Lessons from Valley Parade – how big business can prevent similar disasters

Two days before Bradford City were to tear down their wooden grandstand, history changed forever. Four minutes after a cigarette was dropped under the stand, a fire erupted that killed 56 people and seriously injured 265 more.

The 1984/85 football season came to a close with Bradford City closing out as champions of England’s Third Division. The final match of the season was due to be a damp squib by all accounts, the title was wrapped up and the final game was a technicality – a chance to celebrate the Bantam’s success that season with the fans and players in excellent spirits. Captain Peter Jackson was awarded with the first piece of silverware the club has won in 56 years before the game against Lincoln City.

As expected the game was a quiet affair, with a conservative scoreline of 0-0 as the game approached half-time.

What occurred five minutes before the end of the first half though, no one expected. Tragedy struck, as fire ripped through the antiquated wooden grandstand killing 56 and injuring 265 others.

Caused by a dropped lit cigarette falling through the stand onto a build-up of litter. In less than four minutes, the entire stand was engulfed in flames. With the fire brigade unable to control the fire due to the enormous size of the blaze. The antiquated wooden stand with bituminous roofing-felt created a perfect recipe for a flashpoint of fire.

38 years since the disaster at Valley Parade, we’re reminded by the fire at Luton Airport how easily and quickly a fire can take hold of a public space and threaten thousands of people.

In the years following, the Popplewell Inquiry uncovered heart wrenching truths that the fire could have been avoided. The Popplewell Inquiry found that the club had been warned about the fire risk that the rubbish accumulating under the stand had posed. The stand had already been condemned, and the demolition teams were due to start work two days later. One letter from the council said the problems “should be rectified as soon as possible”; a second ominously stated: “A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk.”
The outcome of the inquiry led to the introduction of new legislation to improve safety at the UK’s football grounds. Among the main outcomes of the inquiry were the banning of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds, the immediate closure of other wooden stands deemed unsafe and the banning of smoking in other wooden stands.

38 years after the disaster, we know more about fire safety and prevention thanks to investigations into tragic events like this. Thanks for the investigation, sports stadia are now safer than ever before. Having learnt from the disaster. Here are a few ways big businesses can benefit from the learnings after disasters like this, to ensure they remain fire safe;

Fire Risk Assessments

An absolute ‘must -have‘ in modern businesses. A legal requirement in 2023, but sadly only a relatively recent development. This due-diligence can highlight potential risk, and provide an easy fix for businesses to ensure their premises are safe from fire. A fire risk assessment would have told managers at Valley Parade that locking fire doors is a huge problem, and not having fire extinguishers available likewise. Factors overlooked by day-to-day managers of the facility.

Wireless Fire Alarms

Few football clubs can build billion pound stadiums from the ground up like Tottenham Hotspurs. Many more in the football league have to commit renovations in stages, doing upgrades when the season finishes for two months in the summer. Valley Parade was in desperate need of renovation, and although the works were scheduled for when the season finished in two days, it didn’t stop the disaster occurring. Wireless fire alarms need no hard wiring, and can be installed on existing infrastructure in 1/8th of the time wired systems would need. This solution are beneficial to all sports organisation that have to remain open for extended periods, and need to make fire safety precautions quickly and with minimal disruption.

Many businesses in the UK have to contend with opening hours, and they don’t want to disturb or inconvenience customers by closing or committing renovations during business hours. A Wireless Fire Alarm System can be added to the building quickly, discretely and above all with no need for part or total closure during installation.
While it won’t stop a fire, it can alert managers in seconds of a fire, and exactly where it is. Giving authorities the vital time they need to evacuate the facility and fight the fire at its source.

P50 Fire Extinguishers

Fighting the fire upon first detecting it is key to controlling the situation. There are several different types of fire from wood, to electrical and gas. The P50 fire extinguisher from Britannia replaces all four types of fire extinguisher. Meaning you can have just one type of extinguisher for all areas to fight all types of fire.

The P50 fire extinguisher needs little to no training, so virtually anyone can pick it up and start using it. These seconds are crucial to keep a fire under control. At the Valley Parade fire, everyone from players, managers and fans themselves were doing their bit to save lives- attempting to fight the fire is one way that people can help.

The only solution to fire is a comprehensive training schedule for staff, clearly located and usable fire exits and modern early fire detection and alert systems. Sadly, Valley Parade did not have those. We remember the 56 victims of the fire 38 years on. Only by learning the lessons from Valley Parade can we prevent something like this happening again.

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