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15 MAR. 2018

Fire drill

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, Anthony Taylor and Richard Edwards offer a detailed rundown of the roles and responsibilities for ensuring safety.

After the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower, fire safety has become a matter of major interest to surveyors, with many having personal obligations in this regard. With respect to life safety, it should also be remembered that the duty of care to occupiers is more stringent when it relates to residential accommodation.

Reformed responsibility

Before 2006, buildings such as hotels, boarding houses, factories, offices, shops and railway premises were required to have an inspection by the local fire brigade, and were issued a certificate before being allowed to operate.

This system was replaced with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in England and Wales, with similar legislation enacted in Scotland and Northern Ireland; this passed responsibilities for fire safety management on to owners and employers as duty-holders.

Operational management procedures for fire safety should include a fire strategy, fire manual, fire logbook, emergency arrangements such as plans for evacuation or invacuation – that is, keeping people indoors out of harm’s way – and, explicitly, fire risk assessments the actual titles and content of each of these may vary depending on who has developed them, and documents are commonly separate as they have different objectives and tend not to be considered together. However, in combination, they should ensure appropriate fire safety.

On completion of a development, the plans and details of installed fire safety arrangements must be passed to the person responsible for ongoing fire safety management of the building, who is referred to as the “responsible person” or “person in control”.

Section 38 of the Building Regulations 2010 requires the person carrying out the work to provide this information no later than the date of completion or the date of occupation, whichever is earlier. If a premises is being developed or refurbished and has been designed and constructed or altered using an advanced or fire safety engineering approach in line with BS 9999, BS 9991 or BS7974, then a fire strategy is needed. The fire strategy is required as part of the building control process to demonstrate how the designer will meet the fire safety criteria of the building regulations or relevant technical standards where they are not using the “general approach” set out in the regulations. The strategy will inform fire services, building control bodies and occupiers how the proposals will affect the design, and ensure that suitable fire safety measures are in place.

Key elements

With respect to life safety, there are two key elements for fire safety management.

  • All the fire safety measures should be kept in good working order.
  • In the event of a fire, the planned actions will enable all occupants to reach a place of safety in good time.

Unfortunately, experience has shown that many original strategy documents or those required by the building regulations are either missing or have become out of date. It is also fairly common to find that the actual construction differs from the planned, agreed design. In such circumstances, it is not unknown for the original fire strategy document to remain unchanged, where it exists at all.

Engineered premises – that is, those that have not used a general approach – are legally required to have a fire strategy to comply with the building regulations. However, we recommend the development of a current fire strategy document in all cases where one does not already exist: this will ensure fire safety arrangements are clear.

Engineered premises are legally required to have a fire strategy to comply with the building regulations.

Historic issues

There are a number of historic issues that could still affect the current integrity of a building’s safety and these can include the following:

  • refurbishments or small works carried out without consulting the fire strategy or relevant guidance may have occurred any time since the building was constructed
  • removal of asbestos without the fire protection measures being replaced
  • lack of effective, or lack of replacement of, fire-stopping through compartmentation in walls, ceilings or floors, often as a result of alterations, including service installations
  • installation of gas and other utilities that may have changed the fire loading
  • changes to fire doors or exit routes
  • changes in occupation, including volume of personnel and usage or conversion from commercial to residential
  • removal of fire hose reels, risers, sprinklers or other suppression systems
  • changes made to fire detection systems and alarms, including any that may have influenced the envisioned evacuation strategy
  • works on small retail units below blocks
  • inappropriate cladding
  • lack of full comprehension by occupants or the responsible person ofthe fire safety arrangements, whether these are installed measures or written plans, and how these need to work in conjunction to be effective.

There is the potential for a range of parties to contribute to or hinder the safety of a building over its lifecycle. The competence of all these organisations, and of the individuals carrying out the works, must be sufficient for them to understand the potential effect their work could have on fire safety.

While there is an abundance of excellent advice on these matters, much of the language used can be confusing, and many occupiers may not realise their responsibility in law or where to obtain the information they should have to hand.

Compartmentation

Much of the success in restricting fire growth in high-rise blocks over the past few years has been because of the fire compartmentation designed into the building on construction. This has also led to the development of the “stay put” policy, as maintained at Grenfell Tower, where certain occupants of the burning dwelling evacuate, closing the door behind them, while others remain protected by compartmentation until the fire brigade can extinguish the blaze or carry out a rescue under controlled conditions.

This, of course, depends on the integrity of fire compartmentation and other safety measures – as originally conceived or later improved – remaining intact and protecting residents as designed. These in turn rely on a good fire safety management system and a competent standard of work. Bear in mind there is more risk to life in residential accommodation, not least because residents could be asleep, and may include children, the infirm, the ill, and pets.

Commercial premises, while also at risk from fire, are less of a risk to life because occupiers will be active and each employer should have undertaken a fire risk assessment and shared this with other occupiers.

In order to understand the actual, current status of basic passive fire protection measures built into a property, it is necessary to review all the existing fire safety arrangements, with the knowledge of related safety design documentation; this review will include assessment of the current integrity of any compartmentation, including fire doors and fire-stopping.

The compartmentation of buildings is essential in preventing the spread of fire. Suitably competent fire risk assessors should carry out a full survey of the building, including the integrity of the compartments, in line with appropriate standards and guidance. They should check for all aspects of fire breaks including walls, wall coverings, insulation, voids, ceilings, floor coverings and risers.

This will probably require an intrusive survey by appropriately competent personnel as many penetrations of compartments will be hidden from obvious view. They should also review whether the building is clad, how any cladding is affixed and the material used.

Fire doors and associated safe exit routes should be inspected, with inspection including operational tests such as closing time and the force needed to shut doors.

There should also be a visual check of all components, including the presence of self-closers, intumescent strips and letter plates, fire hinges, and cold smoke seals, to ensure these all contribute to the door set’s integrity.

In order to understand what active systems are in place, it is advisable to audit the plant and equipment that contributes to fire safety, as well as those mechanical and electrical items that could compromise it.

The exercise should review the planned preventative maintenance schedules to establish that they are maintained in accordance with manufacturers’ requirements or with a standard set of requirements such as SFG20 codes.

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to review the ownership of, and responsibility for, assets in accommodation units; for more information on this, see RICS health and safety for residential property managers first edition guidance note.

Fire strategy document

A fire strategy document should be developed if one does not exist, or updated if it does already. Guidance can be taken from PAS 911: 2007 Fire strategies – guidance and framework in putting such a document together.

The document must be prepared by a suitably competent fire engineer; a register of competent persons is available from the Institute of Fire Safety Managers.

This should be supported by the following documents:

  • a fire manual recording all the fire-related assets and instructions for servicing, maintaining and testing them
  • a fire logbook recording how all the service, maintenance and test arrangements have been implemented
  • emergency response planning, which gives details of how the building ought to be evacuated
  • incident response procedures and accountabilities to protect and minimise the impact of unplanned events, such as flooding, incursion by protestors, fire or bomb threats.

Once all the documents have been written and assembled by a suitably competent person and there is appropriate assurance that these accurately reflect the requirements and intent of each party, the basis for fire safety arrangements are in place.

Fire risk assessment

The final part of assuring that fire safety is properly managed in a building is the fire risk assessment. This requires every employer or responsible person – that is, the duty-holders – to ensure a risk assessment is carried out by a suitably competent person.

It also means duty-holders have to cooperate and coordinate with one another to ensure that the assessments and emergency arrangements are complementary. The more complex and higher-risk the building, then the higher the level of competence that is required of the assessor.

Risk will be affected by the height of the building, its usage, the occupants and whether it is new or old, or perhaps an historic building. Competent advice will also be required to help determine who is the appropriate person to undertake the risk assessments.

There is currently no regulation to define how often a fire risk assessment is carried out, but it is now recommended that high-risk buildings are assessed at least every year, with other buildings every five years. An annual review should be undertaken in all cases, particularly when there have been alterations to a building or any other changes that could affect the risk of fire or escape.

There may be a number of risk assessments for a single commercial premises, with one from each tenant in their role as the employer as well as one for the common parts. However, where an employer has fewer than five staff, there is no legal requirement to have a written fire risk assessment.

A fire risk assessment may, depending on the condition of the accommodation, be appropriate for the accommodation areas of rented flats as well, if there is reason to suspect serious risk to residents in the event of a fire. This might be because of the age of the block or suspicion of widespread, unauthorised material alterations. This type of fire risk assessment will not be possible for flats on long leaseholds without consent and appointment, however.

There is also a need to ensure that all parties are properly trained and understand their roles in regard to the various documents and procedures outlined, as well as a need to undertake emergency evacuation practices.

Summary

It is hoped that this article has explained how the complex matter of understanding, setting up and managing fire safety can be effectively and systematically put in place. please contact the authors if you require any more information.

Anthony Taylor is a health and safety director at GVA and Richard Edwards is Business Development Director at Alcumus Group

This article was first published in RICS Building Surveying Journal (Mar/Apr 2018)