Fire safety management in high-rise flats
Considering challenges and management approaches
After the tragic fire in July 2009 at Lakanal House, a twelve-storey block of flats in South London that claimed the lives of six people, there has rightly been an increased focus on how fire safety is managed in the high-rise residential sector.
Six years on, what have been the improvements and ongoing fire safety challenges faced by those responsible for property management of high-rise blocks, what have been the improvements already made and what more needs to be done?
Prior to the fire, due to a lack of knowledge and expertise, the completion of fire risk assessments for high-rise blocks was not necessarily seen as a priority within property departments. At the time, there was limited national fire risk assessment guidance covering high-rise blocks of flats and no defined approaches to completing fire risk assessments for this type of property. This meant housing providers struggled to determine the scope and methodology of the assessment and the relevant benchmark standards they needed to achieve.
Additionally, many buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s were constructed to older standards, such as CP3 Chapter IV, which were no longer readily available. Social factors and advances in technology mean that the design standards providing a good level of fire safety at that time are often no longer acceptable today.
Old designs and new recommendations
Therefore, an essential skill of the fire risk assessor was to make a judgement about whether the design of the building (which may have been significantly modified since its construction) and its current condition provided an acceptable level of fire safety, when judged against modern standards such as Approved Document B of the Building Regulations and BS 5588-1 (since replaced by BS 9991: 2011).
However, a lack of knowledge of the design philosophies for purpose-built flats meant that some assessors were tempted to apply a ‘code hugging’ approach, rather than making a pragmatic assessment of risk. This could result in assessors applying current standards to older buildings (constructed to previous design codes), and thus recommending costly actions that did not have any significant effect on reducing the overall risk. There was also the potential for misunderstanding within the industry, particularly in relation to the application of ‘stay put’ policies, and the installation of fire detection and warning systems.
Steps towards new standards
A significant step towards defining a standard approach to fire risk assessment was the publication of the 2011 Local Government Group (LGG) guide ‘Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats’.
This described current design guidance and importantly provided a summary of historical standards that would be relevant to many existing high-rise blocks built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Following the introduction of this publication, several training providers introduced courses to explain the guidance and how to apply it. The introduction of these training courses, together with accreditation/validation schemes, have gone some way to addressing the lack of competency back in 2009.
Fire safety management: a holistic approach
One area often overlooked is the review of fire safety management at organisational level to determine the underlying reasons why deficiencies have developed across a property portfolio. Indeed, while there has been a focus on completing fire risk assessments, organisations have not always examined their overall approach to property management – purely focusing on correcting immediate physical issues, without undertaking a corporate review of how the issues come to be present in the first place. The effectiveness of an organisation’s fire safety management is just as crucial as undertaking the risk assessments themselves, and is likely to lead to more significant and long-standing improvements in fire safety.
Right first time
While significant improvements have been made, a fully integrated fire safety management approach at organisational level still remains a challenge in the sector. PAS 7: 2013: Fire Risk Management System Specification is not particularly well known and, as fire safety professionals, our role should be to actively promote PAS 7, giving the review of fire safety management as much importance as undertaking the fire risk assessment itself.
Undertaking a full review of an organisation’s fire safety arrangements and the implementation of any actions can lead to significant short term expenditure; but it can also have significant benefits by improving fire safety compliance in the longer term and reducing fire safety costs through adopting a right first-time approach. This is likely to be the next step towards a sustained improvement in fire safety.