Is the fire protection in Germany too strict?
Interview with Fire Protection Expert Reinhard Eberl-Pacan
We interviewed the fire protection expert Reinhard Eberl-Pacan. Together, we discuss the future of construction.
Is the fire protection in Germany too strict?
The consequences of a fire can be terrifying. During the fire at Düsseldorf Airport, we realized how tragic such an event can be. The demands on the fire safety are gigantic. Restaurants, for example, are partially closed, because they no longer fulfill the requirements. Therefore, the question is whether the strict fire protection in Germany is justified. For this reason, we speak to the fire protection expert Reinhard Eberl-Pacan.
Who are you and what do you do?
I always say I'm on three legs at the end. In the last century, I had completed my journalism studies in Passau, my hometown. As a trained journalist, I decided to go to Berlin to continue and study journalism. I then studied journalism, German philology, dramatics, and Italian for two semesters. The full program. After two semesters, I realized a bit that a journalist writes about a lot of things.
You need to have a very high level of curiosity. You learn a lot, but actually you don't really know anything. So I thought the path to continue doing this and to educate myself is not necessarily the one that will get me where I want to go. I decided to switch to another degree and study something else to learn something and then be able to write about it. Then I didn't really think of anything. I started with “A” and then I came to architecture. I thought it was a great idea, because it's something I can't do. I have no idea about it and it makes no sense to study something that I can already do. It's much more exciting to study something that you can't even do yet.
So I studied architecture and worked as an architect in Berlin for a long time. At that time, I was already handling a few projects in Bavaria. In 2004/2005, the construction industry, especially in Berlin, was totally down. It was really hard to get jobs, especially the jobs that you got paid well for. So I faced such a situation again and asked myself: Architect? What kind of job is that actually? You have to know about everything, but actually you never really have the time to deal with any topic more intensively. You know practically nothing about everything. Then, there was another specialization. I said to myself that I would choose some specialty from this architecture. That was more or less a coincidence. Whoever says A, must also say B. So I've decided for the fire protection. Not necessarily because I found it so exciting or because I thought it was a great idea. I just thought the fire safety is easy. That’s maybe 1,000 or 10,000 law acts. You will learn them, and when you have learned them all, you know it. So I started doing that. Meanwhile, about 16 to 17 years, I have learned that it is completely different. It's a very creative and very interesting area. Many other topics can also be conveyed on the subject of the fire safety.
What other content would that be?
When I started specializing in the fire safety, I had a few thoughts. If you do fire protection for certain materials, such as concrete or steel, it is boring. Is there no building material that burns and what happens where? At that time, there was already the discussion. The way we build, we can't keep building. We cannot put energy into the houses senselessly. We have to build more sustainably. The buildings must then also be recyclable. Back in 2004, that was already clear to many. So I thought this is an issue for me. Timber - timber burns and is not much used for construction. When you look at why there's no so many timber buildings, it is often because of the fire protection. I thought that it couldn't be. The fire resistance is exactly the reason why you can't build with timber. You have to deal with that.
You have to look at how to find solutions for timber buildings on the one hand, but not endangering people's safety on the other hand. You have to make up for that. On the one hand, I build with sustainable and reusable materials. On the other hand, I have to be able to live and work just as safely in a building made of timber as in another building.
What is preventive fire protection? There is preventive and defensive fire protection. Could you explain to us what is the difference?
Preventive fire protection takes care of the time before there is a fire. Defensive fire protection, in short, takes care of it when there is a fire. Preventive fire protection is a thing that we enjoy and that we also don't realize every day. For example, that we have a wall facing the neighboring apartment which, in case of doubt, can withstand the fire for 90 minutes if there's fire in the neighboring apartment. We have a staircase, which is, of course, not only there to allow us to enter the building or to get to our apartment. Rather, in the event of a fire, it is also secured in such a way that the smoke cannot penetrate this stairwell immediately. It should be smoke-free and heat-free for a certain period of time, so that I can escape. These are the issues that preventive fire protection deals with centrally. There is, of course, but also preventive fire protection, which we already know. This is a smoke alarm device. This is a fire alarm system. This is a sprinkler system that we've seen somewhere before. That is then the technical fire protection.
These are facilities that are there to alert us in good time if a fire breaks out anywhere. Perhaps to show us the way to escape. Or to extinguish the fire at an early stage. The third area of preventive fire protection is, of course, organizational fire protection. That you play the whole thing together in different elements. That has to be organized. There must be fire protection officers who take care of it, for example, in so-called special buildings. This includes hospitals, schools, meeting places, and so on. You have to make sure that the labeling always works, that people are also trained and do exercises once a year. In schools, you do a lot of it, simulate the case of a fire, which fortunately occurs very rarely, and people know what to do. There has to be someone who can explain it to you. The defensive fire protection is the fire brigade, which then comes and extinguishes.
You may have to bring people to safety who cannot help themselves, for example, by instructing. When the fire department puts the ladder on a building. Nowadays, it is an aerial rescue vehicle, that is, a truck with a ladder on it. You can then climb out of the window and move out safety.
In civil engineering back then, we also learned something about fire safety. We worked with the Bavarian building regulations. As far as I know, each state has its own set of rules. How is the fire protection regulated by law?
The building code is the supreme law. First of all, we have to say that the building law is state law. The states have the cultural sovereignty of the states. This also includes buildings. There is no higher federal law above the building code of the respective federal state, for example, the Bavarian building regulations. First of all, each federal state has the opportunity to determine its own fire protection regulations. It is possible to say that these building regulations, generally also the regulations based on the building regulations, deal with the subject of fire protection up to 80 percent. This is still the main theme that can be found in the building codes.
Derived from these country-specific building regulations, there are individual regulations, for example, for special structures. There is a collection of governmental regulations that deals with the special dangers of cinemas, theaters, and exhibition halls, and so on. The building code actually describes a normal building. A normal residential building, a normal office building can all be found in the building code. This mainly regulates the requirements for the building materials. We are back to the subject of timber. Building materials are, for example, concrete and steel, timber. This is where it is determined which requirements building materials may meet. For example, they are not allowed to burn. Of course, timber is bad then. There is no need for timber if the building code states that it is not combustible. The other is the components, that is, ceilings, walls, and roof. The building regulations also specify requirements for them. Depending on how dangerous the building is, so to say. They are classified into different building classes, from one to five. One is a single-family house and five is a typical Berlin apartment building. This means, the larger and the higher is a building and the larger are the so-called usage units, that is, apartment units or office units in these buildings, the higher is the building class and the higher are the corresponding requirements.
When working as a planning office for fire protection and have to handle projects in several federal states in Germany, it is sometimes cumbersome, isn't it? I have to learn new building regulations all the time. Is that really the way it's supposed to be? Is it efficient or does it have a reason?
There are actually no reasons for this, except for cultural sovereignty. This is, of course, extremely time-consuming for engineers. As fire protection experts, we know all building codes, of course. It's not just that I know the building regulations, they also change all the time. I have to keep track of 16 building codes. Where has something changed again? What changes are there from the model building regulations? You can also say "sample of no value." It is, so to speak, a working group of the building ministers and building senators who publish it.
Countries should cope with them, but they often do not or do it very late. You always have to keep track of that. There are also investigations by commissions, of which it is said that this jumble of building codes in Germany causes 15 percent additional costs. Engineering errors may happen when someone in Berlin plans a building for Baden-Württemberg. It's not just that the building code is different. The subsequent regulations are also often called differently. Then, things are often completely elsewhere, where you would not initially expect them as a Berliner. This leads to incorrect planning. Because of this, things have to be changed. We work a lot for companies in the sector of hotel or senior care real estate that work across Germany. They have absolutely no understanding of the fact that they have very high requirements in one federal state and significantly lower requirements in another.
You can say that the fire is the same everywhere. You have the same protection in Germany. A Saarlander should not be a beta tester for everyone else to try out the changes. And then they say that the Saarlanders survived and that's why it cannot be so bad for the others either. This is a state of affairs that is simply unsustainable, of course, but it's difficult to change. Now, we have a building minister again in the federal government. The countries are, of course, reluctant to be talked into this issue. My experience is always that everyone would be open to standardization. In Bavaria, the building minister would say that we would like to standardize it, and we will do the same as in Bavaria. Of course, the people of North Rhine-Westphalia don't like that. A funny story is that the rescue window in Bavaria is much smaller than in the other federal states. You can wonder if all Bavarians are so slim that they need a narrow window, while the others need a larger window? You can see that this is absolutely absurd. It's a situation that has been around for at least 50 years, but Bayern are not ready to change that. Why don't we do the same window bigger, like all other federal states?
How many fire deaths are there actually?
That's around 400 fire deaths a year. I don't know the current number either. The problem is a bit with the statistics. In Germany, there are simply very poor statistics on those who have died or been injured by fire. I tried to do some research there. Brandenburg has no reasonable statistics at all. Berlin has statistics. Then there is always the question: Who is actually a fire dead? How do you have to die in the end to be a fire dead? It's similar to Corona. That’s an absolute mess of numbers, that’s going on there. However, I can say that it's getting better overall. The statistics can be interpreted in such a way that the situation has already improved, especially as a result of the smoke alarm system being required. We are at a good level in Germany when it comes to fire deaths. We could be better, but certainly not by making even higher demands.
But how can you solve that?
Well, my example is always Switzerland. This country has good fire death statistics. This is very clear with them and is actually followed up. It's actually also evaluated in the statistics when fire protection regulations are issued. What's the point? In proportion, they have a little more than half as many fire deaths as in Germany. But they have fewer requirements. In Germany, we have the maximum fire resistance period of 90 minutes for normal buildings. In Switzerland, it is only 60 minutes. You can already see that higher requirements are not always effective. What Switzerland does very well is that it places very high demands on construction, planning, and execution by means of quality management. I always say that we prescribe 90 minutes in Germany, in the hope that due to all the botch and everything we allow, we will achieve 60 minutes. They just write 60 minutes and make sure that the botch does not occur. By thinking more, planning more, and by having a better structure, with the history of building codes, among other things, we would not only save money, but we would also increase the overall safety of people, which would result in fewer fire deaths.
Is it possible to summarize this in such a way that, from a certain level, you can no longer provide a higher level of fire protection? Is it ultimately economically inefficient, costs more, and does not help in the end?
You can say it like that. This is basically the case with safety. I always have to look at the weakest link regarding the safety. It doesn't help if I add something to the point where safety is already very high. If I have a door that someone is breaking in, I have to improve the door. You always have to look at the weakest point. The individual areas, that is, structural, organizational, and technical fire protection, must all be balanced. We still have a system in Germany, where we invest a lot in structural fire protection. An example is the fire resistance 90 minutes, which costs us a lot of money. If you imagine that I have a building that has been on fire for an hour. What should be done better in the last 30 minutes? If everything went wrong within this hour, which is a very long time, then everything will also go wrong in the next half hour. We have good firemen and well-trained people in the cities, so that they actually have it under control after half an hour of fire. We also have good escape routes. You shouldn't make any compromises. Sure, there is a space for improvement, but you can actually assume that after a quarter of an hour everyone will have left the building.
So is the fire protection in Germany too strict?
The fire protection is unbalanced in Germany. I don't mean to say that it is too strict, just too unbalanced. In the past, this was not implemented in such a way that much more had to be done. Smoke alarms are such a small-scale measure. Much more should be done in preventing fires early, detecting fires early, and warning people. For this very complex structural fire protection, you should go down with the requirements. As a result, the buildings can be built more efficiently and more quickly. The frequency and susceptibility of buildings to errors should also not be so high.
But how is that then? The fire protection in industry and in large buildings is relatively high. On average, people spend more time at home, for example, in private houses. The fire protection is lower there. How it can be replaced?
The fire protection is often confused with labor protection. The labor protection enjoyed by employees is governed by labor law. This in turn applies nationwide. This contrasts with the fire protection requirements and has quite higher requirements. In some cases, there are different and higher requirements of the labor protection than those actually included in the structural fire protection. This is a big problem, because you often have to look in the other legal area for any fire protection regulations. They are then also not necessarily to be found immediately. Therefore, it happens in the individual areas that the fire protection may be higher in the places where people are employed, of course. Generally, everything is initially determined by the building regulations. Buildings that have a higher risk also have a higher building class or special structures. As already mentioned, these are cinemas or theaters, shopping centers.
Of course, they have a high level of fire protection, because they are also very dangerous. There are a lot of people and very long distances. These are very large buildings where fire and smoke can spread very quickly and very widely. Of course, you need higher requirements than for a residential building. However, most fire deaths happen and at home and at night. That's right. The most dangerous thing you can do in terms of fire protection is to live in Berlin. The residential buildings in Berlin have pretty much the worst statistics. On the other hand, schools are very safe, so according to statistics. Nobody has ever died in a fire.
Why is it like that in Berlin?
I don't know what that has to do with. Of course, that can also be a statistical outlier, that's one thing. The buildings are old, of course, and there are also existing buildings. There are many shortcomings, mainly due to historical reasons. We always experience this when we deal with such buildings. Basement doors that are still from the last or penultimate century are a particular problem. They cannot withstand modern requirements. If a fire breaks out in the basement and there's a smoke in the entire stairwell, then it is bad, of course. It's also a little bit related to people's ages. If you look more closely at the statistics, you can see that fires primarily affect older people. This also applies to normal residential buildings.
We've just heard that each state has different fire safety requirements. There are also different requirements for fire protection across countries. How does our fire protection compare to other countries? Can you see that our requirements, which are relatively high, somehow have a positive effect?
In terms of requirements, I would say we are midrange. Other European countries have different requirements so it's sometimes difficult to compare. Of course, every country sees this topic with the building classes differently. Special structures are different in the individual countries, especially in the case of high-rise buildings. What I could say in general, based on my gut feeling, is that the higher are the requirements in the individual countries, the worse is the implementation. That is, so to speak, negative.
As I have already described in Germany. In Germany, we have medium requirements, at least to achieve a medium level of protection. I was in a hospital group for fire safety in hospitals. It was a European commission. I compared Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. We looked at buildings in the individual countries and you could already see a clear difference. There are very high requirements in Italy. Some of them have a fire resistance of up to 120 minutes. The implementation is so-so. Switzerland, on the other hand, has very moderate requirements, but they are really implemented very well. I think there is a need for action in the end.
There is this fire safety myth when looking at timber structures. When we make a campfire or light a stove at home, wood burns very quickly. But wood is also used to build. In terms of fire protection, however, timber shouldn't be that bad, why is that?
There are many prejudices that timber meets with when it comes to fire protection. The one thing that surely still spits in people's minds are the city fires from the Middle Ages. Everyone can imagine when a lot of cities burned down. That was pretty much every 100 years, you could say. In the World War II, extreme bombings caused heavy fires of timber in particular. This includes timber components, but above all, roofs. This ensured that really larger units were set on fire. The secret of how to deal with timber fire protection is that wood burns very predictably. This is exactly the example with the campfire. If I throw a large piece of wood in there, it won't burn at all.
For wood to burn, a so-called support fire is always required. The bombs in World War II caused the fire in wood continued to ignite and the temperatures rose. When wood is on fire, the charring can be calculated very well. That's what burns out. This means, I build with timber in such a way that there is a static core. You need it to ensure that the building doesn't collapse. That's why I put a sacrificial wood, so to say, on top of it. This then burns out in 30, 60, or 90 minutes without damaging the inner core. The rest of the timber, that is, the healthy wood in the middle, is still stable, although wood burns out on the outside in 90 minutes. It can be said that about a millimeter burns out in a minute.
How is that in comparison with the other construction methods? For example, if compared to steel structures, reinforced concrete structures, or masonry structures?
Well, these building materials don't have this predictability, of course. I always say they are stupid building materials. Concrete is a building material that has a high fire resistance. It's like a broad back that it just holds out. Then, when the fire comes, it becomes so strong that the structure simply collapses. At higher temperatures and with longer fire durations, concrete begins to break apart and shear off in a very uncontrolled manner. It is very difficult to calculate this situation. Steel is a structural component that basically says goodbye if there's a fire. It softens relatively quickly if it is not protected.
Then, it says goodbye and I have nothing to do with fire. This is not my thing. I return to my original shape and deform myself into something of a work of art. Timber is a smart building material that helps itself. It says, okay, the fire is coming, and I can calculate it. I can calculate exactly how long I can withstand.
From this topic of fire protection now to the topic of digital and innovative things. What do you think the future of construction looks like? Also in the area of fire protection or timber construction?
There are three interesting developments for me. One thing is clear – the sustainability. I think the construction industry as a whole has to step on the gas. The automotive industry has missed it, it is now difficult to catch up with the fact that it has to accelerate from 0 to 100 in the direction of electromobility. It is similar in construction. We slept through it over the years. We hoped that something would be achieved with more insulation, but at some point, that would no longer work. We have to deal with the gray energy, we have to deal with the CO2 consumption, that we already generate when constructing buildings. This is the only chance we can still achieve positive effects. The second thing that I also find an interesting development, is the technology. Now, there are very innovative minds that can use intelligent AI to detect the fire and extinguish at an early stage.
There are gradient technologies. There are two really bright minds. They want to combine the smoke alarm device with such a small extinguishing system. There's a camera in there. Using artificial intelligence, it can distinguish whether a candle is burning somewhere or whether something is actually burning somewhere that can develop into a large fire. Whenever I can intervene at this point, when a fire starts, then a ridiculously little extinguishing agent is required. So rich, you could say, if I spit on it. Then the fire is already over. The fire only becomes dangerous when it spreads and there are high temperatures. If I really make sure to recognize the fire early, then I have already gained a lot. We equip buildings to limit the fire. After it has already spread in an apartment of perhaps 150 square meters. I always compare that to that.
It would be like building our cars like tanks, but turning off the lights. Then everyone just drives into the intersection with his tank, and we build our houses in this way. Then we just have to see that the new technologies give us a chance. Unfortunately, due to the 16 different federal states that jointly operate this German institute for structural engineering, there is an extreme barrier to innovation in construction, of course. We'd all have to come to an agreement and so on, before we could do something like that. Another story is the construction bureaucracy.
In terms of building regulations, it would be high time to change the path that was taken back then. After the fire in Düsseldorf, the reaction was rather the opposite and more and more regulations were developed. But I think the way is less bureaucracy and more trust in engineers, more trust in architects, and better training of architects and engineers. A better examination of their results would also be good, but again, not by the authorities, but also by experts. Unfortunately, we have such a principle in fire protection in half of the federal states. It is called the four-eyes principle. That means, I develop a fire protection concept with my two eyes and a testing engineer for fire protection, the other two eyes, checks the whole thing. There are really two experts who can communicate with each other and are then on a common technical level. Of course, I don't experience that with building inspectors.
The employees cannot undergo any further training or deal with the subject of fire protection as intensively as we can. If all federal states would finally introduce this, the fire protection would also be improved in this way. I think the positive side of these findings from the Düsseldorf airport fire at the time was clear that we needed more regulations. On the other hand, it was also the introduction to the fire protection for experts. It also helped me at the time, that there were actually regulations for me as an architect specialized in fire protection. I was able to do something special there. I am an architect with advanced knowledge of fire protection.
If you had a wish how to change the construction industry, what would you do?
Well, what would I do? First, I would abolish all laws and start over again.
After you decided not to become a journalist, you started all over again. What advice would you give to young engineers and young professionals just starting out in their careers?
Specialization is a good idea. At that time, I was also an all-rounder architect, because I thought that if I offer everything, so to speak, and wrote everything down on the front of my doorbell, it would not be a good idea in the end. You get into the trouble of knowing nothing about everything. If you work as an architect, you should consider at an early stage, which building type is close to you and which are you interested in. Is it apartments, office buildings, theaters, airports? I should specialize there. Like I did, for example, on fire protection.
You can do that if you like. It's not as boring as it sounds. It is also important that an architect specialized in certain building structures works like a conductor. I can compare this architect with an architect who then leads this whole process like a kind of orchestra. He doesn't have to be the best violinist and he doesn't have to be the best trumpeter. But he has to listen once and not just say that he needs a violinist now, so he gets one from the nearest department store, but I've been listening to several violinists and choosing the one that fits my concert best. That’s the best firefighter who fits best into my project.
I also know what he can do and I challenge him. It is also important for us, as specialists, that we have someone who challenges us and says that we can be even better. What is especially important is the stakes we get. We specialists are not like sitting around and waiting every day. We don't start playing the violin ourselves, because we think a violin would fit nicely now. The conductor has to give in and then we feel it loose. This will make a great concert out of it.
Finally, we want to know what is your favorite building?
One building that I really appreciate is the former Gasag building in Berlin on the banks of the Landwehr Canal. I don't even know what it is called. I can't think of the architect either. This is really a great building. It is also the movement. In Berlin, you rarely drive up and downhill. It's all relatively flat. But this road has a few waves in it. Then, this building vibrates with these waves. It also has such a wave movement in it. The National Gallery, of course, which has now been spruced up, is also a fabulous building. Modern architecture is definitely fascinating, too. I can already see, that due to timber structures, we deal with more exciting buildings and architects. The buildings that we have looked after in terms of fire protection are fascinating. For example, I can name the so-called Walden 48 on the Landsberger Allee. It's a great building. On the city side, it has a moldy facade.
It is therefore a very urban building, but behind, it is a 100 percent timber structure. Another building is in Wedding on Lynarstrasse, which is directly from the urban railway. This also has a timber facade on the outside. Not every building in the city has to have a timber facade. But when I have a building as an eye-catcher, with a timber facade that is alive and well and simply stands out from the others, you notice that timber structures are great. If you look at the architecture, for example, and also the overall collaboration and teamwork on the construction site and in the planning, timber structures are a huge step forward. I'm really excited about that. In the past, as an architect, I actually had nothing to do with timber structures, but thanks to the fire protection and this occupation, I am an absolute timber engineer.
Absolutely, we are also of the opinion that there is still a lot of potential dormant in timber construction and that many more should dare to build and plan with timber.
Martina Summerer, M.Eng.
Marketing & Public Relations
Ms. Summerer is responsible for public relations and podcasts.
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Dlubal Podcast #033 | Is the fire protection in Germany too strict? feat. Reinhard Eberl-Pacan | www.dlubal.com
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