Fire risks in multi-storey car parks

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With so many vehicles and combustible materials often packed into multi-storey car parks (MSCP) the risk of fire is therefore one that shouldn’t be ignored, otherwise the outcome could be catastrophic. It’s important to understand the severity of this hazard and ensure that every MSCP is equipped with measures to protect its customers and their property against fires. By David Harrison, Managing Director at Highlight Parking.

A case-in point

There have been a number of high-profile car park fires over the years, and the Liverpool Echo Arena fire is perhaps the most significant of them all. On New Year’s Eve in 2017, a 16-year-old car went up in flames, starting a blaze that spread quickly through the MSCP. 1,200 vehicles were destroyed, costing insurers an estimated £20million. Thankfully, nobody was injured.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, which described the fire as the worst it had ever dealt with, were only called 13 minutes after the blaze had started, by which point it was already out of control. The enormous damage caused in such a small amount of time emphasises the need for an effective early detection system.

Hazards are increasing

In addition to the hazard’s incumbent with petrol and diesel engines, new vehicle technology is inevitably introducing additional risks. Electric vehicles and their EV charging points are becoming increasingly commonplace. Car battery fires are fierce and extremely powerful. The charging cycle of a car battery causes highly flammable and explosive hydrogen to build up around the engine. A seemingly minor issue like a loose wire connection has the potential to cause a spark and ignite this dangerous gas. It can only take a matter of minutes for the blaze to spiral out of control, giving very little time to react without the help of an effective detection system.

Current safety measures are inadequate

Ventilation – While ventilation offers some protection and reduces the risks posed by toxic smoke, it can’t be solely relied upon as a means of limiting the damaging effects of fires in car parks. Indeed, even when a fire isn’t inside a building, it can still spread rapidly. A prime example of this was in 2008 at the Reading festival where 19 cars parked in an open field were destroyed.

Alarms – Audible alarms obviously have their benefits when it comes to alerting car park staff and customers to fires, but in terms of damage prevention, it can often be too late before the alarm is sounded. Many MSCPs use ‘Fire Wire; alarm systems featuring a fire detection cable. While this avoids the need for human intervention, by the time the cable is hot enough to trigger the alarm, the fire will likely already be out of control.

Sprinklers – Sprinkler systems have been protecting lives and property for over 100 years, but, as with alarms, plenty of damage has often already been caused by the time a sprinkler system kicks into action. It’s also not currently law for multi-storey car park operators to have them installed. In fact, of the 3,095 car park fires which occurred between 1994 and 2005, only 100 were extinguished or contained by sprinklers.

Introducing S.A.F.E.

After the devastating fire at the King’s Dock in Liverpool, I was shocked to discover that not only are existing measures inadequate, only a fraction of car parks have any form of fire detection system in place. These shortcomings obviously present significant and unnecessary risk to life and property, which is why we developed S.A.F.E.

S.A.F.E is an AI-powered Smoke and Fire Early Warning System. It works with around-the-clock unattended monitoring, and typically detects smoke in seconds. Connected to a cloud application, S.A.F.E. immediately triggers visual and audible alerts, with email/SMS warnings sent automatically to smart devices and to car park control room screens. S.A.F.E.’s AI capability means that smoke can be detected as fast as the human eye, rather than relying on smoke to reach a car park’s ceiling mounted fire wire detectors. The outcome is that emergency measures can be taken far more quickly, so the likelihood of serious damage or injury is dramatically reduced. This opportunity for a rapid response will be key to limiting the sort of damage we’ve seen MSCP fires cause in the past.

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