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Fanning the flames

Author : Amanda Vlietstra

28 October 2022

PFM explores how recent changes to UK legislation have impacted on fire safety measures within facilities in a post-Grenfell landscape...

On 14 June 2017, 72 people died when fire broke out at 24-storey-high Grenfell Tower in West London. A subsequent investigation found that the fire spread from a flat inside the building into the cladding, where it escalated very quickly, effectively creating a chimney that super-heated the building. 

Five years on, the Government has banned the type of cladding used in Grenfell on all new buildings as part of an overhaul of building regulations and guidance, which will come into effect on 1 December. Additionally, the Buildings Safety Bill 2022 will tighten fire safety standards by requiring asset owners and managers to be able to demonstrate that they’ve taken sensible advice on fire safety and acted upon it. But has enough been done to avoid another Grenfell-type tragedy in the future? 

“Numerous failings”

Ruth Armstrong, partner and head of Regulatory & Business Defence at Gateley, says that the Grenfell tragedy highlighted “numerous failings” in the system. “The Grenfell Public Inquiry has shone a spotlight on numerous failings, from poor government regulation through to unsafe cladding products and bad workmanship,” she said. “Recognising that these issues affected more than just Grenfell Tower has resulted in a massive change to the construction landscape, but there are many more changes in train. The Building Safety Act 2022 is the centrepiece and heralded a huge change to the building regime, but many of the changes it is going to implement are coming in the next 12 months in the form of new regulations or changes to existing regulations, including the Fire Safety Order. These forthcoming changes are currently the subject of a group of government consultations which are ending in October.”

She went on: “Although there has been very little targeted towards commercial buildings, either in the Building Safety Act or the proposed changes elsewhere, they have nevertheless benefited from the post-Grenfell fire scrutiny because fire risk and fire safety have moved up the agenda. Building managers, managing agents, experts and insurers are all looking more carefully at fire risk and evacuation risk, regardless of the premises. 

“According to our clients, which include FTSE 100 housebuilders, retailers, hotel chains, care home providers, and those managing large event spaces, insurance premiums have gone up across the piste for fire risk. Ultimately, whenever there is an increase in awareness about a particular risk, everybody becomes better informed, which leads to improvements in knowledge, skills, and resources,” she concluded.

Beyond compliance

However, Ian King, COO of fire-retardant technology company Zeroignition, says that although “encouraging progress” has been made, what’s been done is only the “tip of the iceberg.” He told PFM: “We need to go above and beyond ‘compliance’ and stop developers cutting corners and side-lining safety for financial gain. This means closely assessing the materials used in buildings, how they are assembled and what protection is in place. It’s crucial to thoroughly test how each component is used in a build and how it interacts as part of the wider system. For instance, are sprinkler sensors being blocked by obstructions, are fire retardants being used to protect the structural materials?”

He continued: “The crux of the fire safety issue lies in understanding building materials and how they behave in a fire…Ultimately, to help commercial property owners and facilities managers protect lives and investments, we must increase awareness of fire safety standards and how to prevent fire rather than deal with it when it’s too late.”

Indeed, there are still an estimated 321,000 people living in high-rise apartment blocks in the UK that are deemed to be unsafe because of a combustible external facade. According to information from Intelligiclad, since 2010, 60% of high-rise facade fires have started externally, with causes including discarded cigarette butts on balconies, external lighting malfunctions or air conditioning units breaking down. 

Smart solution

Intelliclad is a fire detection and alert system that has been uniquely designed for implementation into the external facade. Partnering with global wireless technology provider Ramtech, the company believes its solution – which uses smart sensors connected to a control system to alert residents via their smartphones as well as the main alarm system in the event of a fire - is a huge step forwards for practical and effective building fire safety.

Communication, certainly, is key. Stuart Purton is UK Lead for Training and Onboarding at Chubb Fire & Security, one of the UK’s best-known fire safety solutions provider. Since 1997, the company has performed thousands of fire risk assessments for its customers, and Mr Purton says they act as the “sensible advice” referenced in the new Buildings Act legislation. “The legislation may look a little ‘woolly’ but I see this in a glass half-full way,” he said. “Putting the onus on the responsible persons to demonstrate compliance in getting sensible advice generally means people go above rather than below what’s needed.” 

Mr Purton says that one of the issues with Grenfell was that the fire brigade had no way of communicating with the residents that the building’s shelter-in-place policy for containing the fire had failed. This, he says, will be remedied by a new system, compulsory from 23 January next year, which will consist of a secure control box on the ground floor that the fire brigade have access to, with outputs in every dwelling, so that if the fire brigade need to change their policy, they can communicate this to everyone in the building. Chubb’s website states that their Evacuation Alert System - designed to warn and notify people inside tall buildings it is necessary to evacuate the dwelling in case of a fire –“is the simple method to ensure you’re covering the BS 8629 Code of Practice recommendations.”

Lessons to be learned

But for those people still living in buildings covered in combustible cladding, the risk of fire remains alarmingly real. Renowned fire safety expert Frances Maria Peacock contributed to the recent white paper on fire safety, also produced by Intelliclad. She said: "Sadly, it seems that the lessons of Grenfell…have not been learned, and with so many buildings still covered in combustible material, the possibility of another fire cannot be discounted. Work to remediate the risk is proving too slow, the costs too high, and in the meantime, the residents face financial ruin because costs for fire safety work – running into thousands of pounds – are being passed on to them."

She added: "[I]t is now time for alternative solutions to be considered. A well-planned mitigation strategy would be a viable alternative, as this would reduce costs, timescales and the impact on residents’ lives. Rather than fully reclad affected buildings, measures aimed at bringing the risk down to an acceptable level could be introduced. Intelliclad is one such measure because it can be installed directly into the facade where it is able to detect and warn residents of the first signs of fire.”

Although steps have been taken in the right direction, it seems that more needs to be done to ensure proper safeguarding against fire risk in residential and commercial buildings – and the fire safety industry is ahead of the Government on this. For facilities managers, who not only have to manage risk within a building, but may find themselves a source of the ‘sensible advice’ on fire safety best practice, caution is key. After all, you can’t put a price on human life.

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