Fire Safety Challenges in Malls & Shopping Centre
It is true to say that customers at Vietnam's biggest shopping centre are going to be treated to five-star fire protection as well as a lavish, luxury shopping experience. The new five-story Crescent Mall, which forms part of a multi- complex development at the heart of a new and modern city, has officially opened, complete with the latest in fire and safety control.
Retail sales in Vietnam have steadily grown over recent years and as GDP continues to increase, retail outlets are evolving to meet the demand of a population with a growing amount of wealth. A recent report from HSBC predicts that Vietnam will become one of the top 50 economies in the world over the course of the next few decades, predicting that the size of the economy will expand to $451 billion by 2050.
One of the most important industries in Vietnam is construction, particularly as urbanisation is fast. With that in mind, the construction industry and, in particular, safety legislation has dramatically improved.
While equipment and materials being used by the construction industry are in the most part set to international standards, Vietnam's building regulations are a harmonization of a number of different international codes. The influence of the United States is still strong, as the dominant building code is the American National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), but there is also an influence from Singapore building codes and Australia's AS codes.
Shopping Centre Fire Safety Challenges
Shopping centers, like any retail centre, face substantial public liability for a whole host of risks, from accidents and trips to the risk of fire. Fire in particular is no stranger to shopping malls worldwide and in 2002 Ho Chi Minh City played host to one of its most deadly peacetime disasters, the International Trade Centre fire.
The award winning International Trade Centre is an upscale mall with over 400 shops and restaurants and was, at the time, the sole-outpost for high-end designer stores in Vietnam. It was set ablaze following stray sparks from a welder's torch as work was carried out in the upper level nightclub, inside the building. There were an estimated 1500 people shopping in the mall at the time of the fire, which claimed 60 lives, while 120 people suffered injury.
This incident highlights the need for adequate fire and safety control and the benefits of these controls should not be in any doubt in large, complex, multi-occupancy buildings such as a shopping mall. It should also be clear that fire safety and smoke control systems should not just be restricted to maintaining smoke-free staircases and lobbies. With modern building designs, voice alarm systems, emergency lighting and smoke control systems all have a vital role to play in the total fire protection model.
From a fire protection perspective, shopping malls are generally the most complicated of retail structures, requiring a fire alarm system sufficiently intricate to provide communication between active systems such as, zoned sprinklers, smoke control provision, secondary power supplies, emergency lighting and manned control centres.
Fire Safety at the Mall
In general the mall area is protected by intelligent addressable point-type optical smoke sensors, with dual heat/smoke sensors in electrical rooms and heat sensors in the basement car park areas. The mall is also fitted with break-glass call points and visual notification strobes. The detection system is interfaced with a voice alarm system so that, in the event of a fire in any one zone, the system broadcasts a message to that zone plus the adjacent zones. The adjacent zones may well be a different fire compartment either on the same level or levels above and below. The system extends into the tenant shop areas and the system is altered to accommodate the tenants' fit-out design.
The system comprises eight 4-loop rack mounted controllers, internally networked. The entire system operates in Vietnamese. This allows local security staff to operate the system in the comfort of their natural language. The system monitors the sprinkler flow switches and status of the fire pumps. In addition, controls the fire dampers, air conditioning and gas supply across the global cause and effect matrix.
Life Safety Systems
In shopping centres and retail outlets, building regulations stress the importance of the provision of life safety systems. The Crescent Mall has a design occupancy of 15,000 people and this can represent a high risk when considering the number of people distributed throughout the building at any one time.
Evacuation time for shopping centres can be lengthy. Much depends on the efficiency of the staff to manage the evacuation process and a life safety system that includes a number of elements; fire-detection systems, including manual call-points, electronic smoke and heat sensors that activate audible alarms and that can be programmed to automatically notify local fire departments. For fire suppression, hand-operated fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems should be part of the overall system. Smoke is as dangerous as fire, so a well-designed smoke control system should be provided to maintain smoke-free escape conditions to allow the building to be evacuated with minimum risk of smoke inhalation.
Protective measures include the automatic shutdown of ventilating systems and elevators and the division of the building into areas that are free from smoke. Occupants evacuate through smoke control protected exits.
The need to evacuate only the area of the mall affected by fire has resulted in an intricate system to ensure that fire can be detected in the early stages, the right areas are evacuated and the right systems are in the right part of the building. For example, smoke curtains and smoke extract operate to maintain the 'open' mall area as a place of comparative safety.
The “cause and effect” plan was agreed during the design process, and is developed from an agreed life safety system. This plan was agreed with local building control, and is designed to be robust throughout the life of the mall. Any deviation from, or change to, the plan should not be made without proper consideration being given to the affect that any such deviation or change would make to life safety.
Building to international standards is becoming easier in developing countries, aided by the growing infrastructure and a better understanding of building codes. Systems are being developed and produced in local languages, which aids the security of customers and staff managing the building.
A large development like the Crescent Mall poses a variety of risks and challenges. Guidance from the international fire community and experienced suppliers ensures the safety and longevity of the building and those who use it. While international manufacturers supply into emerging markets such as Vietnam, the challenges to complete projects, such as the Crescent Mall, are substantial.
Training of the contractors is key and appointing a local distributor is essential to ensure language and cultural differences do not inhibit the completion of an important part of the building services. For example, MP Co., the local distributor for the Crescent Mall, employs engineers certified by Cooper who then project manage the installation and commissioning of the system. As emerging markets develop, and local skill levels lag that of developed countries, an active involvement from concept design to final commissioning with local contractors and designers ensures this development meets the international standards and offers the protection expected in such a major development.
Shopping malls go hand-in-hand with adaptation. The evolution of the mall began with Trajan's Market, built in Rome around 100-110 AD. The concept of the mall evolved from an open air market to the modern day, enclosed mall, first built in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Shopping malls continue to change to adopt new retail ventures. It is this continuous change that provides a backdrop to hidden areas that may unknowingly be prone to freezing fire protection sprinkler pipes.
What are common fire hazards in malls?
Malls have a greater than average chance of fire due to the transient population. Each year, 1,710 fire events take place in the retail industry and 119 are caused by arson, according to the NFPA. Other issues that stem from the transient population, including short-term employees, are smoking within the building and unsafe storage of combustible and flammable materials.
Additional fire hazards are electrical malfunctions and the open flames, sparks, and hot surfaces, found in most restaurants. Large numbers of people, expensive property, and large stocks of merchandise rely on a full fire protection solution to keep them safe. Because of the menagerie of retail outlets and a diverse population, fire protection must also be kept at its peak performance.
Why does fire sprinkler piping freeze?
There are several causes for the freezing of fire sprinkler pipes throughout the life of the building. During the construction phase, wet-pipe sprinklers may be installed in the interior of the mall; however, heat is not yet circulating throughout the building. If the temperature drops to 40 degrees or below, wet-pipe sprinkler piping runs the risk of freezing.
In unheated areas, such as exterior areas, attics, or storage rooms, dry-pipe, pre-action, dry-pendent, or dry-sidewall sprinklers are typically installed by an expert fire protection service provider. However, if the sprinklers activate and are not adequately drained, the sitting water has the opportunity to freeze within the pipe.
What can happen if a pipe freezes?
If temperatures reach below 40 degrees, any water within a fire sprinkler pipe runs the risk of freezing according to NFPA 13, 13D, and 13R. The most common areas that freeze in fire sprinkler piping are short-runs of sprinkler piping, such as exterior walls and attic spaces. These pipes are often forgotten by property personnel when a sprinkler head activates and pipes need to be drained.
When water freezes, it increases in size by 10%. This is significant enough to increase the pressure to the point of bursting a pipe, fitting, or sprinkler and can cause the release of up to 30 gallons of water per minute. Each time a pipe bursts, it will typically cost a property owner $30,000+ per event.
If a fire event happens when the fire sprinkler piping has an ice block, it will inhibit water flow and the sprinkler head may not activate.
Leaks from frozen pipes typically appear when the pipes begin to thaw, so properties are more likely to experience a burst pipe in the early spring or on warm winter days. With the erratic winter weather in the Midwest, property owners need to be particularly pro-active about their fire protection inspection, testing, and maintenance, especially after a sprinkler activates.
How do we prevent fire sprinkler pipes from freezing?
The initial opportunity to prevent a pipe from bursting due to freezing water is to work with a fire protection service provider that is well aware of the risks of freezing weather on fire sprinkler piping. They will design a system that will mitigate the risks of burst pipes. Installing dry-pipe, pre-action, dry-pendant, or dry-sidewall sprinklers will ensure water is not in the pipes unless a fire sprinkler activates, reducing the likelihood of freezing pipes. If a sprinkler activates, call your fire protection contractor immediately to properly drain pipes of excess water.
Steps can be taken to prevent freezing pipes:
1. Have employees stay alert and be aware of cold weather conditions.
2. Check fire protection frequently during the winter months.
3. According to Bollinger Insurance, do not attempt do-it-yourself repairs on fire protection systems. Obtain the services of a trained professional.
4. During annual fire protection inspections, ask your contractor to test all valves.
5. Have personnel trained on how to shut down valves in the event of a burst pipe.
If an ice blockage is discovered, do not use an open flame or temporary heating equipment in an attempt to melt the ice. This will present an unnecessary fire risk.
Fire protection systems are essential to the safety of customers, employees, property, and merchandise in malls. 98% of sprinkler failure is due to human error. If a frozen pipe is discovered, contact your fire protection contractor to provide emergency maintenance and reduce the chances of a burst pipe causing $30,000 in damages or a fire sprinkler malfunction when you need it most.