It’s the worst fire tragedy we’ve seen in recent times and the grief of the Grenfell Tower survivors and the victims’ families has turned to anger. They want to know how this could have happened and they want to know why their previous concerns were ignored.
I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals and see their fury and frustration at being ignored over the concerns they raise. There have been warnings about the risks of a fire like this for years and, like the Grenfell Tower Action Group also predicted, it has taken a catastrophic incident for people to sit up and take notice.
There is an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock and local councils and social landlords must act now.
The importance of regular fire risk assessments
Less than a year ago BWF-Certifire made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to each of London’s 32 councils. It asked how many residential blocks over six storeys the council owned, and for the date of the last fire risk assessment. Of the 15 full responses received, a housing stock of 1,025 residential blocks six storeys in height or above was identified. The results were shared with the enforcing authority, London Fire Brigade.
All of these blocks had had a fire risk assessment, and 90% of those assessments had last been updated in the previous couple of years.
However, two councils responded that they had a number of buildings that had last been assessed in 2010 and 2011, over five years ago. Onsite inspections to some of these buildings revealed visible breaches of fire safety including:
- flats without fire doors;
- no emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes;
- broken fire rated glass;
- wedged-open fire doors;
- poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation;
- no smoke seals in fire doors;
- rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas; and
- no information displayed on the specific fire plan for the building.
How often do I need to undertake a fire risk assessment?
The frequency of a fire risk assessment is determined by a number of factors including a risk rating, the age of building and the number of storeys. The fire risk assessment should be considered a living document – it doesn’t remain valid for an unlimited amount of time. Therefore, best practice is regular review. For the highest risk premises, an annual fire risk assessment might be appropriate.
The role of unbroken passive fire compartmentation
Complete and unbroken passive fire compartmentation is absolutely critical in buildings that have a stay put fire plan. Fire doors are a crucial part of passive fire protection, particularly in buildings that are complex in design, have a high number of occupants and are going to be difficult to evacuate quickly and safely. Fire doors are in every building that we live, work and sleep in.
When installed, maintained and used correctly fire doors can save lives. They should enable users of the building to seek refuge from fire and smoke, as well as creating a safe and protected route for the fire services to tackle the source of the blaze. But in reality, and especially in existing rented housing stock, this is often ignored.
Act now and act fast
As we continue to campaign for better fire door safety for tenants in high rise blocks, we are committed to working with local councils and social landlords.
My advice to local councils and social landlords is to ensure that the fire doors and all other parts critical to fire safety are inspected regularly and any issues identified are acted upon immediately. Review your fire risk assessments, regularity of inspection and control practices and ensure you have informed your residents about the fire plan for the building.
- Fire Risk Assessments carried out on a regular basis by a competent person
- Rectify any failings immediately.
- Ensure that all fire doors meet requirements.
- Review safety advice given to residents, ensure it is up-to-date and communicated effectively.
- Ensure that if a building is undergoing refurbishment works, the fire risk of the building is considered throughout the refurbishment as well as when completed, and make sure the fire risk assessment has documented any changes.
Hannah Mansell is technical manager of British Woodworking Federation, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the national safety and awareness campaign Fire Door Safety Week (25 September – 1 October 2017).