Every Twelve Days a Fire Happens in a Tunnel

  12. October 2016

There is no official statistics on fires in underground transportation facilities. Therefore, the International Fire Academy evaluates media reports of fire incidents in tunnels since the beginning of 2012. According to this evaluation, looking at only Switzerland, Austria and Germany at least 2.4 fires occur in railway or road tunnels per month.

The tunnel fire statistics of the International Fire Academy systematically registers all newspaper reports in German language on fires in European tunnels, that are indexed by the search engine Google. Additionally, news and reports provided by some fire services are added. The one-hundredth incident in a road tunnel recorded in this manner was a camper van fire in the Austrian Gleinalmtunnel on 4 August 2016. The International Fire Academy takes the opportunity of the one-hundredth incident to draw an interim result and to optimise the statistical recording.

Many tunnels = many incidents?

D

A

CH

D/A/CH

N

F

I

E

Tot.

Road tunnels

36

32

26

94

4

0

1

1

100

Railway tunnels

35

4

2

41

0

1

0

0

42

Total

71

36

28

135

4

1

1

1

142

Fires per month

1.3

0.6

0.5

2.4

0.1

2.5

The table differentiates the recorded incidents between road and railway tunnels, by countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, France, Italy, Spain) and the grouped countries Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Road tunnel incidents are spread roughly equal between the German-speaking countries (D, A and CH), operating an above average number of road tunnels.  

A clear trend is emerging in the statistics of the International Fire Academy concerning types of vehicles. Looking at the recorded 100 incidents in road tunnels 66 passenger cars, 30 lorries and a bus (which had been used as a mobile camper) were involved. This means, that passenger cars account for about two-thirds of road tunnel fires and large goods vehicles about for one-third of the fires.

The vast majority of registered railway incidents occurred in metro and light rail systems, a precise mapping to individual transportation companies was often difficult due to lack of accurate information. 17 of the 42 evaluated incidents were cable or control cabinet fires, causing only little damage, but mostly heavy smoke emissions. In these cases "explosive occurrence" were often reported. After a longer timespan of statistical observing, this could emerge as a hazard point: electrical fires in metro systems.

It has to be explicitly pointed out that in no way the statistics cover all events. In particular, only a few reports from France and Italy were available; the number of events is likely to be significantly higher. Therefore, the statistics of the International Fire Academy can only indicate how many fire incidents have occurred at least.

The purpose of this statistical monitoring is to gain a rough idea of ​​the incident frequency, as shown in the table. Considering all incidents, at least every twelve days a fire in a road or railway tunnel is registered in Europe.

Numerous fatalities, injured and often many hundred affected people

In the acquisition period (from 1.1.2012 to 04.08.2016) in Germany, Austria and Switzerland seven people lost their lives in road tunnel fires. There is no reliable data about the particular causes of death. So we do not know whether the people have died from the consequences of an accident or as a result of smoke inhalation and incineration. A differentiation of the death rates by country had no statistical significance due to the small amount of fatal incidents.

All recorded incidents add up to 13 fatalities and 147 injured, but even here there is no reliable information at hand about cases of death or nature and degree of the injuries.

Not covered by the statistics of the International Fire Academy is the bus accident in the Sierre-Tunnel in Valais (CH), which killed 28 people and injured 24 in 2012 on 13 March. Because our statistic only records fire incidents.

Absolutely no information is available on how many people were saved from fires by the fire services. From newspaper reports it can be concluded that at least at 13 fires in road tunnels each more than 100 people were directly affected. At each of the eight fires in either railway tunnels or subway stations more than 1000 people were directly affected, according to reports.

Often burning vehicles are driven out of the tunnel

In 14 of the 100 recorded fires in road tunnels, the drivers drove their burning vehicle either out of the tunnel or came to a halt just before entering the tunnel, thereby preventing thermal damage, but nevertheless smoke still entered the tunnel. It can be assumed, that the information campaigns of the tunnel carriers and the fire services take a positive effect.

Reports of striking misbehaviour by tunnel users were not documented, apart from one curiosity: on 16 May 2015 in the Austrian Bindermichel tunnel, a young man under the influence of drugs performed as a fire-breather, for wich he used gasoline from the spare canister of his car.

Conclusions and forecast

Because the statistics of the International Fire Academy so far is mainly based on media reports and therefore an unknown number of incidents are not recorded, great caution must be exercised when interpreting the data. What we can conclude from the data is:

  • Compared to other fires, fires in tunnels are relatively rare; on the other hand 142 recorded incidents in 56 months show that the effort of tunnel incident preparation is justified.
  • The high number of deaths and injuries indicate the hazardousness of tunnel fires, even if it remains unclear what share the fire has regarding the causes of the injuries.
  • Despite the inaccuracy of media reports: it must be assumed that fires in tunnels affect hundreds or thousands of people directly; this justifies the usually high contingent of emergency personnel dispatched right from the start.
  • The number of reports of incidents in light rail systems indicates a potential hazard point.

Continuing the statistics, the International Fire Academy will firstly claim additional information and secondly try to better distinguish between railway systems (for example categories railway tunnels on the open track and subway systems). New to the statistic will be the rubric of fires in underground parking.

Statements about increase and decrease of fires in tunnels can not be concluded from the statistics of the International Fire Academy. Therefore, formalised reporting procedures (for example reporting to the statistics leading fire service authority) would be necessary to ensure that all incidents are recorded.

How fire services can support the statistic

The tunnel fire statistics of the International Fire Academy is so far not suitable to make statements about operation actions. For instance, the information on the number of attending firefighters in the media reports is often inaccurate because for example observers do not perceive the deployed staff at the portal on the other side of the tunnel. Reliable information on incident operations is provided only by incident reports and reports of eyewitnesses by those involved.Therefore, the International Fire Academy asks all fire services operating in tunnels to permanently provide their reports to be able to evaluate these statistically over time. If this is not possible, a short incident message would certainly be helpful, it should contain at least:

  • Date
  • Time
  • State, state (province, Canton), City
  • Type and name of the tunnel or the UTS
  • Type of vehicle / combustible material concerned 
  • A brief description of the incident
  • Number of affected / injured / fatalities

Very useful would be additional information on the number of forces deployed, the people rescued and special operational measures.

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