Making sure a fire alarm is working okay at a property is bread-and-butter works needed by anyone managing properties. That’s in cases where they exist within properties of course, as not all properties have them.
But where they do, the immediate thing that will spring to mind is to use a good fire alarm company to do what they need to do to service and repair this.
In reality though there can be more to it, with the buck stopping with the person responsible for this, whether an ultimate landlord owner for shared areas, a property manager through their appointment, or tenant for their own area.
The king-pin that determines what you really need is a Fire Risk Assessment by a responsible person, who will assess what technical fire-alarm systems need to work in your scenario. It can also get more involved with building regulations and specialist Fire Strategies for newer builds and redevelopments, and you will need to ensure that any actual fire alarm maintenance contractor is suitably qualified and knowledgeable.
Saying that, here are 10 broad-brush points that you need to bear in mind within a role of overseeing things. This will help you identify issues to consider without getting tunnel-visioned on just a few pointers:
1. The Alternatives
A fire alarm system typically has a fire alarm panel near a main entrance point which controls how a loud siren goes off when smoke or fire is detected in the building. The idea is to warn people that there is an issue, for them to then begin to leaving the property.
It’s therefore one of other possible measures that may be in place as well as or in instead of a bog-standard fire alarm system. There may be just simple smoke detectors that go off when they sense smoke, or a smoke-ventilation system, which is popular in communal areas of modern apartment blocks where the detected-smoke simply helps open a window to let smoke out rather than an alarm going off.
So dig around at the property, and within documentation, and alongside specialists to see what you have and what you may need going forward and which may be able to change around the unique circumstances. So a small shop unit may need a full singing-and-dancing fire alarm system for a risky business like a takeaway with hot ovens, but if it was a charity shop they may not even need an operational alarm under their own Fire Risk Assessment if they had a system where staff alerted anyone in the shop to evacuate the property.
2. The Devices Log
You need a log of what ‘devices’ are linked to the main fire alarm system. This is separate to the main manufacturers’ details and spec which will be most useful to the contractor who maintains it, but more a simple list of what’s there in a fire log book or folder on site.
These include sounders which are the pieces that make the loud sound.
Then when it comes to how the fire alarm first detects a problem, these can take two forms. Firstly, detectors - often on the ceilings which will detect any smoke and trigger the system, or secondly call points which are small red boxes near main exit routes which people can manually press to set the system off if they see a problem before it activates a detector.
Ideally get these all numbered and identified on a plan of the premises for each floor, to help visualize and make sense of the core devices list.
3. The Zones & Information
The engine-room of the fire-alarm system at the property is the fire alarm panel, which is a box often near a main exit area. All the devices and cables in the building-wide system come back to here to coordinate and display everything, although you can have additional repeater panels elsewhere in the property for more complicated scenarios.
The alarm can subdivide the property into different sections or zones, which becomes more relevant for larger and more complex properties. So when the alarm goes off, it can sense which detector or call-point in the building was triggered and so identify that particular zone as being the potential source of the fire.
This can help emergency services and others immediately home-in on where the problem is, and what needs checking.
Once correctly set-up, you often need a list and/or plan of these zones right next to the fire alarm panel, particularly important where general references like ‘Zone 1’ comes up on the activated panel to help diagnose where in the building it is.
This list will also be needed in the fire log book and any other essential areas.
Other important information next to the panel include contact details for any monitoring company or contractor, and any access arrangements for the panel or other areas.
4. The Remote Connection
Most fire alarms simply go off and do nothing else. They’re basically a loud siren to just let people know there is a problem, and leave it for people to then vacate the property and take appropriate action.
They don’t automatically alert, say, the fire brigade to attend the property, a common misunderstanding from people.
This means that for those who hear the alarm, they still need to do something as well as leave the property, often just calling 999 if there is a real fire, to alert the fire brigade who will need confirmation from someone on site that this is a real fire and not a false alarm.
One way to help though is with a remote connection to the fire alarm panel. So through a phone or internet line, or even wireless connection, the ‘signal’ from the alarm can alert an external monitoring company who in turn can call people on site to check if there is a real fire, or instruct a keyholding service to quickly attend site and check.
A really important principle, but there can be a cost of several hundreds of pounds to first set up this connection and then have this 24/7 monitoring facility in the background. Even when it is in action, for often larger and multi-occupied properties, there then needs to be a clear procedure in place to clearly state what happens when the fire alarm does go off, often all part of the Fire Evacuation Procedure.
The monitoring company need people to call on site and other back-up options, which may need to be to mobile numbers if people are already beginning to walk out of the building during an evacuation.
And if there is a false alarm, then only the authorised people can stop the alarm sounding, as they need to be 100% sure that there is no fire before allowing people back in a building. If people are waiting outside for, say, half an hour on a wet winter’s morning for someone to arrive, then this needs the case in order for the correct person to check everything even though people on site may suspect it is only a false alarm.
This can be a real challenge where there is no independent person already on site in a multi-let property where someone needs to make a call on the whole process.
5. The Interlink
When you have properties that are multi-let or with lots of different sections, then you need to consider not only how individual fire alarm systems operate in each isolated area, but how different sections of this are interlinked together.
So an old storage area may become more utilised and now require additional detectors to ensure cover, particularly with any potential-fire sources like electrical equipment.
With multi-occupied properties you may have completely separate fire alarms within each area, but they really need to ‘talk’ to each other. So if an alarm is activated in one ground floor shop unit, it sends a signal to a different fire alarm system in the above offices let to another tenant to sound their alarm as well to ensure they vacate as soon as possible.
These are often completely different systems, but there needs to be a link in between them either both ways or one way. Sometimes however they may not be required, particularly if they have good ‘compartmentalisation’ which means that the building is sealed enough to maybe allow 30 to 60 minutes before a fire from one area spreads to another.
This is a specialist area where you will need a suitable Fire Risk Assessor to determine the outcome, therefore something to bring to everyone’s attention, and if a connection is achieved then clarity on who is responsible for this and who pays the cost.
6. The Main Service
Whatever actual fire-alarm kit you have, it will need properly checking and maintaining by a qualified contractor, often every 6 months but this can vary. They need to get into the detail, and look at other devices in addition to the main fire alarm panel.
This then needs suitably documenting, often with a completed Certificate or record, and any necessary action points and repairs completed.
7. The Regular Testing
The system will probably need more regularly testing as well, which will literally be activating the fire alarm to make sure it works and sounds okay.
This is often every week, knows as the ‘bell testing’ or ‘weekly fire alarm test’. At set times, it will be deliberately activated for a few seconds.
If there are multiple call-points, which are the red boxes near key exit points that people would press to activate, then each of these will need testing in turn via a special plastic key that can be placed in them, and the actual numbered call-point noted in the final bell-testing log that people sign to.
These often need ‘rotating’ in that a different call-point is tested every week and eventually you go back to test the first one again. However more complicated properties may require different or additional ones testing to cover all the right zones.
On a practical note, this can be costly to arrange for a special fire-alarm contractor to attend site every week just for this 5-minute job. You may also need more than one person, one to activate the call-point, and the other at the panel to silence it.
You could therefore utilise other people regularly on site like cleaners to do this, although they will need clear instructions on how to do so and checking by the overall fire alarm contractor. They may also need access arrangements into all parts of the property where a call point needs testing.
8. The Procedures
Okay, the fire alarm is set-up and working fine, and there’s steps in place for correctly managing it going forward. You also hopefully have the details of the fire-alarm maintenance documented as well.
Which leaves the actual procedures, and how everyone needs to be informed how to effectively use the system and react to it going off, primarily through a Fire Evacuation Procedure.
This details what people basically need to do, from basic good housekeeping to reduce the risk of any fire first beginning, to how to raise the alarm if smoke or fire is detected, to how to alert the emergency services and congregate outside the property when it does go off.
This will probably be more involved than you think, with often the smallest of issues needing clarity. So, down to how to silence any false alarms, and dealing with other occupiers.
Other documentation includes bigger-picture Fire Strategies which may be Stay Put for a lot of residential properties meaning that people need to stay in their property and call emergency services rather than evacuate.
Then, also make sure that everyone’s own procedures match and make sense. So each occupier’s own fire procedures needs to take account of the general one for the property, and vice versa.
Once completed, appropriate procedures need issuing to everyone, and the correct Fire Action Notices installed near exit points which are a very short-and-sweat summary of the Fire Evacuation Procedures in a few lines that people in the building can actually read.
9. The Fire Drill
For some scenarios you may need to arrange a dummy-run of an evacuation of the property. So for communal commercial property with a full evacuation policy, these are often every 6 months and allow everyone to leave the property as the alarm goes off, then congregate at the Fire Assembly Points outside.
In addition to confirming if these are first required, the right people will then need to organise these. So strictly speaking each occupier needs to have their own procedures and fire drill, although in a multi-let property a managing agent for communal areas can help arrange this to happen, but with everyone accounting for their own individual people and procedures.
10. The Fire Marshalls
Linked to the above Fire Evacuation Procedures and then Fire-Drill of a dummy run, a Fire Marshall may be required for each group of people. They’re the nominated individual, usually with bright-coloured jackets to place on, who take change and direct people out of the properties and account for them afterwards.
Each occupier needs to arrange their own, with any communal on-site representative then just co-ordinating.
You may also have multiple Fire Marshalls per occupier, with appropriate training and induction being needed for each of them.
Tying the Whole Fire Alarm Process Together
So when looking into your fire-alarm situation, make sure you take a step back and include all aspects of it.
The principle is that it needs to work for everyone in order to warn them of any potential fires and ensure that they can safely vacate the property.
In addition to the literal fire-alarm maintenance, all these other issues right from the documentation and procedures, to other fire-detection systems, all need to work together for the greater good.
Therefore these pointers in tandem with the latest Fire Risk Assessment can help steer things in the right direction.
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