Yesterday’s tragic fire in Grenfell Tower in London has cost the lives of at least 17 people, with dozens hospitalized and many unaccounted for. The Fire Brigade expects to find more fatalities in the severely burned-out building.

This is of course first and foremost a human tragedy for all involved. Grenfell Tower was mainly a residential building, 27 stories high. The fire started in the dead of night, probably on the 4th floor, and traveled up the building very fast. It may have spread along the outside surface, although details remain to be examined. What is known is that there were no sprinklers installed and few or no functional fire alarms and smoke detectors. There was only one internal staircase in the center of the structure, i.e. no secondary fire escape routes. In other words, most people may have had little or no warning, being asleep when the fire began, and the construction may have trapped people on upper floors.

In terms of travel security, the focus is often on crime, conflict, or terrorism – risks which draw a lot of media attention but which constitute a very small concern for most travelers who avoid conflict zones.

Less attention is often given to those more mundane risks which are actually more likely to affect travelers. These include traffic accidents, accidents in general, illness and – indeed – fire. We will argue that the risk from fire can be handled more effectively than the danger of more exotic events like terrorist attacks.

Travel advice

Note that this fire occurred in London. While the cause of the fire and the tragic spread of the flames have yet to be determined, there are certainly areas in the world with less fire safety regulation and less preventive- or indeed first-responder capacity.

Make sure your choice of accommodation has smoke detectors and fire alarms installed. This is very important. If you travel to places where such is not the norm, bring your own smoke detector with you (travel versions are available), and make sure it works before leaving home. Bring a flashlight as well. Also, there should be at least two separate evacuation routes (excluding elevators!) from your room to different exits at the ground floor level. Make sure these escape routes are not blocked or locked as they too often are. Familiarize yourself with the floorplan and the position of the evacuation routes – you may need to use them in the dark or they may be smoke-filled.

If you are staying at a high-rise building, book a room no higher than the 6th floor so that fire engine ladders can reach you. Should you become trapped in your room, make your presence known at the window (unless the outside surface is on fire) and via telephone, and try to prevent smoke from entering the room using wet towels and similar simple resources as are available.

Remember that fire travels upwards fast, sideways slowly and downwards very slowly. Remember also that smoke is what incapacitates and kills most victims. Smoke inhalation is very dangerous and gases may be invisible and taste/odorless (such as the deadly CO gas). Remember also that smoke is often flammable. If you need to open doors during an escape you should check doors for heat before opening – a very hot surface may indicate the route is blocked and opening such a door may trigger an explosion (adding oxygen causing a gaseous explosion or “backdraft”).

You should make sure your travel and health insurance covers medical evacuation and repatriation. Burn injuries are complex and require specialist treatment which may not be available in every country.