Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 4, 2018.

Our Plastic Cars

Modern vehicles burn differently. Has parking garage protection kept pace?

This past New Year’s Eve, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service in Liverpool, England, received an alarm for vehicles on fire at the Kings Dock Car Park, an incident that challenged the department beyond all expectations. By the time the fire brigade got the blaze under control the next day, the entire five-story concrete parking garage was destroyed, along with all of the 1,309 vehicles it contained.

This incident, along with a 2012 car-park fire in Paris involving multiple levels and dozens of vehicles, have fire protection professionals concerned. The central question many are asking: Have our fire protection approaches to parking garage structures kept pace with the substantial evolution of garages and vehicles over the last couple decades?

It’s no secret that vehicles have changed substantially. Government efficiency standards have resulted in vehicles that are lighter weight and more fuel-efficient. These vehicles use more plastics and other synthetic materials than vehicles of previous eras, and thus burn differently. Some even have plastic or fiberglass fuel tanks. New battery and fuel technologies have also been developed and popularized in recent decades, leading to a greater variety of alternative-fueled vehicles and potential hazards.

Parking garages have similarly evolved, with new ways to pack more vehicles into less space within a building’s footprint. In some cases, this includes automated retrieval features and innovative three-dimensional approaches like stacking.

NFPA 88A, Parking Structures, was first issued in 1932 to provide detailed fire protection guidance for parking facilities. While it is updated regularly, the struggle to keep pace with the evolving hazards of the modern world can be relentless. Some engineers I’ve spoken to aren’t sure that these regular periodic revisions are adequate to address these evolving threats, and they want more information. At this year’s NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in June, requests for more research on parking garage fire protection surfaced and were discussed in three different unrelated research planning meetings held by the Fire Protection Research Foundation.

What seems to be needed is more research to clarify optimum design parameters for the present and anticipated hazards in these parking structures. Questions include: When and where should automatic sprinkler systems be provided? How does that change in a more open parking structure versus one that is more confined? Are newer alternative-fueled vehicles presenting hotter and more challenging fires that require greater sprinkler design densities? Do fires involving alternative-fueled vehicles burn longer—as has been demonstrated in research projects on lithium-ion battery electric vehicles—and therefore require longer duration water supplies?

The inevitable lag time between conducting new safety research and implementing the findings into infrastructure design makes it important that we address these issues sooner rather than later. We don’t want to find out in 30 years that we’d been installing insufficient fire protection systems in garages. Such a scenario would result in the daunting task of taking inventory of all of the problematic installations and making retrofits. It can take years to unwind and fix an identified problem that took years to manifest itself in the built environment through a lack of suitable code application.

NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation are listening to our stakeholders and preparing to address parking garage fire protection in the near future. A comprehensive assessment of this hazard, both current and future, will be an important first step.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler