How to improve tunnel fire safety

Tunnels are a critical part of modern infrastructure, serving as conduits for transportation, communication, and utility distribution. While tunnels provide undeniable convenience, they also come with their own set of safety challenges, especially when it comes to fire incidents. The potential for disaster in a confined space like a tunnel underscores the importance of prioritising tunnel fire safety


Here, we highlight where risks of fire are significantly high, identify what causes tunnel fires, and outline the fire safety measures to prevent them, including installing fire suppression systems for tunnelling.


Tunnel fire safety risks

Tunnels are highly insulated spaces allowing the possibility for more rapid-fire growth. Mobile plant are a common cause of fire in construction and tunnelling, due to large amounts of hydraulic oil and diesel coupled with superheated components, such as turbochargers and exhaust manifolds.


In tunnel construction, confined spaces and reduced exit routes can lead to catastrophic consequences in the event of a fire. One of the main concerns of a fire underground is the generation of highly toxic gases and combustion products.


Tunnel fire protection measures

Ensuring tunnel fire safety is a multidimensional task that demands a combination of robust engineering, effective emergency management, and continuous improvement efforts. Some common tunnel fire protection measures include:


Robust ventilation systems

Adequate ventilation is crucial in a tunnel environment, as it helps prevent the buildup of toxic gases, smoke, and heat in the event of a fire. Efficient ventilation systems should be designed and maintained to quickly remove these hazardous elements, ensuring a clear evacuation path and improved visibility for emergency responders. Additionally, the ventilation should be able to provide fresh air for both evacuation and firefighting efforts.


Early detection and alarm systems

Early detection of a fire is paramount for initiating swift responses. Implementing advanced fire detection systems that utilise both thermal and smoke sensors can provide early warnings, enabling tunnel operators to take necessary actions promptly. Automated alarm systems can alert tunnel personnel and nearby emergency services, allowing them to respond effectively.


Fire suppression systems

Installing effective fire suppression systems within tunnels is a critical step in preventing the escalation of fire incidents. Water-based sprinkler systems, foam suppression systems, and even specialised gas-based suppression systems can be tailored to the specific requirements of tunnel environments. These systems are designed to extinguish fires quickly, minimising damage and the potential for life-threatening situations.


At Ardent, we understand the consequences of equipment such as excavators and dump trucks being at standstill. We work with construction and tunnelling companies to ensure that their production-critical equipment is protected against the risk of fire 24/7, to the guidance recommended in Clause 13 of BS 6164:2019. Whatever the scale of your operations, we install, service and maintain reliable fire suppression systems to any fleet size.


Regular maintenance and inspection

Regular maintenance and inspection of all safety systems is essential to ensure their reliability in case of an emergency. Tunnel operators should conduct routine checks on ventilation systems, fire detection and alarm systems, and fire suppression equipment to identify and address any potential issues proactively. Timely maintenance can prevent system failures and ensure all safety measures are functioning as intended.


Emergency communication and evacuation plans

An effective communication and evacuation plan is vital for guiding commuters to safety during a tunnel fire. Clearly marked emergency exits, strategically placed emergency lighting, and easily understandable evacuation signage can make a significant difference in chaotic situations. Regular drills and public awareness campaigns can familiarise tunnel users with evacuation procedures, reducing panic and enhancing overall safety.


Staff training and firefighter access

Equipping responsible personnel with thorough training and tools to handle tunnel fires is crucial. Training should focus on the unique challenges posed by tunnel environments, such as restricted access, limited visibility, and potential ventilation-related complications. Additionally, tunnels should be designed with adequate access points for firefighters, enabling them to reach the affected area swiftly and efficiently.


Integration of technological innovations

Advancements in technology continue to offer new opportunities for enhancing tunnel fire protection. Video surveillance systems, thermal imaging cameras, and real-time data monitoring can provide valuable insights to both operators and responders. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can analyse data to predict potential fire risks and suggest preventive measures.

By implementing a comprehensive tunnel fire protection approach that encompasses ventilation, detection, suppression, communication, and response, tunnel operators can create a safer environment for all users. As technology evolves, the potential to further refine tunnel fire protection measures grows, offering even more effective ways to protect lives and critical infrastructure. 


To learn more about fire safety measures, and how Ardent helps clients prevent fires, read our case studies, sign up to our newsletter, or get in touch for more information.