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Time to act

Time to act

Nearly three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire the learnings from the event are now starting to emerge as the reports uncover layers of failings that must result in an overhaul of the UK’s approach to fire safety in buildings. 



The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report, published in October last year, scrutinised the response of the fire service to the tragic fire of June 2017. Obviously, Phase 1 is just the beginning and subsequent reports are expected to drill down further into all of the circumstances and the responsibilities of everyone involved in the design of buildings, project management of works and decisions over materials. 


Responding to the Phase 1 report, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) said it had previously raised concerns that there has been no dedicated research into emergency evacuations of high-rise buildings in the unusual circumstances that a building’s fire protection measures fail catastrophically, as happened at Grenfell. This is particularly relevant to buildings with a single staircase with the associated difficulties of evacuating an entire block.  


Chair of the NFCC, Roy Wilsher, also stressed the need to strengthen the whole underpinning building regulations system. “UK Fire and Rescue Services will take every opportunity to reflect on the lessons identified in the report and turn these into lessons learned, and make any changes necessary to strengthen the fire and rescue service we provide to the public. However, fire and rescue services cannot be expected to fully mitigate fires that break out in buildings that are not built or maintained in accordance with the building regulations, or where the regulations themselves are inadequate.


“Significant action must be taken to improve the building and construction industry, regulations, and address the broken system identified by Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review. The failure of those responsible for these buildings to step up to their obligations is putting residents and firefighters at risk.”


Having accepted all of the recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt's Independent review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, the government has announced it will establish a new Building Safety Regulator to oversee the design and management of buildings. This Regulator will have a strong focus on ensuring the new regime for higher-risk buildings is enforced effectively and robustly. It will also have the power to apply criminal sanctions to building owners who flout the new rules.


Scrutiny is unlikely to stop with the building owners. Access solutions specialist, ASSA ABLOY Opening Solutions UK & Ireland is offering advice to fire safety professionals on the importance of properly certified hardware and training following warnings from experts in fire safety law that they may now be deemed responsible for any breaches. ASSA ABLOY says that, increasingly, building owners and occupiers are pushing liability for fire safety breaches to those that have been consulted and have assessed and advised on the appropriate fire safety solutions for a site. Should these products fail to perform as expected, then those professionals will be held accountable and could potentially even be prosecuted, ASSA ABLOY warns.


Post Grenfell the emphasis has been on high-rise buildings, but in November 2019, the fire in a student accommodation block in Bolton led to calls for the ban relating to the use of combustible materials for buildings to be based on risk, not just height. The Cube student block was only five storeys high and the ban applied to buildings over 18 metres or six storeys high. The Fire Protection Association highlighted a number of key issues following this ‘near miss’ event, including the use of high-pressure laminate (HPL) and timber cladding components, which, it said, clearly played a large part in the fire’s progress, possibly in association with the insulation and cavity membranes present.

Commenting on the Bolton fire, Jonathan O’Neill, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association said: “We cannot be housing people in buildings made from combustible materials. This issue needs to be addressed urgently; it simply cannot wait. We urge this issue to be a priority for the new government.”



Alex Cother, Director of Drax (UK), tells Pulse that the application of new technologies are already helping to improve the reliability, performance and audit of many of the fire safety systems used within Trust buildings. 


“Fire detection and alarm systems have improved dramatically over the past decade with detection techniques that are much better at discriminating between genuine and unwanted alarms. The scope and range of detection techniques together with intelligent control equipment now means that it is possible to provide much better information to fire safety managers so that they can make informed decisions, especially when fire events occur. 


“More recently, ‘Cloud’ based tools have been applied to fire safety management affording the Estates team with dashboards that can stimulate targeting of resources, reduce response times and provide opportunities to reduce cost. With the emerging availability of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, specialists are now applying low cost sensing devices to fire safety devices such as fire doors, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. These devices can produce data such as device location, current status, on/off, full/empty, open/closed, temperature etc sending real time data back to wireless hubs. When used with barcoding and/or device location data, a full picture of the organisations assets can be built up.”


Fire safety designed in

We are about to see the largest programme of hospital refurbishments and new-builds for many years. It's a perfect opportunity to put fire safety at the heart of the design process.


"To quote Winston Churchill - ‘To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us’," Alex continues. 


"For decades fire safety has suffered as a result of poor design and cost cutting. The proposed investment in healthcare buildings is long overdue, in my opinion, having seen many shocking examples of inadequate measures on older healthcare estates and sometimes in new builds. As professionals, we have a fantastic opportunity to get fire safety elevated to a priority.


"This will require engagement by all stakeholders – the client, architect, fire safety consultant, risk assessor, consultant and specifier. The resulting specification needs to be clear and unambiguous as these ambiguities have been exploited especially when the time comes to review the likely costs and savings sought. As many fire safety measures are unseen or hidden in the fabric of the building, there may be a temptation to cut corners or use a lower specification product.


"There are minimum performance standards published for almost all of the materials required and the stakeholder team should not allow themselves to be swayed or bullied into allowing anything less."


Dealing with flammable substances

The last thing you want when there is a fire is the presence of flammable substances - but they are going to be found on most - if not all - healthcare premises. "Whatever they are used for, the storage and use of such goods can pose a serious hazard unless basic safety principles are followed," says Alex.

Drax recommends appropriate guidance and training for staff should:


• Improve awareness of the hazards of various types of flammable substance used 

• Provide knowledge of the basic standards which apply to safe handling and storage of flammable substances

• Develop and introduce procedures to prevent accidents

• Protect staff, contractors, patients and visitors from the hazards of flammable substances

• Provide more detailed information when required

• Maintain a register of flammable substances in use, their location and any relevant COSHH datasheets.


Healthcare ‘do’s and don’ts’

Speaking at HEFMA’s Eastern Branch seminar on fire, Martin Bainbridge, Fire Safety Consultant, MB Fire Risk explained that the likelihood of an out-of-control hospital fire increases if any point here applies:


• Lack of suitable and sufficient Fire Risk Assessments

• Hospitals clad with combustible materials

• Unclear fire procedures, evacuation strategy and permits to work

• Poorly trained staff, volunteers and regular visitors

• Weak fire safety management before, during and after fire events

• Occupants in buildings lacking means to escape - particularly pertinent for mental health facilities

• Lack of proven Emergency Fire Evacuation Plans

• Non-compliant testing/maintenance of fire safety systems.


Martin outlined a series of learning opportunities for healthcare premises post Grenfell:


• Ensure suitable and sufficient Fire Risk Assessments with Evacuation Plans or Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans

• Develop a fire stopping policy and processes

• Have suitable fire prevention, fire resilience and fire detection systems - Category L1

• Practice communications and decision making when under life-threatening pressure

• Provide training and prepare for out-of-control fires at all levels of responsibility

• Be ready to evacuate all – including bed and bariatric patients – via escape routes away from fire crews

• Plan for interagency working during all stages of a live crisis, shelter and after care.


“We’ve got to up our game and be prepared 24/7. We’ve got to raise the bar,” Martin concludes.



See the printed version or the full online version of this issue for more features on fire safety, including managing fire risks associated with flat roofs and choosing fire detection and alarm systems.