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The Fire Safety Gap: What’s in a name?

08 January 2024

THE FIRE at the Beechmere Retirement Village in Crewe was one of the biggest incidents attended by the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, writes Tom Roche. Occupied by elderly people, many of whom needed assistance, the facility was located in an unsprinklered building that was vulnerable to fire damage.

Those following the changes in regulatory guidance may feel that the outcome of the Government’s consultation on the provision of sprinklers in care homes would cover such future builds. After all, wasn’t Beechmere a care home?

No, it was not. Beechmere was an extra care living accommodation. A form of specialised housing. It was also timber-framed and, therefore, not a “common building” type.

The fire that took hold back in August 2019 started in the roof area of the Beechmere Retirement Village facility in Crewe, but then spread rapidly and destroyed the majority of the complex.

Announcements of a swift rebuild duly followed, with plans submitted and approved to feature a sprinkler system. However, as we reached the end of last year, construction work on the new facility had yet to commence.

Closer inspection

Upon closer examination, it’s unsurprising to find there’s only fire safety guidance for specialised housing, such as the guidance provided by the National Fire Chiefs Council. It advocates the use of suppression systems, but their use is not a statutory requirement.

Those wishing to comply with the Building Regulations would have to consider the elements and form their own approach. It also highlights that the consultation on care homes, while most welcome, leaves a gap. A gap in which people with similar risk characteristics to those in care homes will receive differing fire safety provisions unless a developer takes the initiative to provide fire suppression, or they otherwise trigger another element of statutory guidance.

Some may argue that this is the balance that the guidance must strike over regulations. However, the current situation is questionable. As we have continued to follow the outcome of the fire in Cheshire, we’ve noticed actions by the operator. There were four other facilities built as part of the same initiative in Cheshire and similarly operated by the same group, namely Your Housing. These are all extra care facilities.

A review of the Group’s financial statements unearths that several million pounds was set aside for fire safety improvements. A serious fire incident often causes reflection and action. In this case, the latter includes retrofitting sprinklers into those four facilities. The note in the financial statement highlights it was “part of the solution agreed with the Fire and Rescue Service”.

It should also be noted that there were several other timber-framed extra care living accommodations constructed around the same period as Beechmere. It was a favoured form of construction for such buildings for a period of time.

From our perspective, we are curious as to whether similarly constructed accommodations have undergone additional safety reviews and risk mitigation efforts in the wake of the Beechmere fire.

Secondary benefit

It’s clear why the National Fire Chiefs Council would advocate such fire suppression systems in its guidance. When fires occur, sprinklers quickly activate to control or extinguish flames, subsequently minimising damage and fire spread. Sprinkler systems add another layer of protection, affording additional time for residents to evacuate or be helped to evacuate.

They also make such buildings resilient to the impact of fire because they automatically control or even put out the fire before the Fire and Rescue Service arrives.

What’s more, these systems also provide a secondary benefit to the well-being of residents, relatives and staff members who know there are additional measures in place that reduce the likelihood of residents needing to be re-homed.

The Business Sprinkler Alliance has long since advocated for the installation of sprinkler systems in care homes. We saw the Government’s proposals for changes to Approved Document B of the Building Regulations at the beginning of 2023 to mandate sprinklers in new care homes as a positive step.

We completely agree with the assertion that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to fire safety, but there appears to be a gap. Will that gap be closed or is it all just in a name?

Tom Roche is Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance (www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org)