In early May, a routine inspection by a fire consultant at Longboat Quay, two blocks of mainly apartment units, on Sir John Rogerson Quay, uncovered serious deficiencies in relation to fire safety. The consultant had been retained by a receiver for over a dozen of the apartment units. Such was his concern, he passed the information directly onto Dublin Fire Brigade.
Longboat Quay is a development of two blocks of apartments, totalling 298 units, and some retail outlets, which is under the management of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. It was built in 2006 by developer Bernard McNamara.
As previously reported in the Irish Examiner, the fire alarm systems were found to be highly deficient last summer, and required major upgrade. However, it has since emerged that the alarm system was the lesser of the two problems uncovered. Both buildings had serious construction defaults in relation to fire safety that rendered them effectively fire traps.
In particular, there was a major issue around the separation walls between apartment units and between apartments and the common areas. These separation walls are designed to ensure, as best as possible, that any fire is contained within a single unit. This stops the spread of fire and all that such an eventuality can lead to.
In Longboat Quay, it became apparent that the walls were not constructed anywhere near design, and would not, in the event of fire, act as any proper shield to contain an outbreak. In some instances, the walls were not built with block, as per design, but consisted of little more than studded partitions. In addition, there was a major problem around smoke vents. The apartments in Longboat Quay are accessed by a single stairwell, which would be the only form of escape in the event of fire. Each block is six storeys high. A crucial element of design in such buildings is the provision of automated smoke vents which would alleviate the dangers of evacuating residents — and fire fighters — being overcome with smoke.
The investigations at Longboat Quay uncovered that most of the vents had not been installed, and where installation had occurred, many were not of a sufficient standard.
Other problems around the floors would also emerge over the following months.
Taken together, the issues constituted a major breach of fire regulations which would be considered to pose a serious risk to the safety of residents. Once the matter came to light, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, acting with the blocks’ management company, hired the leading fire consultant in the country, Michael Slattery and Associates.
Further investigation led to the discovery of more issues around the fire safety. One possibility that was considered was that it might be necessary to evacuate all residents who lived above the ground floor, because of the dangers posed by the lack of smoke vents in particular.
One of the solutions agreed with the fire brigade instead of evacuation was the deployment of fire marshals in the two blocks on a 24-hour basis. As previously reported in the Irish Examiner, these marshals were supposed to patrol the common areas and stairwells on an ongoing basis. However, they did not have access to the individual apartments, where fires were most likely to start.
These marshals have been in situ since last June, with four individuals on site at any one time. A number of sources, including residents, have told this newspaper that only in recent months have they even noticed these marshals, and that they never encountered them in the evenings, or returning late at night. They don’t wear anything that identifies them as fire marshals.
A request for the identity of the firm supplying the marshals was refused two weeks ago, but the Irish Examiner has learned they are being supplied by RFC Security, which does not list fire marshals as one of the whole range of personnel it supplies. The extent of training received by these personnel, particularly in relation to evacuation, is unknown. RFC did not return calls or respond to queries about personnel or training.
According to sources, the deployment of fire marshals tends to be very short term, for a matter of days if not weeks. A deployment over a period of eight months is unheard of. By mid-June, the extent of the problems were clear to all concerned. A meeting for residents was called to inform them of the extent of the problems. It is unclear how many attended, and whether residents were notified that their attendance was required on a most urgent matter.
Ongoing communication with residents after the meeting has been practically non-existent, according to two residents who contacted the Irish Examiner.
On June 27, one apartment was sold for €175,000. Another was sold on July 1 for €400,000. It is unclear whether purchaser or vendor were aware of the extent of the problems at that point. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority refused to answer questions in relation to the sale of the apartments and whether it had informed purchaser or vendor of the problems at that juncture.
The problems led to further investigations delaying efforts to actually begin to attempt to rectify the very serious situation. In late October, an electrical contractor began work on upgrading the alarm system. That work is ongoing and expected to be completed next month. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority has confirmed that no work has yet been commenced on the far more pressing issue of structural fire safety deficiencies.
Efforts to contact Mr McNamara were unsuccessful.
The fire consultant on the development was John Greaney and Associates. He confirmed his role in a statement to the Irish Examiner.
“Greaney Fire Safety was engaged as a fire safety consultants on the project by (the then) Michael McNamara & Co to oversee design and construction in terms of each structure’s compliance with the requirements of the building control regulations.
“I prepared the fire safety design strategies and submitted applications for the requisite fire safety certificates which were granted in 2004. The requirements were satisfied at this point. I supervised the construction works at the stages relevant to the fire safety design strategies; and certificates of fire safety compliance were issued at the practical completion stages in 2006.”
Many of the problems that led to the evacuation of Priory Hall are also present in Longboat Quay. One crucial difference may be the condition of the external walls, which in Priory were found to be highly deficient. Whether or not such deficiencies were uncovered in Longboat remains to be seen. It is understood major structural deficiencies in relation to fire safety can be fixed but at considerable cost. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority has stated that the cost will be borne by the authority, the management company and the apartment owners, but the exact division of cost has not been worked out.
The authority is a public body, ultimately funded by the taxpayer.
Many of the problems that led to the evacuation of Priory Hall are also present in Longboat Quay