The updated Approved Document B of the Building Regulations is a move in the right direction which will bring clarity and improved fire safety to high-rise residential buildings.
There is no doubt that the Grenfell Tower fire has changed the way the UK fire-safety industry operates forever. For years following Grenfell, the appropriate course of action on fire safety in high-rise residential buildings was unclear. However, some much-needed clarity has now been obtained with the recent publication in June of the amended Approved Document B (Fire Safety) of the Building Regulations which includes new mandatory requirements for evacuation planning.
The combustible panels used as cladding at Grenfell were instrumental in the rapid spread of the fire and the amended Part B addresses this issue with a ban on the highest-risk Metal Composite Material panels for all new buildings. Metal Composite Material panels with unmodified polyethylene core, known as MCM PE, have been banned on new buildings of any height. This takes into account evidence heard at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on the serious fire-safety risks associated with this material and also reflects research carried out by the government.
The government had previously imposed a ban on the use of combustible materials in and on the external walls of new blocks of flats over 18m, in England – as well as hospitals, student accommodation and dormitories in boarding schools. The amended Part B legislation sees this ban extended to new hotels, hostels and boarding houses of this height.
Secure information boxes
As part of an evacuation plan and a fire-risk assessment, it is vital to know if a building has a ‘stay put’ policy, as well as other important building and resident information. A Secure Information Box will help with this process as it will supply fire and rescue service access to important details about a building in the event of a fire. It will also help professionals make a rapid assessment of the particular features of the building that they need to be aware of.
All buildings over 11m in height must now have a secure information box with Part B stating that the Secure Information Box should meet all of the following conditions: sized to accommodate all necessary information; easily located and identified by firefighters; secured to resist unauthorised access but readily accessible by firefighters; protected from the weather.
Sections 2 to 4 of the Code of Practice for the Provision of Premises Information Boxes in Residential Buildings published by the Fire Industry Association (FIA) provide information on best practice when it comes to information boxes.
The Code of Practice states that it is imperative that appropriate care is taken to secure information boxes to prevent unauthorised access or vandalism. Relating to this issue, the Emergency Response Pack (ERP) includes sensitive personal information about people with mobility, cognitive and sensory impairments, and building systems which must be kept secure.
A nominated Responsible Person must ensure that the Secure Information Box manufacturer can demonstrate that the product meets all the security specification recommendations within the code of practice and that there are protocols and agreements in place with the relevant fire and rescue service for the chosen Secure Information Box and access system.
Evacuation alert systems
At Grenfell, the evacuation of the building was hindered by a number of decisions and features of the building itself so it is no surprise that evacuation procedures are such a key part of Part B.
The most significant amendment to Part B, when it comes to evacuation planning, is the mandatory requirement for new residential developments over 18m to incorporate an evacuation alert system. This update offers much-needed clarity for those involved in the design or construction of residential developments.
A modern evacuation alert system helps fire and rescue services inform residents of a change in evacuation strategy during an incident. This gives them an additional tool to use on the ground, alongside existing methods of evacuation, improving resident safety. To comply with the amended Part B, an evacuation alert system should be provided in accordance with the BS 8629:2019 Code of Practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems for use by fire and rescue services in England. (The BS 8629 Code of Practice applies to any height of building, not just those over 18m.)
The system recommended by BS 8629, for which Advanced and other companies have developed a bespoke solution, is relatively straightforward. It allows the fire services to control evacuation floor by floor according to the magnitude and location of the fire. The guidance states that the evacuation alert control system should be installed where a ‘stay put’ policy is in force, so that it can be used to facilitate a timely and ordered evacuation for all residents. (The Part B amendments give new clarity since it is now mandatory to have an evacuation alert system in all new high-rise buildings over 18m.) It must be standalone, with its only function being to assist fire and rescue services in the evacuation of the building.
It must also be completely independent of the fire system, and other building management systems and apparatus such as lifts, gas valves, air conditioning and smoke control systems, to ensure system integrity and reliability.
The BS 8629 standard also recommends that local fire and rescue services should play an active role in the operation and operational specification of every new system. This helps to guarantee it is fit for purpose, as well as ensuring that personnel are familiar with it in readiness for an emergency situation.
BS 8629 states that the evacuation system must include evacuation alert control and indicating equipment that can be operated by the fire and rescue services, along with audio and/or visual alarm devices in each apartment, providing clear evacuation signals to building occupants. Any compliant system must also be simple and intuitive so that it can provide straightforward support to fire and rescue services coordinating the evacuation of a high-rise residential building.
The UK-spec evacuation alert systems may appear simple, but this simplicity provides clarity. There is no graphics-rich touchscreen or LCD display, the evacuation alert control system instead employs a series of vertically mounted manual switches, mirroring each floor of the building. Each switch uses LED technology to indicate whether the evacuation zone is active and to notify a fault. While existing audio and visual devices are fully compatible with evacuation alert systems, the new BS 8629-compliant control panels are highly specialised items. At Advanced, our EvacGo evacuation alert system is designed as an easy way to meet BS 8629 and so it can offer peace of mind to those responsible for a building that they are compliant with building regulations. Advanced is currently one of a handful of manufacturers to offer an evacuation alert system housed within a box specially designed by Gerda Security to meet stringent anti-tamper standards.
It is important the evacuation alert system is housed in a secure enclosure so that it cannot be vandalised and meets the STS205: Issue 4 class BR2 or LPS 1175: issue 8 B3 standard so it is safe for the fire services to use. Access to an evacuation alert system should be via a patented key only – exclusive to the fire and rescue service and it is vital that the evacuation alert system is clearly marked ‘For Fire and Rescue Service Use Only’.
A fire will be well underway when an evacuation system is employed, so the integrity of any BS 8629-compliant evacuation system is a key factor in its design and specification. Critical cable infrastructure must be protected, and circuit isolators need to be installed at the entry and exit points to each zone, as well as prior to cable entry into each flat. Rules differ according to the height of the structure. In buildings with fewer than ten storeys, two simultaneous faults on a single circuit should not disable the evacuation devices on more than half the number of storeys with flats. In buildings with ten storeys or more, two simultaneous faults on an evacuation circuit should not disable the evacuation devices on more than a third of the number of storeys with flats. A fault on a single flat’s evacuation device should not be permitted to affect any other device elsewhere on the system.
Regular maintenance and testing are critical to ensure the readiness and reliability of the system. Full inspections should be undertaken every six months by a qualified engineer, and a yearly test must be completed on each sounder to verify its ability to function autonomously from the rest of the system.
Finally, power supplies for evacuation alert systems are essential and need to comply with BS EN 54-4 requirements. If mains power fails, standby batteries must back up the system for at least 72 hours and 30 mins while all evacuation alert zones remain active. If an onsite generator is present and someone is responsible for it, standby time can be reduced to 24 hours and 30 minutes.
Building Safety Regulator
The amended Part B forms part of a wider update to tighten Building Regulations and provides clearer fire-safety rules for the design and construction of residential developments, which it is essential to comply with. The HSE is named in the Building Safety Act as the new Building Safety Regulator in England and as such will enforce compliance of the Building Regulations. The Building Safety Act will place formal responsibilities on those involved in the design and construction of any buildings to ensure compliance with Building Regulations and will give the regulator greater powers to prosecute for non-compliance. It will be the duty of the people responsible for a building to put in place and maintain a golden thread of information, with their responsibility continuing for the life of the building.
So, what’s next for fire regulations? Although Part B gives new clarity, there is a further tranche of fire-safety measures being lined up. The Amended Part B is designed to meet recommendations from Phase One of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Currently the Part B requirement for an evacuation alert system only covers newly built high-rise residential buildings. However, since the Grenfell Tower Inquiry also recommends evacuation alert systems for high-rise residential buildings ‘already in existence’, further regulation is likely to follow.
For further information on the EvacGo Evacuation Alert System or to reserve a place on Advanced’s CPD ‘A guide to meeting BS 8629’, email EvacGo@advancedco.com
For more information, go to uk.advancedco.com