The lesson from Rouen fire

Aug 17, 2016 | News

Can a birthday cake turn a whole bar into a firetrap?

The answer is unfortunately yes.

On the night of August 6th in Rouen, a violent blaze ravaged the Cuba Libre bar, taking the lives of 13 people and injuring 7. The victims, mostly young people between 16 and 25 years old, were trapped in the basement and intoxicated by fire fumes.

According to news reports candles on a birthday cake started the fire, as the person carrying it fell down the stairs leading to the basement. Witnesses reported that the candles quickly ignited a fire involving products installed on the walls and ceiling. Most of the victims were intoxicated by the thick smoke that rapidly filled the room. The fire was so intense that it took more than half an hour for 80 firefighters to put it out. A survivor said “it was like a flame-thrower”.

It was the deadliest fire to hit France since 2005, when a series of four blazes took 60 lives in less than five months.

Better fire safety measures could have prevented this tragedy

An enquiry is underway to assess whether the bar was in compliance with fire safety rules.

Notably, investigators are looking into the propagation of flames and toxic smoke that prevented customers to escape. French media report the ceiling was cladded with polystyrene panels, which are banned under French building regulations, but this has not yet been confirmed.

The suitability and accessibility of fire exits are also being questioned.

Rouen and Bucharest: two fires, one lesson

This fire has a lot in common with the one that ravaged the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest in November 2015. In both cases, it appears that the use of the wrong material in the wrong place has lead to the loss of young lives. In both cases, toxic smoke has been even more lethal than the flames. In both cases, fire stroke in a developed European city, where citizens would assume to be safe from its threat.

Although we cannot go back in time and save the victims of Bucharest and Rouen, we can still learn from these tragedies and take measures to prevent them to happen again in the future. This must be done at the EU level, because fire is a common threat throughout Member States, and the European Union has a mandate to guarantee its citizens’ safety.

First, we need fire regulations and standards to accurately reflect the fire performance of construction products, including smoke hazard. We also need those regulations and standards to be properly enforced throughout Member States, and to make sure the right material is chosen for the right use. Finally, a fire safety strategy should be put in place for Member States to share data, to better identify risks and common trends, and to define best practices to prevent fires and save lives.

Towards better regulation for fire smoke hazards?

It’s encouraging to learn that on the first point, the European Commission has realised the importance of smoke toxicity from construction products in fires, and is about to launch a study to evaluate the need to regulate it under the Construction Products Regulation (CPR). This study, which represents an unprecedented opportunity for the EU to bring smoke toxicity under control, is also the result of a joint effort by researchers, medical experts, firefighters and MEPs who have campaigned together with Fire Safe Europe throughout the last years, to raise awareness on the short-term and long-term hazards of fire smoke.

Find out more on why smoke is the issue in fire safety!