are playing a major role in building an increased comprehensive strategy against such disasters. Standards can assist the effective management of disaster-related risk significantly by providing a common language and process to, and amongst all sectors. Standards not only offer guidance for understanding risks associated with natural hazards but also finding and implementing the best mix of responses, both before and after events occur.

The main challenge is perhaps fire safety in itself, irrespective of whether we are talking about people, property, and the environment, the preservation of historical heritage or industrial production. Fire safety must feature higher on our list of priorities because, all too often, it is put in place to solve problems after the accident.

In all of the above areas, the challenge of protecting people is about coping with an ageing society and high concentrations of people in densely populated areas. Human behaviour in this regard becomes increasingly important. For the protection of property, the challenge is to ensure that modern technology and innovative products or materials are introduced with the same level of safety.

The environment has become the number one priority on all agendas and we need to ensure that we have the appropriate measures and standards in place to preserve it from fire. We often forget that the pollution caused by fire is as almost as high as the exhaust created by energy production and transportation, such as cars. Reducing the risk of fire is therefore central to environmental protection.

However, installing such systems can be a complex business, and requires in-depth knowledge of the space being protected, how it is used and by whom. Currently, there are various national standards and technical guidelines in place offered by Uganda National Bureau of Standards on internationally agreed set of requirements for quality, safety and performance that everyone can use. The solutions have most efficiently been found by a global approach with input from as many nations as possible. UNBS is in a unique position to offer this service.

These technical documents answer concerns such as;

  • Should such buildings indeed be made safer?
  • Should especially fire safety and structural safety be enhanced and should the respective national and international codes and standards be re-written to include substantially higher safety requirements?
  • To what extent can the proper management of such buildings in general and the management of behaviour of its occupants and others (like firefighters) in emergency situations contribute to enhancing safety?
  • What new technologies (and design concepts) are being developed that may contribute to enhancing safety situations?
  • Which national programmes have been developed and implemented and what outcomes are available or will be in the near future?

US ISO 31000 Risk management-Principles and guidelines is used by many institutions and countries across the world to understand and modify disaster-related risk by developing management structures, reducing vulnerability to disruption and making proactive and reactive plans to deal with natural and man-made events. This Uganda Standard provides principles and generic guidelines on risk management. This standard can be used by any public, private or community enterprise, association, group or individual.

Prevention is always better than cure, and there are few recent examples of the destruction caused by lack of systems to prevent and manage fires. As can be seen, much has been done in standardization with the objective of reducing life and property losses due to fires, but structural owners must be deliberate in putting these mechanisms in place.

The writer is the Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards.