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Reflections on the Luton Airport car park fire: six months on

Region: CROSS-UK Published: 10 April 2024


On October 10th, 2023, a fire started on level 3 of Luton Airport’s Terminal Car Park 2. The fire spread rapidly through the structure, ultimately causing significant collapse. Fortunately, no one was killed, but over 1,400 vehicles were damaged or destroyed in the blaze. 

Six months on, Neil Gibbins, Lead Fire Safety Consultant and Alastair Soane, Principal Consultant for CROSS reflect on the incident, giving their thoughts on the structural and fire risks associated with multi-storey car parks, and the importance of learning lessons from past failures to prevent future catastrophic fires.

Neil Gibbins, QFSM FIFireE Hon FIStructE, Lead Fire Safety Consultant, CROSS

“Following the fire at Luton Airport, and associated CROSS reports being quoted in the press, I have had a number of discussions with senior leaders in the sector, interested in how we make sure we don’t repeat failures. 

Most people will go through their life without experiencing the effects of a fire first hand. That is a good thing, and a tribute to those who have championed fire prevention over the last few decades. People are generally astounded that a fire can start in a car and spread to involve all levels of a car park. Yes, such fires may not kill or hurt anyone, but the harm caused by the burning of so many cars, on a personal, business, infrastructure and environmental level could be classed as catastrophic and worse, was entirely foreseeable, as our CROSS reports have advised. 

It appears that the Luton Airport car park was constructed after the Liverpool Echo Arena fire. I don’t know if the designer was aware of the circumstances of the Liverpool fire. I don’t know if the airport management were aware. Or the insurers. Or the Building Control Body - who would not have had any power to change the design but may well have pointed out the Building Regulations provide only for life safety. 

Similarly, I don’t know if the Fire and Rescue Service that had to deploy firefighters (likely with a degree of risk) were aware. Indeed, prior to the fire, they may have only advised as to the opportunity to design and build a robust structure that would be likely to survive an easily foreseeable event. It started in just one car.

The Luton fire has brought the issue of electric vehicles further into the spotlight. While it is understood that the fire started in a conventionally powered vehicle, the impact of the grouping of electric vehicles around charging points, the energy produced by fires involving lithium-ion batteries, and the challenge of containing or extinguishing them is now recognised and understood by many more people.” 

Alastair Soane BSc PhD CEng FICE FIStructE Hon FIFireE, Principal Consultant, CROSS

“There are risks associated with multi-storey car parks, both structural and fire related, which are higher than those associated with other buildings. This is because they are subject to hard usage and contain a high fire load of cars and their fuel. Risks include degradation due to age and the use of de-icing salts, over-loading due to the increasing size and weight of cars (including the additional weights of batteries in EVs), and the possibilities of fires which spread in an uncontrollable manner.

CROSS have published reports on these issues which draw attention to risks for the benefit of designers and builders, car park owners, operators, and the emergency services. Notable amongst these was the CROSS Alert published in 2018 after the Liverpool fire which described the event and gave advice on preventing similar occurrences in both existing and new multi-storey car parks.

In addition to the destruction of over 1,000 vehicles, in both the Liverpool and Luton fires the structures in both cases had to be demolished: a reinforced concrete frame in Liverpool and a steel frame in Luton. 

Each fire started in a single vehicle with consequential losses seemingly disproportionate to such a simple and common occurrence. The two fires were low probability/high consequence events but could easily be repeated.

It was fortunate that the fires were in stand-alone buildings and there were no casualties. If such a fire were to take place in a car park which is integral to a major development the results could be much worse.

CROSS urges all those involved in the design, operation, and management of multi-storey car parks to learn the lessons from the Liverpool and Luton fires. The cost of protection and prevention are a small fraction of the losses from catastrophic fires.”

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