Rethinking Fire Safety

Rethinking Fire Safety

After a recent report considered current Regulations to be unfit for purpose, Kidde Safety Europe explains why electrical contractors should look elsewhere for guidance.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s recent interim ‘Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ following the Grenfell Tower fire considers: “the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice, … not fit for purpose.” However, the report also acknowledges that sorting this out will take some time.

So, what should we do in the meantime? The report points out that: “there is a widespread culture… of waiting to be told what to do by regulators rather than taking responsibility”. So, all those involved with housing should now reassess the appropriate minimum alarm provision, even if it’s over and above current guidelines.

Minimum standard

Most guidance for smoke and heat alarms is based on the Code of Practice BS 5839-6:2013, itself currently under review. The minimum standard recommended by the Code applicable to most existing and new properties is Grade D (mains with back-up) and Category LD2 (essentially alarms in circulation areas, living rooms and all kitchens). Building Regulation guidance documents in Scotland and Northern Ireland generally mirror the Code already.

But in England and Wales, Approved Document B (AD B) falls short, requiring only Category LD3 with smoke alarms just in escape routes. But as the Code stresses, with Category LD3 the evacuation time once fire is detected in the escape route “might not prevent death or serious injury of occupants of the room where fire originates” such as a living room. Clearly, smoke alarms in living rooms are an important consideration.

Essential heat alarms

In addition, AD B only calls for heat alarms in some kitchens: those open to escape routes. With over 60% of domestic fires starting in kitchens, this is a misguided approach. Heat alarms are essential in all kitchens and should be a priority when upgrading existing properties. They must always be interconnected with smoke alarms elsewhere.

But what about existing homes? The minimum Grade recommended by the Code applicable to most properties – new or existing – with up to three stories and no single floor over 200m2 is Grade D. This means interconnected mains powered alarms with back-up, as also required by all Building Regulation guidelines. The Code now excludes Grade F battery-only alarms from all rented homes.

Interestingly, recent consultation proposals on fire alarms for housing in Scotland aim to remove distinctions between particular tenures – such as private rented, social housing and owner-occupied – proposing that: “The Scottish Government’s view is that the standard currently applied to private rented housing represents the current best practice. We therefore consider that the most appropriate option to improve standards for fire and smoke alarms is to extend this standard to all tenures.” That standard is generally in line with the BS 5839-6:2013 Code.

Low cost safety

Straightforward, hard-wired interconnected smoke and heat alarms provide a cost-effective solution in existing properties as well as new-builds, particularly during refurbishment or rewiring works. The extra cost of fitting additional alarms is negligible and the latest low-energy products keep running costs low as well. For example, it costs less than £1 per year to operate a Firex hard-wired, interconnectable smoke or heat alarm from Kidde. So, there are no financial reasons to limit the number of interconnected alarms and Category LD2 should be considered the minimum for the majority of properties.

In today’s uncertain world, smoke and heat alarms are the first line of defence against fire in housing, providing critical early warning at low costs. Installers and specifiers should take the initiative and reappraise their own alarm specifications, with guidance from manufacturers. The current Code should be considered as an absolute minimum base to work up from and other guidelines treated with caution. In particular, relying on assumed fire-safe construction to reduce or eliminate alarm provision is a serious mistake.

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