Supermarkets: how many are fire-traps?

The first death of a woman firefighter highlights the risks in many stores.
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The Independent Online
SHE was 21, she was very brave, and last week Fleur Lombard became the first woman firefighter to be killed in Britain when she was caught up in a situation of mounting concern to Britain's fire brigades - the blazing supermarket.

She died after she went to check for trapped customers in a burning Bristol superstore, which was destroyed by the fire. Her self-sacrifice has not only saddened the nation; it has thrown a spotlight on the special fire hazards that supermarkets present, which fire brigades have been pressing the Government to rectify - but to no avail.

"The tragic death of a very brave young woman could at last motivate the Government to respond to the calls for a change in the building regulations," said Stuart Kidd, director of the Fire Protection Association, a research and advisory organisation.

The Bristol fire that killed Ms Lombard was far from unusual; in the past four years up to 40 superstores have suffered fires, with some razed to the ground within minutes and more than pounds 40m worth of damage to buildings and stock caused.

Senior officers have been especially concerned about supermarket fire risks since two huge blazes in 1993 destroyed a Tesco store in Maidstone, Kent, and a Sainsbury branch in Chichester, West Sussex.

Supermarkets, they say, pose especially dangerous problems because of their design and the stock they carry: many are single-storey buildings with no structural fire breaks, and contain great quantitites of polish, alcohol and other highly inflammable materials. The safety measures required of managers to meet existing fire regulations are limited.

"It is not unusual for these buildings to collapse in minutes, and that puts firefighters' lives at risk. These buildings are often flimsy structures and fire spreads very fast. We recognise that extra fire safety measures can be costly but they are necessary," said Terry Glossop, chief fire officer of Gwent and chairman of the fire safety committee of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association. "For the last couple of years we have been urging the Government to change the rules to ensure these stores should have sprinklers."

Investigations into the Bristol Co-op fire, in which Fleur Lombard died, are continuing. An Avon fire brigade spokesman confirmed last week that the store did not have sprinklers or fire breaks. A man has been charged with manslaughter and arson.

The majority of modern supermarkets are single-storey buildings with large roof spaces. Under existing building regulations, supermarkets have to ensure means of escape, means of warning, the means to fight fires, and access for the fire brigade. But they are not obliged to install sprinklers or fire breaks in single-storey buildings, even though a blaze in such a building can spread rapidly by leaping across the empty roof space. Fire chiefs and other experts who say the installation of sprinklers could stop the speed of a fire taking hold have been urging the Government to change the building regulations so that superstores would be obliged to install these extra safety measures.

"There are intrinsic safety problems. Although these buildings meet the existing building regulations, we don't think the regulations take into full account their dangers," said Mr Kidd.

Recent supermarket fires indicate just how rapidly a fire in such a building can spread. In the case of the Bristol fire which cost Miss Lombard her life, the fire caught hold in a matter of minutes.

Three years ago, fire destroyed a Tesco supermarket in Maidstone, Kent, causing pounds 18m worth of damage. The design of the building complied fully with the existing fire safety requirements of the store. Then, as now, the regulations did not require sprinklers to be fitted. Arsonists started the fire in a rubbish skip next to the building, and the flames got into the roof space then rushed through the store. Kent fire brigade had previously recommended that sprinklers should be fitted.

Tesco, which rented the Maidstone store, is suing the contractor, architect and local council building control officers over the fire. Its High Court writ alleges negligence, or breach of statutory duty during the design, construction and site supervision. The company has now fitted sprinklers into half its stores. A Tesco spokeswoman, Karen Marshall, said: "We will always consider installing sprinklers, based on the average response time by the fire brigade for each store, even if national regulations do not require them."

Sainsbury has also considered installing sprinklers in its stores since a fire devastated one of its supermarkets in Chichester three years ago. Jane Blower, of the company's property department, said: "Post-Chichester, we have introduced sprinklers into our stock areas. We have reviewed our safety procedures and introduced sprinklers into 20 of our existing stores." But Ms Blower added that 160 Sainsbury stores did not have them.

Fire chiefs' fears about safety in supermarkets are shared by the shopworkers' union Usdaw, which has also urged the Government to change rules about fire safety. Usdaw's health and safety officer, Doug Russell, said the union realised competition was stiff among supermarkets, which meant costs had to be kept low.

"But this is an issue not just about our members' lives. It puts the lives of firefighters and the public at risk as well," he said.

Yesterday the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for building regulations, said that a consultation document, discussing possible revisions to the rules on fire safety, would be published in three months' time.