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In recent years there has been a perceived change in the advice given to landlords and building owners on the design, specification and installation of fire-detection systems.

Life-safety legislation in HMOs – putting guidance into practice

There is a growing debate around fire safety within Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Richard Wharram, Regional Sales Manager at Hochiki Europe, discusses the different legislation that covers this type of building, and outlines how standards and guidance can be put into practice.

Looking out at the skylines of cities across the UK, it is clear to see that high-rise properties are becoming increasingly commonplace. In fact, new data from AMA Research confirms that the UK has seen a stark increase in construction and completion of high-rise buildings, with around 70% of these buildings designed primarily for residential use.

Yet, recent tragic events have shined a new light on the safety aspects of these residential buildings, also referred to as Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs).

An HMO is defined as a residential property where ‘common areas’, ranging from bathrooms and kitchens to stairwells and landings, exist. Often, these properties are divided-up into self-contained living quarters and, as such, the buildings are shared by more than one household.

Reducing false alarms

Like all buildings, HMOs must be designed and built in a way that ensures the safety of the property and its occupants. When it comes to life-safety systems, one of the key issues is reducing the risk of false alarms. As well as costing UK taxpayers in excess of £1 billion every year, false alarms can also prompt panic among building occupants, and put their safety at risk.

There are a number of reasons why false alarms may occur, such as smoke produced by burning food, steam and dust. However, according to Government figures, nearly two thirds of them are due to apparatus issues. In many cases, false alarms are caused by the improper maintenance or installation of equipment, as even the most high-spec fire-safety technology can malfunction if neglected or fitted incorrectly.

Choosing the right products

Product selection is another concern, and recently, there has been a perceived change in the advice given regarding the design, specification and installation of life-safety technology within housing schemes, student accommodation and sheltered-housing projects.

This focuses on whether building owners should install BS 5839 Part 1 (Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. Code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of systems in non-domestic premises) devices in the whole HMO building, or just in communal areas, with BS 5839 Part 6 (Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. Code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises) devices in the actual living accommodation.

There is an industry perception that having self-contained Part 6 domestic detection devices and connected audio/visual devices in individual flats or rooms, helps reduce the risk of a total building evacuation in the event of a non-life-threatening incident. However, there are also potential safety implications in certain scenarios when these types of devices are selected over their Part 1 counterparts.

The difference is that the occupants aware of the incident can operate a ‘silence local alarm button’ to mute the sounders and reduce panic amongst other building users. Provided the smoke has not moved to the communal area, detectors will resume normal operation and there will be no prompt for full building evacuation as the smoke dissipates. However, while this approach does limit unnecessary evacuation of residents, it can leave devices open to tampering. This could lead to potentially life-threatening consequences in the event of a real incident.

It is important to note that there are other factors that increase the reliability of Part 1 devices. In accordance with BS 5839 Part 1, all devices networked on a fire-detection system must be wired using fire-rated cable to ensure the system remains connected despite any intense heat. This differs when a system features both Part 1 and Part 6 devices, as domestic and mains-powered fire-detection devices do not have to be cabled in this way. If a fire were to occur, there is a risk that the cables might perish and cut the power from devices, putting the safety of building occupants at risk. A Part 1 system throughout will also be monitored 24/7 from the fire control panel within the communal area, reporting tampering, device removal or device failure to the building management or fire maintenance team.

Across the UK, there will no doubt be multiple properties networked using a combination of Part 1 and Part 6 devices. These systems offer a perfectly acceptable and cost-effective solution to life safety in HMOs. That said, the use of a full Part 1 system can, in some circumstances such as burnt toast, reduce the risk of false alarms, and their consequences.

Moving forward, it could be argued that building owners and those responsible for the installation of life-safety solutions should opt for full Part 1 systems to future-proof buildings should industry standards become more stringent. With these kinds of measures, we can look to enhance life safety across the built environment.

Hochiki Europe has recently published a whitepaper to examine current British standards and guidance on life safety with Part 1 and Part 6 devices.

Scenario 1:

A full Part 1 system throughout

If a Part 1 system with no cause and effects (one out all out) is installed throughout the building, the presence of smoke within a flat will trigger the smoke element of a sensor, and in turn activate the sounders to evacuate the whole building. The system would then need to be silenced and reset via the control panel.

Scenario 2:

A full Part 1 system throughout with the sensors within flats programmed to operate similarly to a Part 6 system

If Part 1 devices are installed, the presence of smoke will trigger the smoke element of sensors within the self-contained flat. This will then activate the sounders positioned in the flat, and would not alert other building occupants to the incident. After four minutes, the local control panel will re-check the sensor that was originally activated and, if the smoke has cleared, the sounders will stop.

If the smoke within the flat triggers a second device within the four minutes, the system could be programmed to do one of two things. It could either activate the sounders to notify building users to evacuate the building or, if a stay-put policy is in place, send a message using a 24-hour monitoring device to call out the fire-and-rescue service.

Scenario 3:

A combination of Part 1 and Part 6 devices

Should a combination of Part 1 and Part 6 devices be installed and the same scenario occur, the outcome is somewhat different. The Part 6 devices positioned in the self-contained flat will, as before, trigger the smoke element of detectors and a local alarm will sound. However, if the smoke moves into the communal hall way the smoke sensors would detect this and activate the building sounders, at which point the escape route has potentially been compromised.

For more information, go to www.hochikieurope.com/whitepaper

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Richard Wharram is Regional Sales Manager at Hochiki Europe.