Emergency evacuation systems have been a topic of conversation regarding High-Rise Residential Buildings (HRRBs) and high-risk buildings (HRBs) following the Grenfell Tower fire. Lewis Ramsay, Interim Chief Executive of BAFE and former Assistant Chief Officer for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, discusses this subject and the current situation regarding third-party certification.
Readers of UK Fire will already know that with the right fuel fire can be extremely volatile and sadly this was demonstrated on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire (14 June 2017). Due to the type of cladding used, the fire spread rapidly from the 4th floor to the 24th in just 36 minutes. At the time of the incident the Fire and Rescue Service followed procedure and a ‘stay put’ policy was instructed to residents who called emergency services on the night. This policy, however, is based on the understanding the building is appropriately designed, built and maintained to protect residents from fire (with all risk either removed or mitigated as best as possible). Unfortunately, we know this was not the case and due to the ‘stay put’ policy it became too late to save people who were trapped because of fire and smoke spread.
Earlier this year Robert Jenrick, Housing Secretary, announced an extra £3.5bn (on top of the original £1.6bn Building Safety Fund) to aid in the removal of combustible cladding. Whilst it is promising to see additional funds made available to aid in rectifying the issue, fire safety must be looked at from a much wider spectrum. This especially applies to the current built environment and what systems can be put in place to protect residents in an emergency. Multiple Trade Associations and Professional Bodies including the Association of Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) and the Fire Protection Association (FPA) also provided their valued opinions on this matter. Niall Rowan, ASFP, commented: ‘The ASFP believes that money should be made available to cover all identified defects and not just cladding. While there is some degree of discussion over whether the statutory guidance regarding cladding is clear or not, there is no such argument about the requirements of compartmentation that are included in Approved Document B and the national equivalents in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.’
He added: ‘We welcome the government’s five point plan to address cladding issues and believe the proposals outlined in the Building Safety Bill will go some way to improve quality and competency within the design, construction and inspection, helping to prevent defects from arising in the future. However, we believe that the remediation of identified fire-safety failures in existing buildings that are not the fault of the leaseholders or building owners concerned should be supported by appropriate funding.’
Government across the UK and Fire and Rescue Services need to more strongly acknowledge the work the fire-safety industry is doing in creating a pool of competent providers to access. We understand it is respected; however, more prescriptive national guidance needs to be developed (in line with HSE guidance) to steer people down the route of using appropriately third-party certificated providers to help meet their obligations to a quality standard. Let us be perfectly clear: it is understood this does not necessarily mean BAFE exclusively and nor should it when there are other robust UKAS-accredited third-party certification schemes available on the market to assess competency. A strong example of this is with the provision of competent fire-risk assessment services, where the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) outlines this in their ‘Guide to Choosing a Fire Risk Assessor’ (originally published by the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council in 2014). Appropriate registers are listed, acknowledging the levels of certification required to be on said registers (with BAFE SP205, IFCC 0099 and Warringtonfire FRACS being the three UKAS-accredited company certification schemes available). BAFE are encouraged to see this amount of detail being included within these documents and directs responsible people to find suitably certificated providers for this crucial work. New or updated guidance should also stress the sheer simplicity of checking these records prior to allowing work to commence on-site. BAFE’s campaign ‘Don’t Just Specify, Verify’ is to highlight this issue of being fully diligent and to take a moment and check the required credentials of an organisation. Why is it we allow the unregulated section of the market to continue, potentially using unsafe methods (fiercely believing they are competent), leaving buildings open to unnecessary risk? More importantly, residents and emergency services need to be considered here, as we need buildings that are as safe as possible to be in, to evacuate and for firefighters to respond to in the event of fire.
Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, BAFE responded (with support from the Fire and Rescue Service and industry experts) to develop Scheme criteria to determine the competency of providers who design, install, commission and maintain evacuation-alert systems. This would then become the framework for UKAS-accredited certification bodies to use to assess providers’ competency to deliver these services.
It was evident this was required following a Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) consultation regarding sprinklers and other fire-safety measures in new high-rise blocks of flats. In the published outcome of their findings, it noted an overwhelming 92% of respondents agreed that Approved Document B should include a requirement for an emergency evacuation system (which could support fire and rescue services’ operational response by alerting residents if they need to escape). The document added that ‘Several respondents noted that an evacuation alert system being in place would provide both clarity and reassurance to residents.”’
Following a comprehensive process, the result was BAFE Scheme SP207 and this has since been added to the assessment scope of major UKAS-accredited certification bodies, BSI (British Standards Institution), NSI (National Security Inspectorate) and SSAIB (Security Systems Alarm Inspection Board).
Until Grenfell, evacuation-alert systems were a somewhat overlooked part of high-rise residential building (HRRB) or high-risk building (HRB) building management. BAFE anticipate demand for evacuation-alert systems to be installed and maintained by third-party-certificated organisations will rise dramatically in the very near future to the point where both installers and premises managers should become conversant with these now. This demand will be a clear message to any HRRB and HRB management that stronger action is required to assist life safety of both the residents within the building and the emergency services.
In my Scottish Fire and Rescue tenure I experienced evacuating a full multi-storey block of flats (MSF) at Waddell Court (Glasgow) in 2009. In any event where the decision is made to evacuate a building this immediately raises problems and demands a huge physical effort to resource the incident ground sufficiently to contact tenants and have them evacuate. I recall a range of operational difficulties and must note a system to enable and signal the evacuation in a controlled way would have been of extreme benefit to me or any Fire Commander faced with the same issues.
A mass evacuation requires careful planning and having appropriate and well-maintained technology and systems to hand would be advantageous to say the least. A standard system that is recognised and can be embedded within a new culture of safety within HRRBs and MSFs will be key to this moving forward. People worry about their properties and belongings and simply want to have access to these as soon as possible. This reluctance builds in a real-world delay in terms of the speed at which an evacuation can take place so anything that assists is a good (and potentially lifesaving) thing.
Prior to Grenfell, although safety issues at this location had been previously raised, we were all on the understanding that properties of this type had been designed so that tenants could remain in place whilst firefighting operations could be undertaken. As aforementioned, flaws in this process have been most notably witnessed by the public in the Grenfell Tower fire resulting in large loss of life. Systemic change is needed not just in construction but in the view of installing and maintaining appropriate life-safety systems with the introduction of mandating UKAS-accredited third-party certification as a core requirement. This applies to all providers contracted to assist in life-safety and fire-safety work, from the fire-risk assessment through to ongoing maintenance of systems (such as emergency lighting and fire alarms) and other provisions in place (such as fire extinguishers). We know this is strongly supported, we know it is the right thing and the many organisations third-party certificated across the UK have been waiting far too long to have this as a mandatory requirement to provide quality evidence of competency. The industry is ready for this change and BAFE (and the whole UKAS-accredited third-party-certification sector) are primed to be part of the solution.
For more information, go to www.bafe.org.uk