Making sure a property is correctly equipped to deal with fires is critical, and often there is involvement with things like fire alarms and procedures to make sure this is implemented correctly. It can unfortunately become very confusing and complicated, leaving people to bumble through what’s required, when in actual fact it is supposed to address critical issues and should boil down to common sense.
The bottom line is that if there is a fire at the property people need to be safe. People’s lives are more important than the building itself, so if it means the building burning down in order to save a life, then so be it.
In terms of how this is implemented, the focus is to first reduce the likelihood of any fires beginning, followed secondly by systems to make sure people are alerted and leave the building as soon and the fire contained as far as possible.
The Fire Liability & The Law
The nuts and bolts obligation for a property owner or whoever is responsible for the property and dealing with such fire precautions, is through the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in England and Wales, and The Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 for Scotland. This obliges a Responsible Person to assess a property and recommend measures through a Risk Assessment as to what needs doing.
This applies for all kinds of properties, whether residential or commercial, and places the onus on such a relevant person making a call on what’s needed, rather than others like the local Fire Authority under previous obligations. Usually these are external consultants with relevant accreditation and cover, and then continue to re-assess matters over time with new assessments.
If you go deeper, whether looking at how a property is first constructed or a large refurbishment completed, then there are other areas of compliance. This may be through Building Regulations, and may require unique reporting through, say, a Fire Strategy or Fire Engineer, and will become more complicated with scenarios such as large commercial properties, mixed-use developments, and specialised areas like HMOs with residential properties.
You therefore need to consider who is actually responsible for this obligation, which may be multiple ones for any one property. So an ultimate owner or landlord can be responsible for an original redevelopment and then any shared areas like a communal staircase, but then individual tenants for their own occupied areas. Even then, though, you may need to look close at the legislation and leases for each area to check how different parties are responsible for different aspects, and how one party must consider what another’s duty is.
So as an example, a landlord may simply pass all duties to a commercial business tenant through their lease if they fully occupy the whole property, whereas with a residential block they may still be responsible for a communal fire alarm system connecting to each area and communicating procedures, but each occupier would be responsible for their own areas and even battery smoke detectors.
Some Practical Pointers
A large aspect to such fire compliance is having the property correctly kitted-out to prevent and then contain any fire and damage as far as possible. These do vary not only according to the type and size of property, but also the nature of how it is used, and even over time as new obligations and technology come into play. Under new assessments you may need to look at alternative ways of, say, alerting people to a fire, or removing smoke from a property.
Therefore there is no standard tick-list that can be generally applied to all properties, despite there being good guidance and legal requirements for certain properties. What can be done though is a broad look at the sort of building fire prevention features that are available, to help when you’re looking at a property and considering future assessments and compliance.
Therefore, here are 5 of the main ones you will see, not exhaustive but enough to provide a glimpse of those involved:
1. Fire Alarms
A classic feature in most properties, where the idea is to sound an alarm when fire or smoke is detected so that people can leave the property as soon as possible. In its basic form, this is a battery powered smoke or heat detector in, say, a residential property, something that became a requirement in privately-let properties recently.
On the other extreme it can be a communal fire alarm with connections into separate tenanted areas with extra devices like call points for people to manually trigger if they see a fire, sounders to make the sound, and detectors to pick up the smoke or heat.
Once you know which system you need, make sure it is routinely checked and maintained through the right people, whether a tenant quickly testing a battery smoke detector for example every month, or a fire alarm contractor completing 6 monthly service of a communal panel.
Also, you need to make sure that you know what is supposed to happen when it does go off, down to people knowing where to go, and whether it needs remote monitoring to an external company to deal with. They don’t automatically go through to the fire brigade, who can only attend once they have definite confirmation of there being a real fire, therefore someone on or offsite needs to alerted and first to then inform emergency services.
2. Smoke Vents
These are when certain windows and openings allow smoke to safely leave an area, primarily to stop choking the area and allowing people to safely vacate. On a similar basis to fire alarms, they can be activated manually from buttons on walls, or automatically through smoke detectors triggering them open.
You tend to find them as an alternative to fire alarms in some properties such as new-build residential apartments, and you need to be ready to deal with any false alarms that leave the openings wide open.
3. Fire Extinguishers
A classic feature often found on walls or floors, for people to use and blow water onto a fire to fight and control the fire. One misconception on these though is that it is just water that comes out, when in actual fact you can have other substances like foam and CO2 for other materials and electrical equipment.
A second misconception is just how and when you should use them, which often leaves training being needed and in actual fact in more recent times their lack of use because they can be more of a problem than a help when people are not using them correctly. They are meant to only be a last resort to fight a fire if access to vacate is so poor, and not the first point of call.
4. Fire Doors
In short, these are important doors in a building that need to be shut and safely secured in order to stop fire and smoke fighting through for at least 30 minutes, the idea being that any fire is controlled into an area and not allowed to spread and cause more harm to properties and people.
They tend to be on electrical cupboards and important rooms and along corridors, with the need to first make sure they are correctly installed with the right fire-door sign and a self-closers if needed to close by default, and secondly then checked every 6 months or so to ensure they are still operating okay. Also, on a more regular housekeeping basis, to ensure they are not wedged open - a classic issue.
On a more advanced level, you can come across things like fire shutters and curtains which although are designed for other points of access, provide the same principle of preventing fire and smoke into an area, and ways to force a door closed on the trigger of a fire alarm.
5. Fire Stopping
In a similar vein to fire doors, the idea is to basically plug any gaps and stop fire and smoke going through a building fast.
A classic area is in riser cupboards where holes have been made for wires and pipes to go through, but with these gaps needing to be filled to stop fire and smoke getting through.
6. Risers, Hydrants, & Hoses
This begins getting technical with talk of Fire Hydrants and Dry and Wet Risers, but they boil down to ways in which emergency services can quickly gain access to areas of a property with provision of water and hose pipes.
These tend to be for larger and more complex properties, with any features then needing regular maintenance and inspections.
You tend to find these in areas like basement car parks or larger industrial properties, where you need a quick way to get water into an area to stop any fire becoming worse. Therefore, pipes are in the ceiling area with detectors that trigger water to be sprayed when fire and smoke are detected, with an effective water supply and equipment needing regular testing as they can go for many years without ever needing actual activation.
8. Evacuation ‘Aids’
These focus on ways to help less abled people vacate a property, such as those with disabilities or who are pregnant.
An Evacuation Chair can help move people out, whereas a Refuse Area can deliberately keep people in an enclosed and safe area in a property until emergency services attend site.
9. Emergency lighting
This is verging more of on an electrical issue, but does relate to fire as well. If there was a power cut to the property, which could happen in a fire, then normal lights will not work. Emergency lights therefore need to exist for key access routes out the property, and automatically come on through separate battery power so that people can safely vacate the property.
These then require regular monthly flick tests and an annual discharge test in order to make sure they are always good-to-go in the unlikely event of a power failure to the property.
These can be more equipment based like for example an illuminated fire emergency box over an extra door that requires power, although a lot are just normal signage placed around the property.
Directional signs are typical to guide people out of the property, but can include others like Fire Assembly points, Fire Action Notices saying what happens, and technical Fire Alarm Zones near the fire alarm.
The Fire Procedures
Getting correct equipment in a property is one thing, but getting clear procedures on how people should react is another. This is where good property management expertise comes into play, knowing how to implement things.
The Fire Evacuation Procedure is the bedrock document that states how people deal with an alarm going off or when they see a potential fire. Although most commercial property will have an Evacuation Policy in that you vacate the property, in residential properties you tend to find a Stay Put Policy where people should deliberately stay in their property and wait for the fire services to attend.
You need to clearly state what should happen, and then any measures to take including where to congregate, who calls 999, and how to deal with any false alarms.
You also tend to find other ancillary training and procedures for separate aspects of fire safety, for example an overview of Fire Safety Training, more specific Fire Marshall Training for those allocated to safely lead people away from the property and account for them, through to Fire Extinguisher Training for effectively using.
Turning up the Heat
Fire safety is one of those areas that hopefully you will never need to use but of course needs full focus beforehand to make sure it can and does work if ever required.
Therefore, make sure a correct and current assessment is completed in line with legislation, and the right facilities at the property then routinely checked and documented.
Finally, make sure everyone is in the know on how this all works and happens, including involvement with other parties like the emergency services, contractors, and property managers.