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Fire in a restaurant in Madrid: why did the premises have an unacceptable level of risk?


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The Conversation

Juan Bautista Echeverría Trueba |

Professor at the School of Architecture

On April 22, we woke up to tragic news of the kind that makes us wonder how such an event could happen today in a society like ours. The facts were quickly spread by the media and social networks. Two people had died and several others were injured of varying degrees in a small restaurant in Madrid as a result of a very virulent fire.

result The incident, which took place a few meters from a fire station, could have resulted in a much higher casualty toll if it had not been for a very rapid intervention. issue

It is not the purpose of this article to assign responsibility, much less to point the finger of blame. It is up to the justice system to intervene in a procedure that will certainly be long and complex. We need only note that two young people have lost their lives. To them, to the other injured and to their families and relatives we owe our respect, with the conviction that the system has failed them in some way.

Who watches over our safety inside a restaurant?

Our societies have a high level of regulation in the field of Building, which is very sophisticated and costly. This allows the non-specialized citizen to think that, when he goes to dine at a restaurant, someone has ensured that the premises in which he finds himself has reasonable conditions of habitability and safety, in the same way that he assumes food safety. This includes, of course, that he does not imagine that he could be the victim of a fire of almost explosive characteristics and that he could die less than 25 meters from the exit.

With a certain delay with respect to neighboring countries, the regulation on subject of safety in case of fire was developed since the last quarter of the last century in Spain, mainly after devastating events: Hotel Corona de Aragón (1979), Alcalá 20 discotheque (1983), Arias warehouses (1987), Flying discotheque (1990), etc.

The first documents approved were in the form of basic standards of the Building, but in 2006 fire safety was integrated as its own document in the Technical Code of the Building. Another important qualitative leap was the full integration of Spain into the European Union, as it linked us to the Construction Products Directive 89/106/EEC (regulation since 2013), which has resulted in the harmonization of the classification of construction products and construction elements according to their reaction and fire resistance properties.

From the beginning, two facts were pointed out that no one has refuted: the existence of a leafy artificial hanging plant decoration, made of plastic material, and the use of open flame fire for the flambéing of some of the dishes served. Both left their traces on the establishment's website.

The artificial hanging vegetation, made of flammable plastic material, contributes to the rapid spread of the fire, generating highly toxic smoke.

Artificial or natural overhanging vegetation, although not excessively important in terms of fire load density (energy that can potentially be released per square meter in a fire), is enormously dangerous. Small particles without much mass, when dry and surrounded by oxygen, become a very fast fire that, in a matter of seconds, consumes all the fuel, producing a huge amount of smoke, especially toxic in the case of plastic materials, which floods the room.

This process is further accelerated by convective heat transfer in the enclosure. This is an exemplary example of propagation, a textbook fire.

Making use of the technologies available to everyone, we can access a video of the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) in which the prestigious American high school sample their experiments of laboratory with Christmas trees in which the characteristics of this subject fire are verified.

Too high a level of risk

In the process of reflection that is now beginning, one source of discrepancy will surely be the fact that the Technical Code of the Building contemplates the reaction to fire of the constructive, decorative and furniture elements, citing exclusively the suspended textile elements among the decorative ones.

Paradoxically, in such a controlled system in which professionals and their clients sometimes take years to process and obtain licenses, in which it is necessary to justify the reaction to fire of each material and the characteristics of compartmentalization, evacuation routes, installations, etc., something like this happens. The roles that can be played by additional decoration in the establishment, inspection, occupational hazard legislation or the necessary work of awareness, Education and dissemination in this area are still up in the air.

The conclusion must be clear. Regardless of whether the premises had the relevant licenses, regardless of what the legislation says about the consideration of a suspended artificial vegetation as an element that must meet a requirement of reaction to fire or not, regardless of the intervention of the various agents involved in the process, the premises had an unacceptable level of risk. The result is therefore a failure of the regulatory system of the Building in case of fire.