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Fire hazards at new school raise safety concerns

Decade of confusion over building regulations uncovered in records released by department

INSPECTIONS by fire-safety experts in the past two weeks have shown alarming fire hazards in a new primary school with a creche, and also the discovery of a gas pipe, not previously known about, running through cavities in a large apartment complex already the subject of fire-safety concerns.

The Sunday Independent has also seen previously unreleased official documents relating to concerns expressed about a series of fires and suspected unsafe buildings which have been brought to the attention of the Department of the Environment.

The records released by the Building Standards section of the department show what appears to have been more than a decade of confusion and, in instances, ignorance of regulations in regard to fire safety throughout the country.

The file contains letters and emails from inspectors in a number of counties seeking clarification from the department about how to approach fire-safety regulations as the building boom took off.

A letter from a principal officer in the Building Standards section, dated August 2006, reveals that of 4,450 fire-safety applications lodged by developers with local authorities in respect of new buildings, 650 (15 per cent) were "invalid".

"This raises two questions: Are developers/consultants aware of what is required to be submitted to make a valid application? And, are local authorities consistent in accepting/rejecting FSC (fire-safety certificate) applications?" said the official.

The latest documents released by the department refer in detail to a fire at a timber-framed apartment block at Airside in Swords, Co Dublin, in January 2007. The 66-page report by consultants retained by Fingal County Council reveals how the fire spread through cavities in the outer and inner walls of two units, but that smoke -- and lethal, invisible carbon monoxide -- spread "surprisingly far" through the complex.

The report found that while the fire was contained to the duplex where it started by the fire brigade, the smoke spread rapidly and widely through the wall and floor cavities of the entire complex.

"The issue of smoke-spread is perhaps one of the more important aspects of this fire. The smoke spread surprisingly far and this indicates a serious fault in the construction," said the report.

The report stated in detail how the smoke spread through the cavities and into the apartments and duplexes via badly installed vents, some of which had no fire or smoke stopping, and through gaps in walls and door frames. It pointed out that there were circular pipes running into square vents without tight seals.

"The use of a pipe in a square opening in the timber panel means that there are gaps around the pipe which are difficult to seal against smoke ingress. In addition, the ends of the pipe are rarely sealed against the masonry wall or timber-frame wall to prevent air and smoke in the cavity getting into the pipe."

The fire happened at around 3pm during the day, when all the residents were at work and children were still at school. There were no casualties. If it had happened during the night, there could have been multiple fatalities from carbon monoxide inhalation, a fire-safety expert who also examined the building said.

A file of documents released by the department to a Freedom of Information request contains letters from residents of another complex, Belmayne, that are highly critical of the department, Dublin City Council and the other agencies entrusted with building-safety regulations.

One resident, writing to Environment Minister Phil Hogan last October, said: "People's lives are in jeopardy here and do you want this matter to be on your conscience forever more? God forbid anything does happen here. This has the potential to be the next Stardust -- in fact, worse."

Mr Hogan sent an inspector to Belmayne who carried out a "visual inspection" and concluded that "the means-of-escape layout and the fire-protection facilities were in compliance with the relevant fire-safety certificate".

The spreading concerns about defective construction and potential fire hazards have led to more and more residents, institutions and businesses re-assessing the fire-safety worthiness of their buildings and seeking advice.

One fire-safety expert told the Sunday Independent that in two inspections carried out in the previous week, serious potential problems were uncovered at a primary school/creche and at a major apartment complex.

The school had expensive fire shuttering installed in one area, but a boiler had been positioned beside an escape stairwell, separated by only a non-fireproof stud wall.

In the apartment complex, which has already raised issues for concerns, it was discovered that a major gas pipe was running through a void that "meanders" throughout the complex. If there was a gas leak, it was pointed out, this could spread through the complex and if this was ignited could cause a conflagration.

Sunday Independent