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Shanghai Fire – Lessons from Catastrophe

Monday, December 6th, 2010
high-rise buildings on fire

Lessons learned from the Shanghai Fire

An unfortunate fire in a 28-story Shanghai apartment building claimed the lives of 58 people, with dozens injured and some missing persons unaccounted for. By using the fire as a case study, we can point out ways to avoid this kind of catastrophe in your high-rise property.

The Shanghai apartment building was undergoing renovations for a planned energy-saving project. The scaffolding used for the construction project was made of flammable bamboo and nylon netting. Preliminary investigations uncovered several issues and pointed blame towards several parties:

  • Careless work by unlicensed subcontractor workers ignited the nylon netting which surrounded the building. The fire quickly spread to the bamboo scaffolding frame as well as the building itself.
  • The structure did not feature an indoor fire prevention sprinkler system, as these are not commonly used in high-rise buildings in that area.
  • In addition to the flammable scaffolding, the building was also insulated with polyurethane foam which does not contain flame retardant additives.

Chinese authorities took swift action to hold individuals accountable, and have arrested 13 individuals, including the CEO of one of the companies which was responsible for part of the construction and the former head of an interior design firm. Eight unlicensed welders were also arrested.

Many residents and newscasters are critical of the local fire department’s role in handling the blaze:

  • At 28 stories, the building is one of the smaller structures compared to its surroundings. Residents reported observing firefighting-equipment that could reach only to the 20th floor of the building. This raised doubts about the local fire department’s ability to properly fight high-rise fires.
  • The fire took four hours to bring under control, despite the presence of 1,300 firefighting personnel and 120 firefighting engines. Many residents and critics view this length of time to be excessive and an example of a combination of improper training of firefighters and substandard equipment.

While the fire was unfortunate, tragic accidents provide opportunities to learn from and avoid similar mistakes. What can you implement as a building owner to prevent catastrophe?

  • If conducting repairs, make sure you and your general contractor take into account all activities performed by subcontractors. In the Shanghai fire, proper protocols for the welding crew were not followed.
  • Resist the urge to cut corners by using unlicensed workers. Such workers may be experienced and offer lower prices. But the use of un-papered workers poses a major safety violation that places you at risk of liability and everyone in danger.
  • Ensure residents or occupants are well versed in proper fire life safety procedures. The Allied Universal Fire Life Safety Training System is the perfect way to prepare tenants for every kind of emergency.
  • Conduct annual evacuation drills with designated meeting places and alternate routes in case primary exit routes are obstructed.

Proper fire safety is a comprehensive initiative that requires building owners and managers to carefully consider many interrelated issues. Learning from mistakes that caused past disasters is a strong reminder to follow safety, code and building procedures.

When a disaster strikes, prior planning and clear decisive action can help save lives.  For the latest emergency management training for facility/building managers, contact Allied Universal, Inc. Our new Version 2.0 e-based training system offers the best emergency training system with automated and integrated features. Visit for more information and remember to BE SAFE.