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Challenges in airport fire safety standards

Picture of Francisco Aguilera

Francisco Aguilera

Airport Operations / AERTEC

Nowadays, society regards travel as something habitual or routine. As a result, cities across the world are increasingly more connected, significantly increasing airport operations.

This means that airports have eventually become a major hub for people, whether they are there for the main purpose of an airport, i.e. travel, or if their presence is incidental e.g. family or friends greeting passengers.

There is often a trade-off between airport design concepts and safety standards, so modern simulation techniques play a critical role.

From an economic or business perspective, airports are affected by a well-known concept because of the large number of people who are present for extended periods: consumerism. In other words, both traditional airports that are being redeveloped and newer airports are becoming a kind of shopping mall where the leading businesses, usually connected with fashion and catering, are present.

This concept is transforming the architecture of airports: the interior space is completely open-plan. This is directly linked to the concept of consumerism because, as a passenger, it is a more “useful” way to see the choices and products on offer at the airport if there is nothing obstructing your view, and people prefer the way the airport looks.

In Europe, most airports were based around a more traditional architectural format and, for this reason, there has been a gradual shift towards the concept of open-plan spaces in successive refurbishments. However, while it may be economically viable, the issue of safety must not be overlooked, especially in the event of fire.

This transition is not only taking place in Europe, it is a global trend.

The teams of engineers and architects who design airport spaces are used to being constrained almost entirely by the need to comply with the specific regulations applicable in each country. In Spain’s case, most commonly this is the Technical Building Code (Código Técnico de la Edificación, CTE), which is basically a set of documents that must be complied with in order to construct a building correctly, always according to its use and the activity taking place in it. This regulation followed Act 38/1999, which is known as the Building Regulations Act (Ley de Ordenación de la Edificación).

Much as Spain has comprehensive regulations to ensure a minimum level of fire safety in all buildings, in Europe there are also regulations to be complied with, depending on the country. Due to the differences between countries, but given their status as EU members, there is currently an official body that acts as a commission to unify fire safety criteria and standards, called the Confederation of European Fire Protection Associations (CFPA Europe).

Although officially there are no common criteria in this area applicable throughout Europe, the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), does publish standardisation guidelines (EN-UNE standards) that establish common minimum requirements, in this case, for highly important fire safety and fire protection equipment and systems.

If we compare the situation in Europe with that in America, in the latter case there is greater consistency on this issue. However, as in Europe, American countries have their own legislation and regulations, all of which are based on applying the minimum requirements set out in the regulations drawn up by the prestigious National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

In other words, although each country is willing to comply according to specific criteria, ultimately, all European buildings must meet certain minimum standards – including airports – and, at the very least, the systems used to provide such protection must be fit for purpose, irrespective of the country.

Returning to the main topic of this post, this is no longer just a country-specific problem, but a global one, because, although each country has its own regulations, there will be airports that have certain problems in adapting their design to meet the minimum fire safety and protection requirements.

Bearing this in mind, and examining the specific case of Spain, what is one of the biggest problems in making open-plan spaces compatible with complying with the CTE? Basically, that these are two very different criteria. While the main ambition is for the airport to be a large open-plan area, accommodating as much commercial activity as possible whilst trying to make it visually appealing, the CTE imposes limits on the size of the spaces for greater fire safety, with a large number of fire protection systems. This restriction is known as “sectorisation” and, in basic terms, it involves dividing up spaces so that people can be safe in the event of an emergency, with each space having passive and active protection measures that are suitable for the conditions.

So, is the solution to avoid creating such large spaces or to avoid complying with the CTE or other applicable regulations in each country? Neither of these answers is right, whether you are looking at it from a business or technical perspective. While a business approach favours conditions that are conducive to profits, a technical approach protects people’s safety (which is more important than money).

What can we do in this scenario? Among the most suitable solutions are “Fire Dynamics Simulators” and “Agent-Based Egress Simulators” which, in simple terms, are world-renowned modelling techniques capable of running dynamic simulations of the progression of fires in buildings of any type, as well as simulations of evacuations when such emergencies occur.

Although such techniques are not yet as common as one might wish, they are widely implemented in certain European countries, and also on the American continent due to its more “performance-oriented” culture. However, the use of these methods in projects is becoming increasingly common.

Is simply carrying out such performance assessments the right solution? The answer is no. Although such assessments may serve to validate unique architectural designs, they will always need to be accompanied by the applicable standards, be they the NFPA, CTE, etc., so on the surface this can be viewed as a “blended” or “hybrid” solution. Equally important are the experience and skills of the technicians, as not all of them are adequately qualified to carry out an assessment of this kind, or to review the data and calculations obtained by the individual or group that has approved the solution and/or considers it to be suitable.


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