Archive for the ‘Fire safety’ Category

Conventional fire detection and alarm products in premises housing multiple occupants – HMO’s

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Premises which combine multiple occupants with sleeping risk are widely acknowledged as requiring particular attention when designing and specifying a fire detection system. The legal definition of a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) is a complex one, but HMOs include:

–  A building or part of a building occupied by more than one household which shares certain amenities such as a bathroom or kitchen
–  A converted building occupied by more than one household which is partly converted into self-contained flats
–  A building which is made up entirely of self-contained flats that do not meet the 1991 Building Regulation, and where more than one third of the flats are occupied under short-term tenancies.

Such buildings might include residential accommodation for essential workers like nurses, sheltered housing complexes, lodging houses, student accommodation, holiday self-catering apartments, hotels and bed & breakfast premises.

Calls to action
A grim reminder of the consequences of fire has recently been delivered during the inquest into the three deaths in the 2007 fire at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay. The coroner warned of the risk of further deaths unless there is Government support for hotels and guest houses to invest in fire safety or to ensure compliance with the law.

The first review of the effectiveness in England of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 also widely acknowledged this issue. Broadly speaking, it concludes that fire and rescue services have welcomed the legislation while businesses understand and support the risk assessment principle – where they are aware of the Fire Safety Order’s (FSO) provisions.

This caveat is a crucial one. Only around 60 per cent of businesses are aware of the FSO, and that awareness is particularly low among businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Among this category are many small hotels, guest houses or bed & breakfast premises.

The fire industry and Government have acknowledged that smaller hospitality businesses need to be specifically targeted to get the fire safety message across. The Government, in association with the Chief Fire Officers Association, has produced a booklet called Do You Have Paying Guests? It offers advice to these businesses about the risk assessment procedure and provides a guide to their responsibilities under the FSO.

The hospitality sector itself has raised concerns that many smaller guest houses could go out of business because they cannot afford to upgrade their fire protection. It is therefore clear that, while the political will and public pressure exists to improve fire protection in guest house-type HMOs, there is a need for the fire industry to demonstrate that it can provide a reliable and economical solution.

Understanding HMOs

Unlike larger, more complex buildings, smaller hotels and hospitality premises are relatively simple to navigate and to exit. For example, there may be only one landing, a main staircase and an alternative emergency exit. Fire detection and alarm products for this type of premises, therefore, do not need high levels of sophistication, but they do need to be fit for purpose. It is also advantageous if they offer certain other benefits, such as quick installation and cost competitiveness.

Despite the fact that many HMOs are physically quite simple in layout, the nature of their business means that regulation can be complex. Licensing of HMOs of three storeys or more by the relevant local authority became mandatory as early as April 2006. The idea was to make the general standards of HMOs consistent across the country.

Specific to the fire detection requirements is BS5839, the British Standard for fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. The applicable part of the code will depend on the size of the building and the different areas within it. While BS5839 Part 6 is the main code of practice for the installation of fire detection systems within the individual accommodation units of an HMO, Part 1 may also be applicable, particularly in communal areas and larger premises.

BS5839 also divides fire alarm systems into a number of different categories for life protection. They are designated and defined slightly differently within Part 6 (LD systems) and Part 1 (L) systems. At the very least, BS5839 Part 6 recommends that all dwellings be protected to LD3, which means spaces forming part of the escape route within the dwelling, such as the hall, are covered. In newer dwellings or where the risk is high, due to the occupants being elderly or disabled for example, a higher category of LD2 or LD1 may be required. These categories demand more comprehensive cover of communal, living and sleeping areas.

False Alarms
False alarms are another major consideration when developing fire detection products for HMOs. Persistent false alarms can lead to costs for the building owner for inappropriate call-out of emergency services and serious inconvenience for occupants. In extreme cases, it could even lead to occupants ignoring a genuine fire alarm, with potentially fatal consequences.
The most common causes of unwanted alarms are usually a result of tenants’ activities, such as:

–  burnt toast or cooking fumes
–  steam from bathrooms and kitchens
–  aerosols, e.g. hairspray
–  candles
–   tobacco smoke
–   build-up of dust

Other sources of unwanted alarms cannot be attributed to tenant activities and include insects, high humidity, water ingress and other sources of smoke external to the property. Any fire system therefore needs to be able to minimise false alarm incidents while still retaining its ability to raise a genuine alarm.

Another consideration with HMOs is the sequence of events that follow an alarm being raised. In individual dwellings, it may be acceptable for an alarm to be raised immediately so that the family can evacuate straight away, but in an HMO this could cause chaos. It is therefore important to allow the occupants of individual dwellings in an HMO the means of silencing an alarm signal if the source can be dealt with locally (e.g. burning toast) before the entire building is alerted and evacuated.

Fire safety duties of social landlords

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

In the light of this summer’s tragedy at Lakanal House in London, the fire safety duties of social housing landlords have come under the spotlight. Susan Horridge and Gary Ekpenyoung examine the main legal requirements.

Since the tragic events on the 3 July 2009, in which six people died in a fire at Lakanal House, a block of flats in London, there has been increased focus on social landlords’ duties regarding fire safety.

It is thought that the fire was caused by a faulty television, believed to be at least ten years old, which had been left plugged in on the 9th floor. The fire subsequently spread to the 11th floor, killing three adults and three children. Questions were raised and investigations are ongoing as to how the fire was able to spread so quickly.

Following the fire, the head of housing delivery and homelessness at Communities and Local Government, Terrie Alafat, wrote to all local authorities warning them of the safety issues which would create a hazard in similar blocks. She noted that the hazard at Lakanal House related to the positioning of a timber staircase inside each two-level flat, which cut across the top of a communal corridor and as a result, created a potential breach of the fire resisting construction of the ceiling. This type of hazard could allow a fire in one flat to burn through the timber stair and spread into the ceiling void of the corridor. However, such a hazard may not be readily apparent from visual inspections. She also added that the need to take action was a “matter for [the Local Authority’s] judgment”. The Tenant Services Authority has sent a similar letter to all registered social landlords in England.

The main duties upon social landlords in relation to fire safety are covered by the Housing Act 2004 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. In addition, where a social landlord provides electrical equipment or fixtures and furnishings to its tenants, they should also consider the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 and the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1998.

Housing Act 2004
The Housing Act 2004 brought in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) which considers 29 categories of potential hazards, one of which is fire. Under the HHSRS, any residential premises should provide a safe and healthy environment for any potential occupier or visitor. A dwelling should therefore be designed, constructed and maintained with non-hazardous materials and should be free from unnecessary and avoidable hazards.

The HHSRS provides a means of assessing dwellings which reflects the risk from any hazard and allows a decision to be made, in those particular circumstances, as to whether that risk is acceptable. For the purposes of the HHSRS, the assessment is solely about the risks to health and safety. Any issues regarding feasibility, cost or the extent of any remedial action are irrelevant to this assessment.

The HHSRS Operating Guidance sets out how to make an assessment of the fire hazard presented by a particular dwelling and covers potential for harm from fire, causes, preventative measures and relevant matters affecting the likelihood and harm outcome.

Hazard bands have been devised which group ranges of scores, ranging from bands A to J, with band A being the most dangerous and J the safest. The band into which a dwelling falls in respect of the fire hazard can then be used by a landlord to decide whether action should be taken to reduce the hazard, and also to prioritise actions across a landlord’s property portfolio. The enforcing authority also considers this when making a decision as to whether any enforcement action should be taken in respect of the property.

Fire Safety Order 2005
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 introduced duties in relation to fire safety in the common areas of houses in multiple occupation, flats, maisonettes and sheltered accommodation, in which personal care is not provided. The duty is placed on the ‘responsible person’, i.e. the landlord or in certain cases, the managing agent, who is required to carry out a fire risk assessment and take specific action to minimise the risk of fire in the common parts. The responsible person should take general fire precautions to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of the people on the premises and in the immediate vicinity. Once the general fire precautions that are necessary have been identified and implemented, the responsible person must put in place a suitable system of maintenance and ensure that any procedures that have been adopted are implemented by competent persons.

Whilst the Order does not apply to individual flats, in practice the responsible person may need to take into account the entire premises, including to some extent, the individual units of accommodation themselves.

General fire precautions include: measures to reduce the risk of fire occurring; measures to reduce the spread of any fire through the premises; means of escape and their safe use at all times; firefighting; means of fire detection and warning; action to be taken in the event of fire; and mitigating the effects of fire.

Enforcement action which may be taken includes the service of either an alterations notice, enforcement notice or a prohibition notice. Failure to comply with any duty imposed by the Order, or the requirements of any enforcement action, is a criminal offence and carries a fine and possible imprisonment on conviction.

Under the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, landlords must ensure that the gas fittings and flues are maintained in a safe condition. Gas appliances should be serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If the instructions are not available, it is recommended that these are serviced annually. Landlords must also ensure that a gas safety check is carried out annually on each appliance/flue.

The Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 require that all electrical equipment supplied by a landlord is safe. There is no mandatory requirement for the equipment to undergo any safety testing, but the regulations require that any equipment supplied after 9 January 1995 shall be marked with the appropriate CE symbol. Suitable information or instruction booklets should also be provided.

If the landlord supplies furniture and furnishings in a property, they must meet the levels of fire resistance set out within the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1998. It is worth noting, however, that these regulations do not apply to carpets, curtains or duvets.

Conclusion
Social landlords are responsible for communal areas and as such, have to ensure that inspections and risk assessments comply with the HHSRS and Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, in addition to considering each of the regulations laid out in this article.

Whilst the duty only applies to the common parts, the entire premises, including the individual units, should also be considered. The risk assessments must be kept up to date and works carried out accordingly. In light of the fire at Lakanal House, social landlords may also need to look more closely at the construction of their properties, particularly in older dwellings, and consider any potential fire risks that may need to be addressed.

It is too early to say whether the local authority responsible for Lakanal House had complied with their duties. No doubt a thorough investigation will be undertaken and if they have breached their duties, liability and potential claims may follow.

Record £400,000 fine for retailer’s fire safety breaches

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

High street retailer New Look has been fined £400,000 and ordered to pay £136,052 in costs after pleading guilty to two breaches of fire safety legislation, following a serious fire at its Oxford Street store in London.

Thirty five fire engines and around 150 firefighters attended the fire on 26 April 2007, when around 450 people form the store and surrounding premises were evacuated. The first call to the fire service did not come until an office worker in an adjacent building took action, and the delay meant that the fire had already broken through the second floor windows when firefighters arrived. Despite the building’s fire alarm sounding, the alarm was reset on at least one occasion, said London Fire Brigade.

Crews remained on the scene for the next three days and a section of Oxford Street was closed to traffic and the public for two days. The cause of the fire was never established and the store was subsequently demolished.

One charge to which New Look pleaded guilty was for an inadequate fire risk assessment which was found to have a number of flaws, including no record of the appropriate procedures to be taken during a fire alarm. Another breach was insufficient staff training, which led to a delayed evacuation of the premises. This lack of training, said LFB, also led to staff evacuating around 150 people through the main entrance which was directly underneath the fire on the second floor.

Other alleged breaches taken into account included the absence of an interface between the swipe card system and the fire alarm panel which would have deactivated the doors. In addition, green emergency door release units were fitted on the wrong side of the basement doors.

Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, Councillor Brian Coleman, said: “Good business management includes taking responsibility for fire safety, knowing the law and acting on it. This conviction shows that large companies are not exempt from prosecution and that London Fire Brigade will take action when businesses do not take their fire safety responsibilities seriously. Failure to comply with the law can, as this case has shown, result in a substantial fine.”

Sentencing of New Look took place at Southwark Crown Court on 25 November 2009.

Fire safety: Landlords imprisoned for fire safety breaches

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Landlords imprisoned for fire safety breaches 17/06/2009

Two landlords of bedsit accommodation in north London have been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay £5000 costs each for breaching fire safety legislation. The prosecution followed a fire on 31 March 2007 at a house converted into bedsits on Hampden Road, London N8.

Michael de Havilland and Sally Fox of Muswell Hill were sentenced at Wood Green Crown Court on Friday 12 June, after previously pleading guilty to several breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. These included inadequate fire detection systems, a lack of proper fire doors for bedrooms or for the communal kitchen, no emergency lighting in the building’s stairway, a lack of firefighting equipment such as a fire extinguisher or fire blankets, and no fire risk assessment available for inspection.

A further inspection was arranged where an enforcement notice was issued, explaining that the breaches needed to be dealt with. But after further contact with the co-owners and further inspections over a number of months, inspecting officers found that no remedial work had been completed.

“This is our second prosecution resulting in a custodial sentence and again sends out a strong message to landlords and building owners,” said Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. “Our role is to keep Londoners safe, and where we see that you are not taking your legal fire safety responsibilities seriously, we will take action.”