Burning desire for knowledge

March 3, 2016

The unmistakable sound of a fire engine siren is an alternating f sharp and a b flat. That’s what makes the sound so distinctive, says TNO. And the same applies to the tone set by Heijmans. Because Heijmans improves fire safety in the healthcare, residential and utility sectors by intensifying knowledge. High time we interviewed the fire safety experts.

Every year, there are around 14,000 fires in the Netherlands, resulting in an average of 60 fatalities and over 600 million euros worth of damage. Can we reduce those figures? ‘You can never completely rule out the risks, but we’ve managed to develop an effective recipe for fire safety in buildings,’ says Ingrid Naus. Ingrid is currently Senior Fire Safety Adviser at Heijmans Utility, but she also spent seven years at the TNO Fire Safety Centre – now called Efectis.

False Sense of Security

The overall level of fire safety in the Netherlands is high, says Naus. The laws and regulations have become much stricter since the disasters at Volendam and SE Fireworks. At the same time, we still hold on to certain illusions, such as that the Health and Safety Act and the Building Decree cover every aspect of fire safety in the Netherlands. This can give people a false sense of security, because the height, depth and age of a building can complicate fire safety. The same applies to the way the function of a building can change over time. Healthcare and welfare institutions run extra risks because their end users are often much more vulnerable. With that in mind, building owners and market parties ask for advice more and more frequently.

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Ingrid Naus and Koen Vermeer inspect the Zonnelied residential care facility.

The Fire Triangle

So how can Heijmans help them? ‘We use an integral approach we developed in-house,’ says Naus. ‘It’s called the Brand3hoek (the Fire Triangle) and it’s a combination of all our knowledge of the relevant laws and regulations, fire safety, construction and installations.’ This leads to three types of solutions: structural, technical and organisational, which together make up the Brand3hoek. These three solutions are not set in stone. The best solution for a specific situation depends on the risk analysis, which is based on interviews with the client and the users and on a specification of the structural and technical amenities.

Emergency Button

A good knowledge of engineering is an integral part of this approach, which happens to be the specialist area of Koen Vermeer and his team. And according to the coordinator for Maintenance and Management at Heijmans Woningbouw, such knowledge is indispensable: ‘That’s because the theory can clash with the situation on the ground. An example? In a closed department, the access door must be fitted with an emergency button. To prevent abuse, you need to “hide” this button. But this clashes with the need for the button to be visible if there’s a fire. It’s just one of the hundred practical ways in which our knowledge can be used. We’re constantly looking for solutions together with Ingrid and her colleagues.’

They often deviate from the To-Do lists clients and users submit to Heijmans. ‘In many cases, they contain huge gaps,’ says Vermeer. ‘These lists are usually drawn up after random checks and non-destructive inspections by external advisers. They almost always describe just the tip of the iceberg. What’s more, their solutions are often not as smart as you’d expect. And they’re expensive.’

The Brand3hoek counters that with the motto: less money, more fire safety. Can they fulfil this promise? Yes, say both Naus and Vermeer. Because the Brand3hoek not only includes the theory and the practical situation, but also an in-depth knowledge of the costs. Plus, the extra advantage is that Heijmans is well able to cope with ‘difficult’, fully operational work environments such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

Never Too Old

The interview takes place during a tour of the Zonnelied residential care facility in Ammerzoden [Gelderland]. In the spring of 2016, Heijmans will make the level of fire safety in the complex higher than the legal standard. Earlier, the Brand3hoek had already proved its worth in four other care institutions. Vermeer guides his fellow diners through Zonnelied. Here and there he points out where measures will soon be taken, such as replacing doors and window frames, installing fire screens around the lift and sealing off lead-throughs.

Are Naus and Vermeer always on the same page? ‘Not necessarily,’ answers the latter with a smile. ‘The difficult thing about fire safety is that you work with models, assumptions and interpretations. I sometimes wonder why certain items are necessary. But when Ingrid says that glazing bars must be 22 to 25 millimetres wide, you know it’s for a good reason.’

The guided tour ends at the Zonnelied hair salon, where the price list shows that you’re never too old to learn: ‘Pinning up: € 23.50.’ So Heijmans, even at the ripe old age of 93, never stops increasing its knowledge. Because every burning question deserves an answer.