This article was published in the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA) magazine, June 2021. ARMA only publish technical, non-sales-focused articles which educate their members on important issues which affect them.
How to implement new fire safety measures for high-rise buildings with NFCC guidance and governmental relief tips.
Fire safety measures for buildings over 18m using insulation or cladding that are not of limited flammability per BS 8414. Changing evacuation policies and the risk combustible exterior elements bring to purpose-built blocks of flats. There is a divergence of solution between regulatory bodies on what solutions for fire safety are best. This article helps provide an answer based on evidence from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).
Following a risk assessment, which all purpose-built block flats receive in the wake of the 2017 cladding scandal, we often see the stay-put evacuation policy’s suspension due to inadequate building fire safety. Currently, this means implementing a simultaneous evacuation policy along with Waking Watch Fire Wardens 24 hours a day on every floor. This solution can often leave leaseholders being taken advantage of by private waking watch companies who can afford to charge a premium rate as their service is mandatory. Leaseholders will find themselves forced to pay this on top of already increasing insurance premiums and cladding removal bills. Furthermore, they may have difficulty selling their home because mortgage lenders have stopped lending money to buyers until they can prove the building is safe with an EWS 1 form.
Simultaneous evacuation means in the event of a fire in block flats, all parts of the building are evacuated at one time. This policy replaces any previous guidance. A Stay-put policy can only be relied upon where dangerous cladding is removed, and adequate fire separation measures are in place. i.e., fire-resisting doors, walls, floors, ceilings.
The move to a simultaneous evacuation policy is mandatory if a buildings’ exterior facades and internal partition materials are not compliant with fire safety regulations. A block manager’s goal is to spend as short a time in a simultaneous evacuation policy as possible. This policy causes added entrance restrictions to the Fire and Rescue Service, along with other problems. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) states simultaneous evacuation 1.4.” is an impediment to access… delaying firefighting and rescue activity… detrimental to the equality of disabled people”. Therefore, it is paramount to amend building defects to return to the stay-put policy permanently.
Many block flats do not have a common fire alarm system; they rely upon the building’s general fire precautions and the individual apartments’ fire doors, smoke ventilation, and building structure. Under the stay-put system, the individual’s safest place is to stay within their flat. Without a common fire alarm system, the NFCC (1.8.) states residents “in many cases, may not even be aware of a fire elsewhere in the building.” Furthermore, (1.9.) points out that flats contain ” smoke (and sometimes heat) alarms within each flat to alert the residents of a fire in that flat only. There is generally no common fire alarm system.”
Until structural rectifications are made, the 4.14. “NFCC strongly recommends that where a change to a simultaneous evacuation is deemed appropriate and will be required for medium to long periods of time, that a temporary common fire alarm system is installed. This is because a temporary common alarm, when designed, installed and maintained appropriately, is a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection.”
The Waking Watch Scandal is still prevalent in 2021; leader of the UK Cladding Action Group Ritu Saha said, “residents in the 57 flats in her building had paid in excess of a staggering £500,000 on waking watches since November 2017, at least £11,000, per month.” The government and private waking watch companies have been exploiting owners and leaseholders for over three years now. A common fire alarm system is the cheapest option for this problem. The government has announced a new £30 million fund to pay for the costs of installing an alarm system in buildings with unsafe cladding. Common Alarms systems will enable costly Waking Watch measures to be replaced in buildings waiting to have dangerous cladding removed. Leaseholders can benefit from subsidised funding from the government for installing these alarms. The introduction of the common alarm system and call points will cost the (leaseholder) in the case highlighted by Ritu Saha (under £4000 per month), a massive improvement on the costs as mentioned above.
Why Waking Watch Wardens and Fire Alarm Systems in tandem is the best option
The question remains: does a disabled or vulnerable person fit into a simultaneous evacuation policy even with a common fire alarm system?
Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEP) for vulnerable persons must be re-considered where evacuation policies change. The wishes of a vulnerable person in their method of evacuation must be considered diligently. In a simultaneous evacuation policy, this becomes problematic to the point of being impossible for the FRS. A Waking Watch Fire Warden can be in place as assurance PEEP plans executed with full compliance. Utilising lifts for evacuation is generally prohibited and “subject to an adequate risk assessment” (Mike Sopp, Croner-i). Tower block buildings often do not have fire-safe lifts which can compartmentalise a fire. Mike Sopp quotes BD 2466 Guidance which states, “potential exposure to fire gases while waiting for a lift, escalator availability, reliability, and failure modes”. These problems, plus the negotiation of stairways, make the escape process for a disabled person very problematic. These factors make the need for fire marshals even more critical. Without it, owners and leaseholders run the risk of leaving the lives of disabled and vulnerable people behind.
Usually, a tenant is allocated as the responsible person (RP) to liaise with the fire department and execute a procedure if a fire were to happen. This solution is flawed in three ways; can we depend on a civilian to perform fire drills for a volatile building? Secondly, if the RP were to become a casualty themselves, this confuses the situation and creates added Fire Rescue Service (FRS complications as there is no active RP present. And finally, the RP could be easily caught up in personal circumstances, holidays, work commitments etc.
How to choose a solution, things to watch out for
The £3.5 billion of funds to remove unsafe cladding consists of a 5-point plan. The government will pay for the removal of dangerous cladding on buildings over 18 metres. Also, there is the provision of a loan scheme for leaseholders in buildings between 11 and 18 metres high, where leaseholders will pay back no more than £50 per month.
Gov.UK states the Waking Watch relief fund is eligible for any private and social sector buildings; however, the application window has already closed as of the 14th of March 2021. However, Greater London applicants benefit from a longer window of application closing at midnight on the 30th of April. It is important to note a massive £16.1 out of £30 million has been set aside solely for Greater London. The Secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Robert Jenrick holds £8 million of this fund for private and social buildings outside the top 8 metropolitan areas. These dates and funds are essential to note as regardless of what borough you are from, there is money here to assist leaseholders that have been left indigent.
The common fire alarm system and the waking watch fire wardens both come with drawbacks. In the latest Fire Safety Matters Magazine, Ken Bullock (Business Development Manager for Emergency Systems at Advanced) states how a fire alarm system’s ability to “detect fire with a high degree of accuracy is considerably superior to the capabilities of even the most highly trained Waking Watch staff.” Proving the common fire alarm system to be an effective solution overall; however particular buildings with poor escape strategies for vulnerable persons should seek to complement their alarm system with at least one waking watch warden.
In addition, there are many added benefits of having a waking watch fire warden. Paula Coster, Associate Member CEIHF, makes the following points in an article for Worksafe UK (Nationwide Health and Safety and Assessments company); a fire warden has many benefits: checking serviceability of fire alarms, common fire alarms, fire doors, fire exits, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, maintaining records and general elimination of risk hazards. A fire warden can raise the alarm and take all flat members via a roll call in a fire. Fire wardens can then use this to liaise with the FRS and begin taking subsequent firefighting action such as shutting fire doors and utilising fire extinguishers only if it is safe to do so.
We believe and support in alignment with the NFCC, Worksafe and FSM that the most ethical and cost-effective solution is a common fire alarm system along with at least one waking watch fire warden. Everyone has had significant money taken out of their pockets, with little sight of reform. This guided solution to mitigate costs without forfeiting fire safety (instead improving it) is the most efficient and cost-effective. Key points emphasise the safest simultaneous evacuation policy personnel and equipment until your building is BS 8414 secure and can return to a stay-put evacuation policy. Furthermore, the £3.5 billion cladding fund will take decades of work before the UK has removed unsafe cladding from all purpose-built flats. There must be better financial relief for waking watch and common fire alarm systems until we reach this point.