Glasgow School of Art Fire, a Case Study by SFRS

On Friday the 23rd of May 2014, at 12:27 PM, fire crews responded to reports of a building fire at 167 Renfrew Street in Glasgow. This was the Glasgow School of Art.

This video reports how the fire started and spread throughout the building, and the movement and actions of the fire service.

The Glasgow School of Art, designed by world celebrated architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, is widely considered to be Mackintosh’s masterwork. The building measures 75 meters by 25 meters and consists of 10 levels, including mezzanine floors.

It was built in two stages. The east side of the building was built between 1897 and 1899, and the west side between 1907 and 1909. World renowned, it was known as The Mac and is a Grade A listed building. Within its archive it houses the world’s third largest Rennie Mackintosh collection.

Of the 1,900 students that attended the Glasgow School of Art, 20% are international, 20% from the rest of the U.K., and approximately 20% are post graduate. It has had three Turner Prize winners since 2005 and it attracts 20,000 visitors per year.

At 12:27 on Friday 23rd of May 2014, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service operations control Johnstone received a call stating there was a building alight at 167 Renfrew Street in Glasgow. This was the Glasgow School of Art. The control room mobilized the predetermined attendance of tango zero one alpha one, tango zero one alpha two, and tango zero four alpha one.

The fire originated in the projector, which was location in the student display area of studio 19. The studio was in the basement at the west side of the building. Self expanding foam was used for artistic effect in creating wall panels. As the foam is expelled from the can, the propellant is a mixture of three highly flammable gasses and is also extremely flammable once dry. As these gasses passed over the electrical internals of the projector, it caused indirect ignition by an electrical spark.

As the fire grew in size, flames impinged on the foam positioned behind the projector. The fire then spread laterally around the foam lined room, as well as virtually towards ceiling level. Flames traveled up the wall directly behind where the projector was positioned.

A CO2 fire extinguisher was emptied onto the fire with little effect. The alarm was raised and staff ensured all persons in the immediate area evacuate from the basement, with a large number exiting from the fire exit onto Scott Street, and the main entrance onto Renfrew Street.

A major contributory factor for the fire spreading throughout the building was from the obsolete ventilation system running throughout the building. A plant room in the basement supplied warm air via internal brick lined shafts and timber duct work, running horizontally to studios, offices, and corridors throughout the building. This heating and ventilating system is no longer in use, but there are voids running the entire height of the building, which can carry pipes and cabling.

In studio 19, the wall around the display area was constructed of timber panels, Canadian Redwood Pine, which formed the outer covering of a service void. An area slightly to the left of the projector, had the panels removed allowing access to the void where sprinkler pipes had been run previously. This void ran the entire height of the building to roof level. This timber lined void acted like a chimney and allowed flames, hot gasses, and smoke to travel vertically.

As flames and hot gasses reached ceiling level of studio 19, they then broke through into studio 31 on the ground floor, directly above studio 19. At least four voids run vertically throughout studio 31 and these allowed unchecked fire spread to areas above and on the same level. The fire then spread vertically either side of the doorway and also horizontally in a westerly direction, along voids in studio 31.

One of these voids allowed lateral access to studio 32 at ceiling level.

And from the studio 32, fire then spread through voids into the Mackintosh Library above. The library’s construction, layout, and high fire loading, which included timber furniture, paneling, and books, meant the room contents became totally involved in fire. From the library, fire spreads vertically via voids to the library storage space, and then onto studio 58 on the second floor via voids in ceiling. It then spread laterally from studio 58 to studio 57 and also to the area known as the Hen Run.

Returning to the ground floor within studio 31, the fire is also spreading via all four vertical voids to the first floor studios above, 43, 44, and 45. Flames then traveled up the walls to ceiling level, traversed across the ceiling and exit at window level.

The fire intensified due to the inrush of oxygen via the windows, which had failed due to the fire. Fire spread to the second floor studios on the north side of the building from the first floor studios 43 and 44. The fires two alternative routes meet on the second floor consuming all the studios on the west side of the building. Constructed of timber, glass, and lead lined roofs, once these failed, the inrush of oxygen intensified the fire affecting the second floor, which lead to the collapse of the roof.

The predetermined appliances arrived on scene at 12:32 at the front of the building, and the OIC began to gather information from the responsible person. The responsible persons described the location of the fire in a room at the end of the corridor in the basement and that the best access would be from the entrance on Scott Street. This would later become Sector 4, with the front of the building on Renfrew Street becoming Sector 1. BA Entry Control was set up at the Scott Street entrance and called the Basement Entrance. To further complicate the decision-making process, there was a report of persons trapped in a lift within the building. This lift was later located on the basement level with its doors open and empty.

From the Scott Street entrance, BA teams first enter the building at basement level with instructions to locate and fight the fire. One team assisted in guiding the hose reel into the building while the other progressed to the area described by the responsible person. They maneuvered to studio 19, made an attack, and successfully knocked the fire down in that area.

When returning to BA Entry Control, it was apparent that the fire was spreading to other parts of the building and all available information was relayed to the incidence commander. A BA team was tasked to search the stairwell. As they proceeded up the stairs to the top floor, they encountered heavy smoke logging that reduced visibility to practically zero, although there were no noticeable rises in temperature. When reaching the top floor, visibility slightly improved and crackling could be heard. On inspection, heavy, thick black smoke could be seen in the window of one of the rooms and the flickering of flames at ceiling height.

The Entry Control Officer was informed by radio that there was a well-developed fire in the top floor. Due to the amount of air left in their BA sets, they made their way back down the stairwell to the ground floor. On the way down the smoke in all areas was slightly heavier, but there was no significant rise in temperature. BA teams were then committed to lay hose lines up the fully smoke logged stairwell. Due to the design of the stairwell, it was an arduous and time consuming task. Initial attendance was being stretched as they were being dispatched to various reported locations of the fire on each floor. Simultaneously, external firefighting had commenced with external jets and ariel appliances located in Sector 1.

Six BA teams were in constant turnover from the Entry Control Point on Scott Street. From the Renfrew Street entrance, at Sector 1, BA teams made their way to the ground floor and first floor corridors, which gave access to the west side of the building.

They worked on creating a fire break to keep the fire contained to the west side. On the first floor fire break they knocked holes through the wall into studio 43 to assist with the firefighting, as the fire in this area kept flaring up and required constant attention. As the fire break was being set up on the first floor, a BA team was tasked with gaining access to the top floor from the east side.

The fire was progressing along the top floor through the studios and Hen Run and had the potential to break into the east side of the building. As the ARP attacked from the front of the building, a BA team fought the fire back in the Hen Run. BA teams used a ladder from the Hen Run to gain access to the roof, and with breaking equipment, gained access into the roof space. Using a hose, they could then attack from the opposite side to the ARP and a stop area was made against the fire. With fire breaks and firefighting off the west stairwell at all levels, the fire was finally brought under control.

Salvage was an early consideration and advice was sought from the responsible person. It was established that the library and the basement were of high importance. In the event of a fire, everything within these areas was to be removed. With the library involved in fire, focus was placed on removing the items of importance from the basement. The east entrance to the building on Dalhousie Street was used for access to the basement as the west and front were in operation.

Due to the amount of water in use the basement began to flood and pumps were used to remove water out of the west exit. The ground floor in the [inaudible 00:10:41] building adjacent to the Mackintosh Building, was used to house the salvaged items. Salvage work, in conjunction with staff from the School of Art, continued through to the 30th of May.

12:27 – Auto alarm activation received at Operations Control Johnstone. Three pump PDA mobilized.

12:30 – First call from member of the public.

12:31 – Tango zero one alpha one, tango zero one alpha two and tango zero four alpha one in attendance.

12:42 – Make level 2. 4 BA in use. 1 hose reel jet in use. Persons reported.

12:45 – Sever smoke logging affecting three floors.

13:02 – Make level 3.

13:04 – Sectorized into sectors 1 and 4. 10 BA in use. 2 main jets. 2 hose reel jets in use. 1 ARP currently being set up.

13:19 – ACO Goodhew now in attendance.

13:40 – Level 4. 10 BA in use. 4 main jets. 2 ARPs.

13:56 – 30% of building well alight. Implementing fire break in stairwell to divide building in two.

14:07 – Responsible person has confirmed all persons accounted for. Attempting to put fire break in roof.

15:06 – Establishing fire break in roof space. Stage 2 BA in use. 4 main jets. 3 ARPs in use. Salvage now in operation. Light portable pumps pumping water from basement. Undertaking salvage in accordance with salvage plans.

17:25 – BA crews still committed to fire fighting and salvage. Fire break over central stairway has been established. 3 ARPs, 6 main jets and 10 BA in use.

18:30 – ACO Boyle now in attendance.

19:24 – Extinguishing hotspots and breaking into voids using small tools. 2 hose reel jets. 6 main jets. BA still in use. Salvage work is being undertaken. Approximately 120 BA sets used.

22:18 – 1 sector carrying out firefighting. 1 sector carrying out salvage. 6 BA in use. 2 teams damping down and dealing with hotspots. 1 team establishing lighting for night time operations.

At 10:20 on the 24th of May, a stop message is received.

At 15:26 on the 30th May, tango zero one alpha one and tango zero one alpha two leave the incident. 7 days, 2 hours and 55 minutes after the arrival of the first appliance.