The Strange Origin Of Modern Building Fire Laws In Britain

Why Every Employee Must Be Able To Reach A Fire Exit In Under Two And A Half Minutes

Empire Theatre Fire photo Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

Empire Theatre Fire photo Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

The Telegraph just featured an interesting interview with Professor of Fire and Structures at Edinburgh University, Luke Bisby.

Professor Bisby does something I also do as well, which is when I enter a building I have never visited, I check how to get out of the building and where the fire exits are. Of course he looks at other factors that the average person wouldn’t take into account such as what is hanging on the walls and what the carpeting is made of.

Among the topics discussed was: why there are such tough safety rules in place in case of a fire in office worker’s buildings in the U.K.. The answer he provides is fascinating:

It may not be a surprise to learn that there are tight regulations surrounding the positioning and width of fire exits, and their location relative to workers’ desks, in a modern office.

But the basis for the stringent rules, which state that every employee must be able to reach a fire exit within two-and-a-half minutes, and that fire doors must be wide enough for all employees to pass through within the same time frame, is scarcely to be believed.

“This two-and-a-half minutes is the fundamental basis on which the built environment can exist,” Prof Bisby said. “You would presume there must be a good reason for it.

“The reason is that two-and-a-half minutes is, I’m told, the mean length of God Save the Queen. The British national anthem, when played in full, by a concert orchestra.”

The stipulation can be traced back to a fire at Edinburgh’s Empire Palace Theatre in 1911 which broke out during a performance by a French illusionist named The Great Lafayette, he explained.

During the last illusion of the night, dubbed “The Lion’s Bride”, a lamp at the back of the set caught fire and set the stage alight.

“The lamp catches on fire, the set catches fire, the fire curtain comes down, and the audience just sits watching because he is an illusionist,” Prof Sibley said.

“The quick-witted conductor of the orchestra realises that the audience is in a trance watching the illusion, and instructs the orchestra to play God Save the Queen which will rouse them to their feet.”

Although Lafayette and his body double were two of eight people to die in the fire, along with his lion, the vast majority of the audience escaped safely by the end of the national anthem, which typically lasts two and a half minutes when played in full.

“The presumed safe [exit] time which forms the basis for fire regulations – globally – is based on that, Prof Bisby said.

“If you go back to the postwar building studies that most of our regulations are based on, there are notes in comments in there saying this is based on this fire in 1911 so it appears to be a true anecdote.”

The full article was taken down from the Telegraph’s web site so we no longer can provide a link.

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