Examining Fire Safety in Shopping Malls

The ubiquitous indoor shopping mall has changed our buying habits forever, drawing in customers to shop under one convenient roof.  But the changing nature of the sector also has implications for re-examining fire safety.

In the USA, there is more than seven billion square feet of shopping center space.  If you divide that by the total US population, it gives a footprint of over 23 square feet of shopping center space per person.
However, although retail employs more than 14 million employees in America, about one in 10 workers, the sector is under threat — from the virtual shopping mall of the internet, to the rise and rise of low cost and discount stores.

The last indoor US shopping mall was opened in 2006 and, despite rents having remained largely static for several years, vacancy rates have been rising since 2007.

But the shopping mall is fighting back, better reflecting what we now want from indoor shopping centers — and that means everything from incorporating churches and government offices to hotels, restaurants and entertainment complexes.

It’s a problem being faced in other parts of the world.  Indeed, of the top 10 largest shopping malls in the world, all are outside the United States, with only the West Edmonton Mall in Canada making that Top Ten list.

The two largest malls are both in China, with the New South China Mall in Dongguan taking the top spot, at nearly 6,500,000 square feet. The rest of the list is made up of malls in Thailand, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

But the same problems affecting malls in the USA are also prevalent elsewhere.  Most spectacularly, the New South China Mall (number one), which is twice as big as the huge Mall of America outside Minneapolis, sees so little visitor numbers and has such a high vacancy rate that it has been classified as “dead.”

The response of those “super-malls” has been the same as in the USA.   For example, the Utama Mall in Malaysia (number four) now has an indoor rainforest and the largest rooftop garden in Southeast Asia.  The CenterWorld Mall in Thailand (number 5) has an indoor lake complete with sea lions.

All of which underlines how shopping malls have changed our buying habits, changed the face of town and city centers and, now under threat from cash-squeezed customers seeking other ways to shop, are having to reinvent themselves for the 21st century.  Shopping centers are again becoming visitor destinations — but not necessarily just for shopping.

That new reality is also having an impact on fire safety, because a shopping mall isn’t one building.  It’s an interlocked building, with multiple occupiers — with the range and complexity of those occupiers becoming increasingly diverse.

In a changing retail environment, there is enormous onus on mall managers to revisit fire safety plans and procedures — because incorporating an hotel or amusement park changes the nature of the fire threat and the age profiles of potential visitors.

But, as the face of retail changes, it’s as well to remember how the smallest of insignificant fires can have devastating consequences.

The worst such event in recent history took place in Paraguay in summer 2004.  It involved a fire which started in a fast food outlet in the Ycuá Bolaños supermarket on the outskirts of Asunción, the country’s capital city.

The three-storey supermarket was crowded with shoppers, many of them families with small children.  International fire investigators later found that the fire started in an improperly-maintained grill chimney located in the center’s food court, a full hour and a half before the first explosion.  

The shock wave created by that explosion broke external windows, flooding in oxygen and allowing the fire to rapidly spread from the food court to the rest of the shopping center, including the central air conditioning system, causing its nitrogen coolant to explode.

The fire then spread downwards to the underground garage, where a car exploded, setting off another shockwave that brought the ground floor crashing into the basement, and cutting off lower level escape routes.  Dozens died in their cars.

The final toll was 364 dead, nine simply “disappeared,” and nearly 500 injured.  Forty-six children died.  The sheer scale of the tragedy so overwhelmed local health services that burns victims were also treated in nearby Uruguay.  

However, in developed or developing countries, the threat from fire is being slowly reduced with stricter building regulations covering both passive and active fire safety measures — everything from better detection systems to catch the fire early to better sprinkler systems to put it out.

Langham Place, Hong Kong, a major shopping and hotel complex utilized Wrightstyle systems
The International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics (better known as the Geneva Association) says that – in the developed world – the cost of fire has reduced over the past decade from 0.28% to 0.16% of GDP, and the risk of dying in a fire has fallen from 1.88 to 1.34 per 100,000 of population.

The Paraguay fire started with just an ember from a chimney, and that’s how most catastrophic fires begin — often just a dropped cigarette or a spark from faulty wiring.  If dealt with adequately, most fires pose little threat.  But when a fire does take hold, occupants must be able to get out quickly and safely.
Kitchens, most obviously, are a key danger point but fire safety in complex buildings is determined by many different factors, including means of escape, the ability for a building to resist the effects of fire and minimize the spread of fire and smoke.

Fire is spread through three methods: convection, conduction and radiation, of which convection is the most dangerous.  This is when smoke from the fire becomes trapped by the roof, spreading in all directions to form a deepening layer.  Smoke, rather than fire, is often the real danger.

Materials such as metal can absorb heat and transmit it to other rooms or shops by conduction, where it can cause new fires to break out.  Radiation transfers heat in the air, until it too sets off secondary fires, spreading the danger away from its original location.

That happened earlier this year (2012) in a shopping centre in Qatar, where a small fire in an electrical socket started near a child care centre, and quickly went on to trap the children and their teachers.   In total, 13 children died, mostly from smoke inhalation, as well as four teachers and two firefighters — including three two-year-old triplets from New Zealand.  The fire alarm, according to an eyewitness, sounded almost “like a door bell” — and which many people ignored.

The fact is that shopping centers can be extremely complex, with potentially large fire loads and equally large numbers of people within a series of spaces that can include hotels, food courts, cinemas, restaurants, bars, as well as offices, with most people unfamiliar with the shopping centre’s layout and exits.

Wrightstyle systems have recently been installed in a major retail complex in the Beirut souks
That’s why compartmentation is so important, dividing the building into discrete fire zones, with retardant materials to limit the spread of fire, and an adequate sprinkler system able to extinguish the fire at source.  The fire safety approach involves engineering assessments based on computational fluid dynamics and zone models.

That’s also where our advanced systems come in, with Wrightstyle’s internal and external steel and glass systems having been tested together, to US and European standards, and subjected to furnace temperatures of well over 1000˚c – testing the strength of the glass, the protective level of the glazing system, and their overall capability to maintain compartmentation in a fire situation.

This is the core function of an integrated glass and framing system: to provide an effective barrier against the passage of fire, heat and toxic gas and, by preventing oxygen from reaching the seat of the fire, inhibit its progress.  This allows people to escape and, by containing the fire, minimises fire damage.

The main lesson from Qatar and Paraguay is that fire can spread with devastating speed, particularly in a large open space such as a shopping center.  The key is containment, trapping the fire, and allowing people to escape.   It’s the reason why our systems can be found in shopping centers around the world.
As shopping malls grapple with a changing future, becoming destinations for much more than retail activity, the issue of fire safety should once again be a key priority.

Jane Embury, a director of steel glazing company Wrightstyle, looks at fire safety in today’s changing shopping malls.  In the USA, Wrightstyle supplies its systems in partnership with Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown NY), the USA’s leading manufacturer of steel and bronze glazing systems.

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