Fire safety in Olympic and major stadiums

How new regulations are often ‘codified by catastrophe’

It’s been called ‘codifying by catastrophe’ – how fire and other safety regulations have often come about because of tragedy.

In stadium design, the most awful example remains the UK’s worst football disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans in an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest, played at the home of Sheffield Wednesday in 1989. The Hillsborough disaster, back in the news again amid evidence of official cover-up, is testament to how poor crowd management and police control can so easily become tragedy. The subsequent Taylor Report led to radical change, and the much safer stadiums we see today.

However, the real tragedy is that radical change hadn’t been enacted sooner – for example, following the Ibrox Stadium disaster in 1971, when 66 Glasgow Rangers fans were killed and over 200 injured in a crush on a stairway. Or again at Ibrox, when a wooden terrace collapsed during a Scotland v England international in 1902, killing 26 people.

Nowadays, major stadiums have crowd safety as their first design prerequisite; from entrances and exits that can cope with large numbers of patrons, to major incident plans (MIPs) to deal with any eventuality. Not least, modern stadiums are built with lots of concrete, steel and fire-rated glass to minimise the risks posed by fire.

But that too has come about because of tragedy, the worst fire disaster in the history of English football: The Bradford City fire in 1985, which killed 56 and injured some 265. Most likely caused by a dropped cigarette or match falling into a void area beneath one of the ground’s stands, it soon engulfed the whole structure, including the roof. Worse, people had to break down locked exits to escape. The subsequent Popplewell Report introduced new safety legislation for sports grounds across the country.

However, while modern stadiums are very safe, fires do still occur. In September 2012, a potentially serious fire occurred at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in north London. It was discovered at 2am and took 20 firefighters to bring it under control.

The principal legislation relating to fire in major stadiums is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Under it, the club must plan, organise, control, monitor and review the necessary preventive and protective measures and record these arrangements in writing. In Scotland, the regulations are the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005, as amended, and the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006.

UEFA also offers guidance, making clear that “major lessons have been learned from the fire-related stadium disasters of the past.” They insist upon active measures such as extinguishers and sprinkler systems and passive measures such as fire sectorisation and fire doors.

It’s those passive measures that high-performance steel manufaturer Wrightstyle specialise in. They supplied both the London Olympic main stadium and the adjacent ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 115-metre-high observation tower. The company also supplied an Athens Olympic project and stadiums for the Asian Games and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, as well as the English FA facility at St George’s Park in Staffordshire, recently opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

In many instances, it has been Wrightstyle’s ability to demonstrate independent testing against both fire and smoke that has proved a decisive factor, underlining the highly-specialist nature and international context of the steel glazing market.

The main lesson for designers is not simply to build in passive and active fire systems, but to look at the whole stadium or building’s capacity to withstand a fire. For the glazed components, that should mean analysing the level of containment the glass will provide and its compatibility with its framing systems.

Those levels of containment are absolutely vital in a stadium, with very large numbers of people in a restricted area and who, in the event of a fire, may not always follow proper evacuation procedures. Evacuation models, based on engineering and computational tools, don’t necessarily reflect the variable nature of human reaction.

Computer modeling and human behaviour diverge the moment that the fire alarm sounds. The fire safety designers may assume that patrons will immediately head for a designated fire exit. However, human psychology is likely to delay any response because many people will assume it’s a false alarm, or wait for further instruction from someone in a position of authority.

Further complicating matters is that people will generally finish what they’re doing. If they’re on a concourse buying food, they’ll often complete that purchase before deciding whether to evacuate. The most compelling example of this, although not stadium-related, was during the Kings Cross railway station fire in London in 1987, which killed 31 people.

In that tragedy, many passengers stepped over fire hoses to reach elevators taking them underground for their trains. That’s what they were at Kings Cross to do, and a seemingly innocuous fire wasn’t going to stop them. In the retail sector, research suggests that people would rather first go to the checkout to purchase goods rather than immediately evacuate the building.

More specific to stadiums, patrons will often seek to reunite with family members or friends. For example, if one family member is away from their seat when an alarm sounds – perhaps that same patron buying food on a concourse – they will often go back to their seat to find others in their party before making any decision to evacuate.

It adds up to a delayed flight time that the stadium’s design and evacuation procedures must address. In buildings research, as much as two-thirds of the time it takes people to exit a building after an alarm is start-up time – time wasted in looking for more information, or not taking the alarm seriously. Stadiums do, of course, have the advantage of having PA systems and a scoreboard on which information can be posted. However, human psychology is also at work, and the passive fire measures employed in the stadium’s design must also factor in a delayed evacuation response.

That’s why modern steel glazing systems are so important, either for the exterior envelope of the stadium or for internal screens and fire doors. With advanced glazing systems able to provide up to 120 minutes of protection against the spread of fire, smoke or toxic gases, they have become an integral part of modern stadium design, giving people more than enough time to evacuate and protecting escape routes along the way. Those escape routes become more significant for the elderly, infirm or disabled, who will typically need more time to evacuate.

However, one word of caution: In many instances, untested combinations of glass and frame are still being specified separately – despite the fact that, in a fire situation, the glass will only be as good as its framing system, and vice versa. Insisting on tested, and therefore proven, compatibility, and specifying it as a requirement of the tendering process, should be a matter of course.

Stadium design has come a long way in the past few decades, driven by new regulations to deliver a new generation of safer stadiums. But it’s also a tragedy that it’s taken catastrophe to make it happen.


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