Understanding Fire Safety Regulations Across Europe: The Need for a Unified Approach 

The tragic Valencia fire and the more recent fire in a 17th-century historic building in Copenhagen have highlighted the need for more stringent fire safety regulations in Europe. While we do not yet know the whole story behind these terrible incidents, it is likely that several factors contributed to them. Whilst fire safety is of paramount importance to all working in construction, each European country approaches this with different processes. A common and crucial element is compartmentation, which plays a pivotal role in controlling the spread of fire within buildings. This post explores how different European countries are integrating compartmentation into their fire safety regulations and the importance of taking a unified approach to safety standards.  

European Fire Safety Regulations: An Overview  

In Europe, there is a diverse landscape of fire safety regulations, with every country adopting its own unique standards and practices. For example, in France, materials used in construction are required by law to be non-combustible and all modifications during the lifetime of the building are to be approved by designated regional or local authorities, whereas in Germany, buildings above 7m must have a fire protection plan devised and checked by qualified fire experts, with ongoing inspections by both private contractors and local fire departments. In the Netherlands, however, fire safety is considered much later in the design process, with local authorities overseeing compliance and the building owner responsible for ongoing fire safety management. 

It is also important to note that prior to the UK’s Building Safety Act coming into force, European regulations were noted to be more prescriptive than those in the UK, according to a 2017 article in the RIBAJ. Over the last few decades, countries across Europe have made significant progress in improving fire safety measures by continuously adapting and implementing effective strategies. Through their comprehensive approach, fire-related fatalities have decreased by an impressive 65%, thanks to the efforts of fire safety officials across the continent. 

Role of Fire Safety Engineering in Europe  

Despite updates in national regulations, a 2023 report by the Joint Research Centre for the European Commission indicates that the Fire Safety Engineering (FSE) approach is not fully implemented in Europe. FSE offers a methodological way of designing buildings to enhance safety through performance-based protocols. The report suggests an urgent need for countries to adopt this approach, particularly for innovative building designs, and to standardise design scenarios and safety criteria to support FSE application. 

Euroclass System and Fire Testing Standards  

As stated in the PU Europe Fire Safety Handbook (June 2020), the Euroclass system classifies building materials based on their reaction to fire. However, the fire testing for façades varies across European countries, leading to different standards in building safety. This variable approach highlights the need for harmonisation of testing methods, which would result in more clarity around regulations, an improved construction process, better record-keeping, higher levels of specification and accountability, and better country-to-country operations.

In response to these varying standards, the updated guidance from the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology (CWCT) and the Society of Facade Engineering (SFE) emphasised the importance of adopting a consistent approach to facade fire testing and material use across Europe, particularly aligning with the BS EN 13501-1 standard. This standard not only harmonises the classification of materials based on their reaction to fire but also includes specific methodologies for facade testing, highlighting the significance of the A2-s1, d0 classification. More information on regulations pertaining to facades can be found in the ‘Technical guidance for interpretation in relation to the external walls and specified attachments of Relevant Buildings in England’ by the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology Technical Committee and the Society of Façade Engineering Fire Committee.

Seven Layers of Fire Safety  

The EU Fire Safety Guide, published by the Modern Building Alliance in 2019, presents seven critical layers of fire safety: Prevention, Early Detection, Early Suppression, Evacuation, Compartmentation, Structural Safety, and Firefighting. Each layer is vital in constructing a safe environment, although not all countries follow the same practices. To mitigate this, the guide lists countries that are leaders in adopting best practices for each area, thus providing a blueprint for others to follow.  

Focusing on Compartmentation  

Compartmentation plays a crucial role in preventing the spread of fire within buildings. The strategy involves dividing a building into sections using fire-resistant walls and floors, to effectively contain any fire at its origin and limit the damage. The necessity of robust compartmentation through the use of non-combustible materials has been highlighted in the aftermath of the Valencia fire, following the suggestion that improved compartmentation could have mitigated the disaster. Moreover, standardising compartmentation practices is essential for enhancing building safety across Europe.  

The variations found among fire safety regulations and standards across Europe underscore the need for a unified approach to safeguard citizens and infrastructure. As Europe continues to grapple with the implementation of advanced fire safety measures, the importance of adopting a performance-based approach becomes increasingly clear. Ensuring the thorough application of methodologies like FSE and standardisation of critical elements such as compartmentation is imperative.  

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