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Tragedy in Murcia: does Spain have adequate fire safety regulations?


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The Conversation

Juan Bautista Echeverría Trueba |

Facilities Teacher

Spanish society is still shaken by the tragedy that shook the city of Murcia in the early hours of Sunday, October 2. A fire in several central entertainment venues resulted in 13 deaths and a significant number of injuries issue . Reflecting on two aspects can help to better understand fires and strengthen the regulatory system to mitigate their effects.

The imperceptible risk of fire in a building

Humans, in general, are poor assessors of risk and, in particular, of possible fires inside a building. When we drive a car or fly in an airplane, we are aware of the possibility of an incident with undesirable consequences, but this is not so evident in the face of a fire. However, the reality is that a small amount of fuel can completely fill an enclosed space with smoke in a very short time, and the temperature can rise very considerably in the room if the energy associated with the fire load is released at high speed.

Fires such as the one at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island (USA) in 2003 illustrate the speed of spread inside a club. With a death toll of 100, result , the casual presence of cameras inside provided a unique, but extremely harsh, document.

Industrial and traditional buildings

The weaknesses of the Spanish regulatory system in subject fire safety have been evidenced in the Murcia fire.

Its scope, for example, is divided into a rules and regulations for buildings for traditional uses (CTE) and another for industrial buildings (RSCIEI). All of the affected leisure establishments in Murcia(Fonda Milagros, Teatre and Golden) are located in an industrial environment and the total collapse of the roof already invites us to think of a light roof, which is more common in warehouses. Although, obviously, its structural resistance should have been guaranteed for some time, it is possible that the affected complex has been designed with a mix rules and regulations that has not favored it.

The processing of licenses is a process that can take a long time, requiring corrections that produce uncertainty while the activity is already underway. In this case of Murcia, there has even been talk of a closure notice. Then, how is it possible that the premises remained open?

Inappropriate use of materials

Compliance with rules and regulations is fundamentally prescriptive, describing solutions that are often not properly implemented and maintained. In other words, compliance is more formal than effective. Among the aspects that, for the moment, have been uncovered in the case of Murcia, there is evidence of a fragile compartmentalization and an inadequate use of materials.

This compartmentalization has not guaranteed that the establishments will not be affected by a fire originating in another. As for the materials used in the interior, largely decorative plastics, they have contributed to the generation of dense and toxic smoke.

Although the current rules and regulations requires fire performance characteristics for cladding materials, it leaves the decoration to be implemented afterwards up in the air.

Both maintenance to prolong the effectiveness of the measures adopted and inspection, which should avoid modifications to the original project , have also proven to be insufficient.

The Spanish fire safety regulatory system as a whole needs to be revised to face the challenges of a more complex future. Among other things, a system is needed that includes the necessary regulatory changes, but at the same time reinforces aspects such as Education, inspection, the role of insurance, etc.

The research of the Scientific Police will determine the origin and evolution of the fire. But we must assume a responsibility as a society. If what has failed is the perception of risk, assume it as educators; if what has failed is the design, assume it as professionals; if what has failed is the attitude of the owner of the activity, as entrepreneurs; if what has failed is the control, as administrations; and if what has failed is the rules and regulations, as legislators.

The events also invite a global reflection on the very discipline of architecture. Not everything should be possible in buildings: they do not need to be gimmicky, labyrinthine, contain huge amounts of plastic or be a testing ground for pyrotechnical material, but to have a safe, habitable and functional built environment.