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Maintenance – it is your responsibility

31 July 2012

February’s issue of P&FM revealed that almost a fifth of bosses questioned in a survey are flouting the law by delaying fire safety maintenance checks to save costs. The move jeopardises lives and the future of the business with serious repercussions for those deemed responsible as Darren Ling, a Director of System Hygienics, explains.

In February, a London hotel was ordered to pay more than £260,000 in fines in what is believed to be the first jury trial of a case under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited in Finchley, North London, and its sole director Michael Wilson had pleaded not guilty to a total of 12 offences under the Fire Safety Order during the trial at Blackfriars Crown Court. The offences dated back to 18 May 2008 when a fire at the hotel spread quickly from a first floor bedroom, up a staircase and along a corridor on the second floor. Three people escaped the fire, one by climbing out of the second floor window.

The company was found guilty of six offences, while Mr Wilson was found guilty of ‘consent or connivance in the commission’ of those same violations. Among these offences included two counts of failure to ensure premises, facilities, equipment or devices are maintained in an efficient state, in working order and in good repair.

Mr Wilson was fined £180,000 and Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited was fined £30,000. The defendants were also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £50,000 and £2,000 compensation to the guest who fled from the second floor window.

Brian Coleman, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “This verdict sends out a clear message that if these responsibilities are ignored we will not hesitate in prosecuting and people will face serious penalties.”

In March a bed manufacturing company, Joseph International in Huddersfield, was fined £18,000 for fire safety breaches and the premises branded a ‘death-trap’ by the presiding judge at Bradford Crown Court, following a visit to the premises in August 2010.

Last year, an external fire risk assessor and a hotel manager were both jailed for eight months for fire safety offences. David Liu, manager of The Dial Hotel and Market Inn, both in Mansfield, pleaded guilty to 15 offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which included a failure to ensure that equipment and devices provided were subject to a suitable system of maintenance. He was ordered to pay costs of £15,000. John O’Rourke of Mansfield Fire Protection Services pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to provide a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and was ordered to pay costs of £5,860.

Luckily in the above cases, no one was killed. However, should an employee or tenant die in a fire where poorly maintained fire safety equipment is deemed a contributing factor, those responsible leave themselves vulnerable to the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007.

Bosses take the risk
The precedent has been set and the message is clear – if you breach fire safety regulations you are likely to receive a hefty fine and potentially time in jail. And yet a nationwide survey last year by the Fire Industry Association (FIA) revealed that almost 20 per cent of bosses interviewed admitted that, due to the economic conditions they had revised some fire safety procedures to save costs, including the delaying of fire safety equipment maintenance checks, such as ventilation fire damper checks. As the UK suffers a double dip recession it is likely that this figure would increase if the survey was conducted again. Alarmingly, 20 per cent of those questioned had already experienced a fire in their premises.

Will your business survive a fire?
Studies show that in the event of a major fire, 80 per cent of businesses close for good within 18 months. Fire damage to commercial premises costs UK businesses more than a billion pounds every year yet the total of insurance settlements paid out is significantly below that figure. Even minor fires can lead to damage and loss of equipment. If businesses are found to be in breach of fire codes, insurance companies will not pay.

Know your obligations
Passive or built-in fire protection is probably the most important aspect of fire safety in buildings. In a building’s ventilation system, fire dampers are installed to prevent ductwork conveying fire and smoke from one area to another and are therefore an essential part of a building’s fire safety strategy. Heat and smoke travelling down a ventilation system will activate a mechanical stop to release the fire damper shutter, which will contain the fire to its point of origin.

If the shutters are clogged with dirt, dust or other contaminants, fire could spread throughout the building in a matter of minutes.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states that where necessary, in order to safeguard the safety of relevant persons, the ‘responsible person’ must ensure that the premises and any facilities, equipment and devices provided are subject to a suitable system of maintenance and are kept in efficient working order and in good repair.

The British Standard 9999:2008 Code of Practice for Fire Safety in the Design, Management and Use of Buildings gives recommendations and guidance on the design, management and use of buildings to achieve acceptable levels of fire safety for all people in and around buildings. Under the topic of routine inspection and maintenance of air conditioning ductwork, the BS 9999 says: ‘Maintenance of air conditioning and ventilating equipment, including air filters, motors, fire dampers and their controls, smoke detectors and alarms, is of paramount importance both in preventing fire and in ensuring that measures taken to mitigate consequences are effective when needed.’

More specifically, the BS 9999 recommends that all fire dampers should be tested at regular intervals not exceeding two years, spring operated fire dampers should be tested annually, and fire dampers in dust-laden and similar atmospheres should be tested more frequently. It also puts the duty of care on the building owner to minimise the fire risks by maintaining the ductwork properly, which means regular cleaning to prevent the build-up of dust, dirt and other contaminants that can cause blockages and pose a health risk to building occupants.

Fire safety service
It is essential that building owners and managers use the fire safety services of an approved ductwork cleaning company, to locate all fire dampers and ensure they are within the fire containment area and can be fully accessed. The fire dampers must be cleaned, lubricated, drop tested and reset to ensure they are in good working order.

If simple faults are found such as damaged linkages these must be replaced and drawings marked and incorporated into a report showing the time and action taken for fire safety compliance. Corners cannot be cut in terms of a business’ fire safety checks. It is a vital investment that no one can afford to ignore.

Darren Ling is a director of System Hygienics, part of the Hotchkiss Group

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