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The window of opportunity for fire safety

Coronavirus has fundamentally reshaped the ways in which many of us live our daily lives. In times of crisis, change is inevitable, decisive and invariably fast paced. Often, creating a window of opportunity for change to open up, which is purposefully leveraged to make meaningful changes to previously inert systems.

While we are yet to understand the full implications of the outbreak across the world, it would be naïve for us to think that we can simply reverse some of the changes that have been made as a result, as some will inevitably be permanent.

This has similarly been the case for fire safety. Since the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, building regulations have been under constant scrutiny amid rising concerns over the protection of high-rise residents.

Nearly three years on since what was the deadliest disaster the UK has ever seen – since World War II – the government is now making significant steps to overhaul existing regulations and provide clarity on responsibilities relating to fire safety.

We’ve seen this in the form of changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 by the Home office with the soon-to-be implemented Building Safety Bill 2019-21.

However, a universal shift in culture is required to support the delivery of buildings that are safe, both now and in the future, which cannot be achieved through policy and regulation changes alone. While these documents provide a good foundation for organisations to work from to mitigate safety risks, more needs to be done to place individuals and their needs, at the centre of fire safety strategies – particularly across social housing.

In fact, Dame Judith Hackitt herself, made a number of recommendations to reform UK building regulations in the wake of lessons learned from Grenfell, stating that much of the prescriptive guidance available is not sufficient enough when designing and building complex buildings. Especially in an environment where building technology and practices continue to evolve and prevent those undertaking building work from taking responsibility for their own actions.

Currently, legislation dictates that providers of social housing have a heightened responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of residents categorised as vulnerable, irrespective of whether the building they reside in is new or pre-existing.

Despite this, statistics in many countries – not just the UK – show that the majority of unintentional domestic fire fatalities, are people who are considered to be vulnerable. This includes the elderly, disabled and those unable to self-evacuate from a fire.

Although residents in social housing include a wide range of people with disparate needs, a major fire safety challenge for many housing providers is being able to adequately adapt their provision to specifically protect their most vulnerable residents, especially when facing tight budgets constraints.

In addition to this, new research published by building science data BRE has actually highlighted a number of issues and concerns about many of the widely used fire safety technologies employed today. This includes their ability to provide sufficient protection for vulnerable people. For housing providers, this means the demand for practical, targeted adaptations to suit individuals and their homes has never been greater.

While safety technology has come a long way since the invention of the traditional glass sprinkler in 1882, especially following the rapid growth of smart and interconnected devices, adoption of these innovative technologies has been relatively slow by housing providers – despite being a key trend for the built environment.

As Hackitt explained in her recommendations, by introducing an outcomes-based framework that requires people who are part of the ‘system’ to be competent, to think for themselves rather than blindly following guidance, and to understand their responsibilities to deliver and maintain safety and integrity throughout the life cycle of a building, more would be done to tailor solutions to the needs of tenants and protect more lives as a result.

Based on the recorded causes of fire fatalities and serious injuries of its research sample, BRE concluded that implementation of innovative smart electrical devices and related digital products could help save even more lives from fire.

I say even more because contrary to many people’s beliefs, the number of fire fatalities in the UK has actually decreased gradually over the last three decades and has more recently appeared to plateau. To make a further reduction in the number of fire-related fatalities and injuries, there needs to be a willingness to embrace innovation and new measures, which can tackle fires in ways not possible with traditional methods.

For me, resolving the issues highlighted by the likes of BRE’s research, means doing more than simply developing new products. It also includes the creation and development of improved services by evolving existing solutions that can help fill the gap, rather than aiming to ‘reinvent the wheel’ each time.

Effective fire protection systems should be seen as part of wider, holistic solutions that include detection and prevention as well as suppression. This is a principle that has often been overlooked and has frequently appeared as an underlining reason and contributor for many of the recent fires across the UK.

Today, there are a wide range of innovative technologies available that can help save many lives every day. Pre-emptive technologies work to prevent a fire before they take hold, with suppressive technologies available to help extinguish a fire that has already started.

Every second counts in a fire. The sooner a fire is discovered or detected the more likely it is that it will not result in a fatality. However, figures show that the most common cause of death in fire-related fatalities in 2017-18 was ‘to be overcome by gas or smoke.’

This suggests that current fire safety measures do not detect fires fast enough and demonstrates the need to employ fire safety technologies that offer reliable early detection and suitable intervention, to either delay the development of the fire or to notify people, so they can take the appropriate action at the early stages of the fire to prevent it from spreading or causing severe harm.

Considering the fire safety issues highlighted in BRE’s research concerning the protection of vulnerable people, the research group put together 14 recommendations that are targeted at existing technologies to offer further safeguarding for people in the future.

This included providing additional warnings from smoke alarms, developing video analytic techniques, reviewing fires from electrical items and proposing ways to reduce their occurrence as well as making greater use of the most appropriate means of fire detection such as using smoke alarms in utility spaces containing white goods.

Another recommendation, which I was pleased to see was the increasing use of combined detection and suppression water mist systems. The BRE’s reasoning for this was based on the number of incidents that occur in the living room or bedroom.

Water misting systems provide early fire detection in residential properties and work by having a smoke detector connected to a control unit that triggers local water mist suppression, using water from a designated water tank. Most if not all, water mist systems are designed to specifically cover one local zone and protect any vulnerable people present.

The system’s effectiveness has been proven in domestic environments and offers significant advantages over sprinklers.

A traditional bulb sprinkler system will only operate once a fire has developed and is producing sufficient heat to trigger the sprinkler head. In comparison, water misting systems are activated sooner by detecting smoke from a fire and therefore providing effective suppression earlier in the fire’s development. It would be expected that this earlier detection and intervention would prove to be effective in domestic environments.

As I noted earlier, effective fire protection systems should be seen as part of a wider, holistic solution. The BRE’s recommendation reinforcing this principle was that rather than having just one fire alarm and one local suppression solution, housing providers should look to extend this to cover multiple areas of the home.

By utilising multiple fire alarms – including heat alarms in the kitchen – a water mist system can provide suitable coverage to different areas of the home, using one control panel in such a way that individual zones could be addressed and configured, so that the water mist suppression is delivered in only the area where the fire is present.

Even with the best of technologies, we cannot avoid accidents altogether, but much can be done to minimise the damage caused by fires and save more lives. The recommendations and solutions offered by the BRE can help us gather crucial alerts quickly and better plan for emergency situations.

Moving forward and as constant changes are made during this window of opportunity to improve fire safety, I expect more housing providers will evaluate and implement the various connected technologies suggested to enhance safety.

While many in the fire suppression industry have proven that safety technologies can significantly improve the outcomes of many fires, technology alone is not sufficient and probably never will be.

Often, the difference between a relatively harmless incident and a disaster is the lack of proper implementation of prevention methods and poor planning. Appropriate regulations, policies, and procedures should be in place and adhered to rigidly with the deployment of advanced safety technology properly implemented and maintained.

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