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The Secret Risk Assessor - June 2018

14 May 2018

How much emphasis should a fire risk assessment place on the aftermath of a fire, questions The Secret Risk Assessor.

TO ANSWER this, we need to specifically question what happens if the building is unusable in the immediate time after the fire has occurred. After all we are undertaking a life safety assessment and putting in suitable and sufficient measures to ensure the people within a building are safe from the effects of fire. Once the people are out and away from the immediate danger that fire and smoke poses, have we have achieved our goal and can rest easy?

Let me rephrase the question a little bit.  Do we care what happens to the building occupants once they get to a place of ultimate safety away from the building? We should do, however there are plenty of responsible persons and fire risk assessors who don't give the issue a second thought and seem surprised when I question what happens when we get our people outside?

Firstly, let’s look at whether or not a full evacuation is actually required. For buildings with good standards of compartmentation and suitable staffing levels then it may be more appropriate to employ a progressive horizontal evacuation approach in a response to a fire alarm activation. Why evacuate a residential care home into the street outside when we can merely move people who may be affected by a fire into a separate compartment or to a ground floor refuge with a final exit to outside to be used as a last resort. Dining rooms often fit the criteria and would remove a lot of the stress involved in the evacuation of elderly or confused residents. This evacuation strategy would have to be carefully assessed of course and only permitted if a suitable addressable fire detection and alarm system was in place as well as compartmentation between all rooms and a good provision of trained staff.  

Emergency lighting

Once we have decided on a building evacuation then the assessor should satisfy themselves that there is adequate signage and emergency lighting in place, both internally and externally.  And would it amaze you if I said you should walk every exit route all the way to a place of ultimate safety? Because I am not joking when I say people have been genuinely surprised when I have said that in the past, and I am talking experienced and ‘competent’ assessors.  

The signage and lighting we would expect to see internally to a building may well need to be continued externally as well, many risk assessments that I undertake often find an inadequate provision of external emergency lighting or more than one direction of travel with no indication of which way leads to a safe place or a place of high hazard. I once walked an external route from a hotel and found myself in the dark and on the edge of a drop into the canal.  But I guess the users of the route would be safe from the smoke and flames if they fell into the canal?

Further consideration needs to be given to vulnerable people in the event of an evacuation, some questions to ask may include:

  • How do we ensure people are warm and safe if they are in a state of undress during an evacuation;
  • Where will we relocate elderly or infirm people, would evacuating a residential care home into a car park be adequate; and
  • What about other building occupants that we would not want to wander off? Such as children, prisoners or patients. We should be asking what the plan is for once we evacuate those types of buildings

Another question that we should ask for public access buildings is what measures do we have in place to prevent the re-entry of people? In a fire situation people may take the opportunity to, for example, steal goods from shops, sabotage work processes, go back in for the beer that they left behind or other ‘vital’ tasks that humans find more important than staying away from something dangerous like fire.

In summary, if you are undertaking a fire risk assessment it is my opinion that you need to ensure a little more than that people can get out. Consideration needs to be given to managing the emergency and looking after people once they get out of an exit.

The Secret Risk Assessor is a well-known risk assessor in the fire sector. They have asked for their name to be withheld so they can speak freely about common failings they see in buildings across the UK