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Are integrated car parks an increasing fire risk?

Integrated car parks have often been seen as relatively low-risk in terms of fire. However, due to the way modern vehicles are manufactured, the emergence of electric vehicles and a number of high-profile incidents, attitudes are changing. RiskSTOP's Helen Rapley examines the changing picture…

ON NEW YEAR'S EVE 2017, a major fire took hold at the King’s Dock multi-storey car park in Liverpool. Thousands of people were evacuated from the neighbouring Echo Arena where an event was taking place and nearby residents were also forced to leave.

Seen as extremely rare incidents, fires in car parks such as at King’s Dock have the potential to cause significant damage and threat to life due to the spread from one vehicle to another and, of course, the presence of fuel. As many as 1,150 cars caught fire and were destroyed in the Liverpool fire of 2017 and the fire spread vertically to other floors of the building.

A subsequent report from Merseyside Fire and Rescue following an investigation said the spread “was likely to have been through the drainage system and failure of the ribbed slab floors in the early stages of the incident,” while “the geometry and central ramp design, combined with running fuel fires, certainly contributed later on.”

The report added: “Running fuel fires, due to failure of plastic fuel tanks, in early stages of vehicle fires can be expected. It is estimated 85% of European vehicles have plastic fuel tanks.”

While the report highlighted that there had been few deaths or injuries recorded from fires in single-storey or mule-storey integrated car parks in the UK, there were “concerns regarding new and emerging risks from modern cars and alternative fuels.”

A European perspective

As recently as March this year, a major fire broke out at a commercial property in Dorsten, Germany. An estimated 1 million euros of damage was caused by the blaze, according to reports, which affected rented parking garages used to store mobile homes, vintage cars and high-quality vehicles.

In January 2020, a car caught fire when being started-up in a parking garage at Stavanger Airport in Norway. It then rapidly spread to other vehicles in the location. The fire brigade were unable to gain access and large layers of the building subsequently collapsed. Flights were cancelled and locals ordered to stay indoors. Christian Sesseng, Research Manager at RISE Fire Research in Trondheim, subsequently attributed the rapid spread to the plastic content of modern vehicles, saying “that’s where the risk lies.” He added that a sprinkler system would have slowed down the fire and made it easier for fire fighters to control the blaze.

A similar incident occurred at Münster Osnabrück International Airport in Germany in 2019. Here the fire broke out on the first floor of the car park, damaged two floors and destroyed 65 vehicles. The car parks concrete frame was compromised.

Several causes

According to a recent report from reinsurance provider GenRe, fires can start in car parks for a variety of reasons including, technical defects in parked vehicles, ignition of flammable materials during maintenance and servicing work, disregard of smoking bans and electrical faults including in batteries present in e-vehicles

It too has highlighted how modern cars increasingly utilise combustible materials, in part due to regulations around fuel efficiency and vehicle safety. Modern vehicles also increasingly incorporate electronics and plastic wiring, creating further ignition sources and increasing the fire load. GenRe warned that other hazards can result from the roof surfaces of parking buildings, which are increasingly equipped with photovoltaic systems, made of combustible material.

Figures in its report highlight increasing claims costs relating to buildings damage from car parks plastics in vehicle production and the growing number of automated parking garages affecting the frequency and intensity of garage fires.

Key messages

Previously, car parks were often considered “low-risk” in terms of both loss occurrence probability and loss amount. However, GenRe has warned “there are indications that changes to their design and the materials used to construct modern vehicles are worsening their risk and loss potential.”

The report added: “Many garage facilities that are still used today were built in accordance with the building regulations of the time and no longer meet the changed exposure from the point of view of fire protection. Therefore, it is advisable to consider some additional aspects when assessing them.”

It described sprinkler systems as “indispensable in parking garages”. Compartmentation through fire-resistant walls and ceilings were also highlighted as positive features, as were the formation of smoke compartments and the installation of smoke extraction systems within fire compartments to assist firefighting.

Using non-combustible building materials for construction and ventilation, as well as for cladding and insulation layers under ceilings and roofs were important features, as were ensuring any openings in fire-resistant partitions (both horizontal and vertical) were fire-resistant and that no fire transmission was possible via the ventilation system into adjacent fire compartments, for example by installing fire-resistant fire dampers.

Attention should also be paid to general housekeeping, electrical systems and wiring, suitable firefighting equipment and appropriate access routes for firefighters, as well as the installation of an adequate supply of extinguishing water.

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