Identifying the Risk

Immediately following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) focused on the risks associated with some unsuitable cladding systems. It identified that aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, used on Grenfell Tower, was highly combustible and measures needed to be taken to mitigate the risks on all buildings where ACM cladding systems had been installed.

Where combustible materials have been identified, it is no longer safe for the building’s occupants to follow a ‘stay put’ policy, which relies on the ability of each flat to contain any fire for at least one hour, to ensure the safety of residents in other flats in the building.

With a reported 1000+ residential buildings throughout the UK affected, the impetus for action has grown. In February, the UK government announced a further £3.5 billion in new funding to replace unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings above 18 metres. This is on top of the £1.6 billion safety fund that leaseholders could already apply to.

Minimising the risk to life as a result of a fire involving these external wall systems is crucial, yet in cases of buildings containing flats, enabling people to continue to live in relative safety in their own homes requires interim solutions to mitigate the risk.

Interim Solutions

Interim fire safety arrangements are intended to be adopted by landlords as a short-term solution to managing and mitigating the risk of a fire and the risk to life if a fire occurs. One such arrangement involves the temporary change in the evacuation strategy for a building, moving from ‘stay put’ to ‘simultaneous evacuation’. This is supported by the introduction of a waking watch and/or installation of a common fire alarm within the building, while combustible materials are removed and replaced with fire-safe materials.

Implementation of a Waking Watch

Waking watch is a system whereby suitably trained staff continually patrol all floors and the exterior perimeter of the building. The purpose is to ensure there is sufficient warning in the event of fire to support the evacuation strategy. This arrangement is intended for short periods of time, whilst any increased fire risks identified are being urgently addressed.

Despite waking watch being regarded as a temporary solution, in many cases this arrangement is being relied upon for far longer periods than intended. The Fire Protection Association (FPA) said: “While waking watches are supposed to be temporary measures, some have been in place for years, and some back to June 2017, with concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic could extend their use. In turn, 34 councils had spent £29.4 million on waking watches at 134 buildings.”

Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the MHCLG found that costs per hour for waking watches ranged from £12 to £30 per person, with the median monthly cost per building being £11,361; and the median monthly cost per dwelling being £137. Concerns have been raised that the additional cost of these temporary measures puts greater financial strain on leaseholders during a time when many may be out of work because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where waking watch has been implemented for longer than intended, the potential for complacency can also become an issue. Patrol staff unknowingly pose risks to building residents by cutting corners – such as not completing full tours of sites. In cases such as these, building owners may be left with little choice but to install guard tour systems to ensure that building patrols are fully completed, adding further cost to this arrangement.

Reports have also emerged of patrol staff placing residents in greater danger, rather than reducing their risk. This was apparent in the case of Catherine House in east London’s Fairfield Quarter development, where staff ‘intentionally disabled’ the building’s smoke ventilation system because it was ‘making the stairways cold’. By deactivating this life-critical system, residents were put at increased risk of not being able to safely escape the building in the event that public stairways filled with smoke in a fire situation.

Cost/Benefit and Consultation with Residents

In determining the most suitable interim arrangement for buildings with combustible cladding, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) suggests that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out.

As part of this exercise, it is recommended that building owners consult with residents and leaseholders to explore cost-benefit options. The emphasis should be placed on considering the benefits of installing a common automatic fire alarm system, especially where temporary fire protection measures are likely to be in place for the longer-term.

In its own Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance, the NFCC states that it: ‘Strongly recommends that where a change to a simultaneous evacuation is deemed appropriate and will be required for medium to long periods of time, that a temporary common fire alarm system is installed. This is because a temporary common fire alarm, when designed, installed and maintained appropriately is a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection’.

The NFCC recommendations have been supported by the UK government, with UK Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announcing the launch of a £30 million Waking Watch Relief Fund, to “help end the scandal of excessive waking watch costs” via the installation of fire alarm systems in high-rise buildings. For the majority, the fund is open for applications from January 31–March 14, although a slightly different timescale applies to some privately owned buildings in central London.

Implementation of a Fire Alarm System

In line with NFCC recommendations and in order to bridge the gap between ‘stay put’ policy to temporary ‘simultaneous evacuation’ and back again, fire system manufacturer Advanced’s technology and expertise provide the ideal solution. Following consultation with relevant parties, including fire risk assessors, the local fire and rescue service, building owners and insurers and upon agreement with a competent person that installing a common fire alarm is the right solution for the building, a BS 5839 Part 1, category L5 fire alarm system should be fitted – before cladding removal begins.

Advanced’s MxPro 5 fire panels fulfil this requirement by complying with all the relevant standards. Intuitive programming, comprehensive cause and effect, powerful diagnostic features and compatibility with four leading detector protocols bring the highest levels of protection for residents – and peace of mind for building owners and facilities managers.

The ability for a fire alarm system to detect a fire with a high degree of accuracy is considerably superior to the capabilities of even the most highly trained of waking watch staff. Once a fire alarm system has been installed, tangible savings can be realised in very short periods of time.

Returning to ‘Stay Put’

Once cladding has been removed and residents’ homes are safe, the building’s evacuation strategy may return to ‘stay put’. In scenarios where a fire alarm is no longer necessary, residential buildings over 18 metres may be advised to install evacuation alert control and indicating equipment (EACIE).

Following the publication of BS 8629:2019, EACIE is now strongly recommended in England for all tall buildings containing flats with a storey located at a height of 18 metres or more – and is mandatory in Scotland. The EACIE must operate completely independently of fire detection systems and be designed to support any evacuation strategy chosen by the Fire and Rescue Service.

Advanced’s evacuation alert system, EvacGo, is designed using its MxPro 5 technology, providing the assurance for installers and building owners that their sites are protected with robust and proven technology that’s been rigorously tested to EN 54 parts 2 and 4 as recommended in BS 8629. In addition, the devices supplied as part of the EvacGo system have been approved to BS EN54 Part 13. Third-party test certification to the standard provides additional peace of mind.

Developing EvacGo with the proven technology of its MxPro 5 fire panel counterpart makes the replacement of a building’s fire alarm system with an evacuation alert system simple and straightforward, whether using wired, wireless or hybrid devices.

Installing a temporary Advanced fire alarm system that is so quick to convert to an evacuation alert system brings significant cost and safety benefits over alternative approaches too, with the initial investment contributing towards the overall protection of the building once the BS 8629 system is installed.

While only an interim measure, addressing the change from a ‘stay put’ policy to ‘simultaneous evacuation’ still requires thorough planning and consultation to enable the effective management of fire risk to residents of buildings containing flats. As frustration on the pace of remedial works to residential buildings continues, building owners are under ever-greater pressure to provide a clear pathway to achieving higher standards in fire safety.

Taking into account realistic timescales for the removal of cladding and the financial burden interim measures have on both building owners and their occupants, implementing a common fire alarm system offering easy conversion to an evacuation alert system is an ideal solution. The approach tackles this modern fire protection challenge by addressing the immediate need for mitigating fire risk, as well as the longer-term fire safety recommendations set out for residential buildings over 18 metres containing flats.

If you are dealing with any of the issues raised above and would like to discuss ways of addressing them, email evacgo@advancedco.com for support and advice. Further information is also available at https://uk.advancedco.com/fire-protection/evacuation-alert-system/simultaneous-evacuation.aspx and https://www.highrisefiresafetysolutions.co.uk/