Adam Jurka 18 December 2020

Has Grenfell ground to a halt?

It is now three years since the devastating fire at Grenfell. Soon afterwards it emerged that many other buildings around the UK had similar dangerous cladding. A way forward was identified; implement interim fire safety arrangements for the temporary, short term management and mitigation from the risk of fire, until replacement of the cladding could be carried out. However, after three years residents are still relying on these ‘temporary, short term’ measures, such as waking watch to alert them of a fire.

Waking watches are far from ideal because they rely on the person seeing the fire in a very large building with multiple floors. Others with dangerous cladding are protected only by security guards who are expected to patrol 24 hours a day, alerting residents should a fire break out. The cost of doing this – borne by the building owner and / or residents - can be as high as £250,000 a year per building.

Official figures illustrate the scale of the problem with 300 tower blocks over 18m in England alone, all with ‘Grenfell-style’ cladding. Then there is a government estimated 1,700 buildings over 18m that have systems known to be dangerous including, some timber, high-pressure laminate and polystyrene cladding and insulation systems. Add to that an estimated 100,000 buildings between 11m and 18m that may have dangerous cladding.

A technology-based approach

NFCC has recently released their third edition ‘Guidance to support a temporary change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy in purpose-built blocks of ?ats’. They clearly state that building owners should move to install common fire alarms as quickly as possible to reduce or remove the dependence on waking watches. This is the clear expectation for buildings where remediation cannot be undertaken in the ‘short term’. This approach should, in almost all circumstances, reduce the financial burden on residents where they are funding waking watches.

That is why we support the guidance from NFCC calling for all buildings with dangerous cladding to have a technology-based fire alarm that is capable of simultaneously alerting the whole building. A major benefit of wireless fire alarm systems is that they can be rapidly deployed to create a ‘common’ fire alarm system in any size of building – usually despatched next day and available for hire or sale. Significantly, wireless avoids having to drill holes through walls for cabling, so maintaining integrity of the fire compartments. The NFCC has identified these holes or apertures as a potential issue; “common alarm systems installed in the premises must not have any adverse effect on the other fire safety provisions in the building.

A wireless fire alarm system allows the signal to pass through all commonly used building materials, whilst avoiding having to drill holes through walls. If just one of the heat / smoke detectors is activated, it sounds an alarm via multiple interconnected call points in all areas of the building allowing ‘simultaneous evacuation’ of residents. No cabling or mains power is needed – and some have a three-year battery life. When specifying a wireless fire alarm system, it should be compliant to EN 54.

Innovation in internet connectivity, apps and the ability to collect, analyse and interpret data in live stream have extended the functionality of wireless fire alarm systems.

The way forward

One thing that is clear from the Grenfell tragedy is that owners of multi-occupancy buildings are legally responsible for fire safety. There are justified concerns from residents about having a succession of ‘waking watch’ guards in the building especially at a time when they are required to maintain social distancing. That is why a growing number of organisations support NFCC’s call for ‘common fire alarms or sprinklers’ because it avoids the need for ‘waking watch’ and all the issues associated with it.

Adam Jurka is national sales manager at Ramtech Electronics

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