Learning from the Luton Airport fire: structural collapse and safety measures

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Luton Airport, the UK’s fifth largest airport, recently faced a severe challenge when a massive fire led to a structural collapse in its terminal car park two.

Opened merely four years ago, this car park was a segment of a vast multi-million pound modernisation project.

The ignition: origins of the Luton Airport fire

John Shaw, a 30-year-old from Oxford, reported to be the first person to dial 999 upon seeing the flames on 10 October at 20:45 BST.

He recalled the panic and the rapid spread of the fire, saying: “Everybody was in a state of panic and then it starts spreading to the floor above.”

The fire’s origin has been traced to the third level of the airport’s car park number two, believed to have started from a diesel-powered vehicle.

Andrew Hopkinson, Bedfordshire’s chief fire officer, said it is thought the fire started with a diesel-powered vehicle and then that fire has quickly and rapidly spread.

Despite no current suggestion of the blaze being intentional, footage has been found of a burning car which might have triggered the larger fire.

An eyewitness shared that at that moment when we came to the car, it exploded and they couldn’t come near.

Interestingly, according to the AA’s technical expert Greg Carter, electrical faults in the 12-volt battery system are a prevalent cause of car fires.

He further explained that diesel is less flammable than petrol, needing intense pressure or sustained flame for ignition.

Impact on passengers and flights

Due to this fire, over 150 flights were cancelled, and 27 arrivals had to be rerouted to distant airports such as Cardiff, Liverpool, and Manchester.

This affected an estimated 30,000 passengers.

Additionally, Luton Airport responded to almost 16,500 customer queries following the incident.

Flights eventually resumed on 11 October around 15:00.

Aftermath for vehicle owners

The financial implications of the fire remain uncertain.

The car park, having a capacity for 1,900 vehicles, had around 1,500 parked during the incident.

A temporary ramp was established to extract undamaged vehicles.

However, Luton Airport announced that it is unlikely that any vehicles in the car park will be salvageable but this is still in the process of being assessed.

In response to this, the Association of British Insurers commented that owners of vehicles caught up in this fire will naturally be very concerned.

Comprehensive and third-party fire and theft motor insurance policies will cover fire damage.

Fire safety concerns reignited

Three firefighters and an airport employee were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, with another firefighter treated on-site.

No severe injuries were reported.

The absence of sprinklers in the car park has been highlighted.

Hopkinson remarked that sprinklers may have made a positive impact on this incident.

In alignment with these concerns, Javeria Hussain, chair of Luton Rising, the owning company of the airport, stated they would be collaborating closely with various stakeholders for quick recovery.

BAFSA’s insights on modern fire risks

The recent Luton Airport fire incident has reignited discussions about the need for advanced fire safety measures in modern infrastructure.

Ali Perry, BAFSA’s chief executive, shared the organisation’s stance: “Almost all modern cars are significantly larger, more massive and contain much greater amounts of plastic than ever before.

“They produce fires which are larger and propagate much faster than was previously possible.”

When touching on the challenges posed by electric vehicles, Perry added: “When electric vehicles catch fire, for example, they can produce intense horizontal flames that may ignite adjacent vehicles and create large conflagrations that can eventually result in structural failure and collapse of the building concerned, making it difficult for firefighters to control the fire.”

Perry further emphasised the importance of revisiting fire safety regulations: “Current guidance on fire precautions in the construction of car parks listed in Approved Document B of the Building Regulations for England and Wales and Scottish Technical Standards do not currently require that sprinklers be installed.

It is BAFSA’s opinion, that this advice does not fully take into account the greater fire load of modern vehicles.”

CROSS-UK advocates for comprehensive investigations

CROSS-UK, a reputed entity in structural safety, weighed in on the Luton Airport fire incident, emphasising the significance of thorough investigations.

Dr Alastair Soane, Principal Consultant for CROSS-UK, commented: “Fires in car parks are not uncommon, but a fire of this magnitude is rare.

“A full investigation will be required to understand what has happened. We do not yet know the reasons for this fire and structural damage to this multi-storey car park.”

He further emphasised the importance of patience and due diligence: “While we await further news from the site regarding the cause of this fire and the impact on the structure it is inappropriate to speculate.

“When details on the fire are available, we will help to disseminate lessons learned so that similar events can be prevented in future.”

IFSJ Comment

The Luton Airport fire raises pertinent questions about current fire safety measures, especially in modern multi-storey car parks.

The potential absence of sprinklers, as highlighted by the fire incident, underlines the urgency to reconsider existing fire safety regulations.

As vehicles become more advanced, with larger sizes and more plastic components, the risks of substantial fires increase.

This incident serves as a wake-up call for stakeholders to take proactive steps in ensuring safety in such structures.

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