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edition 6 (231)
June 2018
Property management

We didn’t start the fire

Fire safety in shopping centres

Tomasz Cudowski

We didn’t start the fire
“In shopping centres fires mostly start in the leasable space that the manager has limited access to. This is reportedly exactly what happened in Kemerovo,” says property manager Dorota Piątek

In March property managers around the world had to absorb The grim details of a Russian shopping centre blaze. How could the tragedy in Kemerovo have happened And could such a disaster take place in Poland?

The committee investigating the causes of the fire has uncovered a certain degree of negligence, including a failure to properly train security personnel. This clearly indicates how important all preventative measures are when it comes to fire safety – and these include the technology used, the building management and the human factor. “According to reports, the fire and smoke systems at the Winter Cherry shopping centre were disabled or blocked. The mall was neither monitored nor protected, so the alarms, extinguishers, smoke extractors and aerating devices did not work. Furthermore, the emergency exits were blocked. I know of no such examples in Poland where there might be a similar combination of such factors,” says Paweł Klimczak, the H&S and FM operations practice leader at Cushman & Wakefield.

This is amply demonstrated by the video footage uploaded onto the internet. Smoke can be seen filling a large room reducing the visibility to zero in a matter of seconds. It can only be concluded that there was no functioning smoke extraction system. Breathing became impossible and evacuation was extremely difficult. “The media also reported glaring violations during the construction of the shopping centre, so it’s possible that inexcusable mistakes were made as early as the design stage,” adds Dorota Piątek, an independent advisor to the commercial real estate sector and a former shopping centre director.

What about here?

The experts would appear to agree that even older shopping centres in Poland are safe. “The first few shopping centres in Poland – first generation malls – were, to a large extent, built according to designs similar to those in Italy or France, thus conforming to the European standards of the time,” explains Dorota Piątek. “Also, older buildings converted into malls can be protected adequately by installing, for example, alarms and smoke detectors, or by replacing lifts with new ones that meet the highest safety standards,” she adds.

The fire regulations in Poland have not undergone any kind of radical overhaul for some time, but they have evolved to take account of technological changes in construction practices and fire protection. People’s attitudes towards safety have also been changing. “I think tragedies such as those in Kemerovo have had a big impact on this,” claims Paweł Klimczak. “Such situations bring home to us how tragic the effects of negligence can be. Fortunately, such incidents are not common in Poland.” Moreover, designers are able to use the latest tools to improve the safety standards in commercial buildings. With the right software, you can check the designs, carry out hazard simulations, model the build up of smoke and predict people’s behaviour during an evacuation.

People and machines

This does not mean shopping centre managers in Poland can rest completely assured. There are still many potential fire hazards in a shopping centre such as smokers, the areas for whom must be properly designated and monitored. Ashtrays have a habit of catching fire from time to time and even a small flame can become the cause a lot of smoke if not a more serious fire. Informal smoking areas that are chosen by employees such as back rooms or ramps for suppliers are particularly dangerous. “Special supervision is also required in the shopping centre for all rooms that use high-temperature equipment, such as smokehouses, bakeries and kitchens,” explains Paweł Klimczak. “This can be found in all kinds of catering outlets as well as in hypermarkets. Additional safety measures and monitoring have to be provided for them,” he adds.

Paweł Klimczak of Cushman& Wakefield
is constantly tightening the safety
requirements for the shopping centres
under his management

But dangers can also arise when workers warm up their offices or changing rooms in the winter by using heaters brought from home. “In shopping centres fires mostly start in the leasable space that the manager has limited access to. This is believed to be exactly what happened in Kemerovo,” points out Dorota Piątek. “Every crisis situation requires people to cooperate from the outset – that is, from the detection and confirmation of an incident – and the human factor is often crucial in fire safety. That’s why the extensive training of both staff and tenants is important for the safety of the shopping centre,” she warns.

Controlling, training, earning

The guidelines for ensuring fire safety in shopping centres are not actually that complicated. All that needs to be done is to anticipate potentially dangerous situations, react to them immediately, and carry out regular inspections of the entire building – especially of those areas where the risks are highest. “You also need to keep the building equipment and systems in full working order by carrying out regular inspections,” adds Paweł Klimczak. ”In the buildings managed by Cushman & Wakefield, we check many issues on a daily basis, such as the fire doors or access to the emergency exits. Theoretically, at any moment someone could block a door or park a car in front of an emergency exit,” says the manager.

Nevertheless, the events in Kemerovo prompted Cushman & Wakefield to check the safety measures of the centres it manages. “All of our shopping centre managers once again revised the details of their safety procedures, reviewed the inspection plans in their buildings and carried out thorough local site inspections,” insists Paweł Klimczak. But while shopping centres seem to be sufficiently prepared for random, accidental fires, when it comes to deliberate actions the picture does not look so rosy. The experts we spoke to admitted off the record that it would be difficult to prevent someone with a mental disorder from setting fire to a retail centre, never mind a determined terrorist. “We are not oblivious to such risks: we are constantly updating our procedures in order to minimise them,” insists Paweł Klimczak. “In particular, we are holding training sessions for existing and new employees, and we’re also tightening the requirements for the companies responsible for the security of the buildings. Moreover, in our cooperation with the tenants we always encourage them to be wary and report any suspicious activity and unidentified packages or bags. We fortunately live in a quiet corner of the world where bomb scares have almost exclusively turned out to be false alarms,” he reassures us.

It’s impossible to put a monetary value on human life, but fire safety should be at least every bit as important for property owners (as well as managers) as the income generated by the real estate. “The fire safety issue should arise at the same stage of a project as the calculation of the return on the investment. The final stage is the training of the security staff and tenants, but this should be a never-ending process,” states Dorota Piątek. “For commercial property owners the key to ensuring the fire safety of a shopping centre is to invest in a professional advisor – a manager who is aware of their fire safety responsibilities and who performs regular inspections. Professional real estate managers should feel every bit as responsible for the safety of the building they have been entrusted with as for their own home.

Przemysław Kastyak

of the Magnusson, Tokaj i Partnerzy law firm

Safety to safeguard your own interests

In order to guarantee a high level of fire safety, a higher financial outlay is required at the construction stage. In Poland cases of negligence when it comes to fire safety in large shopping centres have been non-existent. Polish fire safety regulations are not only strict but they are rigorously monitored by the relevant authorities – at the building design stage and when they are put into operation. Negligence in regard to fire safety can have severe consequences for the investor in many ways. These include not only such obvious problems as obtaining all the permits for a building, but also the possibility of its closure in the event of such deficiencies coming to light or the risk of civil and criminal liability in the event of a fire. Considering every transaction involving a shopping centre is typically preceded by due diligence, including technical inspections, if the fire safety is inadequate this will be identified by a buyer’s consultants, resulting in the seller having to remedy the problem or agree to a significant price reduction.

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