Level playing field
25 April 2021
With the fire sector one that operates across the devolved nations, Andy Speake outlines why sector professionals should be pushing for greater and clearer legislation that makes requirements consistent as the current situation leaves many who are not experts in the fire arena confused and unsure as to what to fit in terms of system solutions
IN RECENT years, there has been positive change in terms of the standards and legislation focused on fire and carbon monoxide safety that directly impacts the UK’s social housing sector. The current requirements for fire detection and alarm systems vary depending on the tenure type of the property under review, its age, the exact type of housing and any additional regional legislation.
With updates, revisions and amendments made in response to issues raised around matters relating to fire protection measures, and notably so in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the landscape is certainly changing and moving forwards. In parallel, the new legislation and regulatory updates have also served to highlight the disparities that exist within the sector and across the devolved nations. Now is the time to examine how the social housing sector can be progressed to achieve a more coherent and cohesive approach when it comes to fire safety.
British Standard BS 5839-6:2019 is the Code of Practice for the Design, Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance of Fire Detection and Fire Alarm Systems in Domestic Premises. It’s applicable to existing, new and materially altered dwellings across the whole of the UK and places a significant emphasis on fire risk assessment. Indeed, the revised 2019 version contains amendments in terms of Best Practice for fire alarm requirements across properties as well as revised gradings for alarms themselves, whether they be mains-powered or battery-powered in nature.
The new recommendations detail that, in some circumstances such as Houses in Multiple Occupation and also rented housing, properties should now be equipped with mains-powered fire alarms that have a long life and tamper-proof battery back-up as opposed to the user-replaceable battery back-up scenario that was previously deemed sufficient.
Level of protection
The revised BS 5839-6 also states that the level of fire protection in rented housing should be increased to cover kitchens and the principal habitable room. The document has increased the level of protection afforded in sheltered housing and new build properties and materially altered premises to LD1 (the maximum level of detection and alarm system coverage).
The testing and maintenance section has been amended with the addition of Table 3 which distinguishes between grades for testing and servicing requirements, in turn aiding clarity and simplicity. Furthermore, the revision now includes provision for the interconnection of carbon monoxide alarms and fire alarms, with necessarily close attention being paid to the system manufacturer’s own recommendations and guidance.
With this addition, BS 5839-6:2019 now references BS EN 50292:2013 (Electrical Apparatus for the Detection of Carbon Monoxide in Domestic Premises: Guide to Selection, Installation, Use and Maintenance) for interconnection, which is a positive step towards the alignment of standards, regulations and legislation. It’s worth noting here that, at present, BS EN 50929:2013 is in the process of being revised.
BS 5839-6:2019 is referenced by the Building Regulations along with BS 9991:2015. British Standard BS 9991:2015 provides guidance on Fire Safety in the Design, Management and Use of Residential Buildings, ensuring that adequate and reasonable standards of fire safety are attained. This British Standard also encompasses guidance for the ongoing management of fire safety within a building, itself a crucial provision in the wake of recent events.
Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, BS 8629 (Code of Practice for the Design, Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance of Evacuation Alert Systems for Use by Fire and Rescue Services in Buildings Containing Flats) was drafted. This British Standard has since been adopted in Scotland for buildings over 18 metres in height. It’s not implied that there’s a requirement in law for such systems to be installed in all blocks of flats. The British Standards are Best Practice guidelines containing recommendations, but they’re not legislative in scope.
That said, since November 2019, Scottish Government guidance in relation to the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 recommends that these systems are installed in all new blocks of flats with any storey that’s more than 18 metres above ground level.
Building Act 1984
The Building Regulations are enforceable under the Building Act 1984, but only apply to new and materially altered properties. In England and Wales, Approved Document B governs fire safety and states that the installation of fire alarms must meet the requirements laid out in BS 5839-6:2019 (Grade D2, Category LD2). This reference to LD2 is important as we know the seat of most social housing fires is in the kitchen, but equally so the most fatal fires tend to start in living rooms. This is why the applicable documentation now recommends LD2 as a minimum for most property types.
Although promoting installation to the British Standard, Approved Document B still states a minimum requirement of LD3, in turn causing confusion for installers as well as inconsistencies. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own Building Regulations – the Technical Handbook (2019) and the Technical Booklet E (2012) respectively. Both of these documents also echo British Standard requirements.
Carbon monoxide has its own provision within the Building Regulations. In England and Wales, Approved Document J states that a carbon monoxide alarm must be installed to BS EN 50292 requirements when any new or replacement solid fuel appliance is fitted. The term ‘solid fuel’ has been challenged due to it being arguably more outdated now as it implies the exclusion of gas appliances.
In both Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Building Regulations, this time referencing the Technical Handbook (2017) and Technical Booklet L, the terminology is more widely encompassing. A compliant carbon monoxide alarm must be installed to BS EN 50292 when any new or replacement fuel burning appliance is fitted.
In relation to the terminology used throughout requirements in England, there has recently been a Government consultation examining this area. The consultation process, which closed in January this year, realised a proposal that Approved Document J should be amended to cover all fuel burning appliances. The consultation enjoyed a significant contribution from many individuals and organisations, among them those focused on social housing and fire safety. We fully endorse any progression in terms of safety legislation, but does that proposed amendment go far enough?
Not aligned, not cohesive
Within the UK, there are multiple legislations governing fire safety in residential premises. These are not aligned, and neither are they cohesive. In England, fire safety within the private rented sector is regulated by the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015, which require working smoke alarms on every level of the property and a carbon monoxide alarm to be installed in any room with a solid fuel burning appliance.
The aforementioned Government consultation also examined the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015, with the proposal being to extend that legislation to not only cover private landlords, but also encompass social housing landlords. This, along with the proposal to change ‘solid fuel’ to ‘all fuel’, could prove to be a significant alteration for many organisations within the sector.
The smoke alarm requirements in the legislation are still very weak, only stipulating a working smoke alarm on each storey with no mention of grades, category or interconnection. This leaves many landlords and contractors unclear and often confused around precisely what solutions to install and commission. Essentially, a single battery-powered alarm would cover the requirements of the legislation, but is far from being Best Practice.
Registered social landlords and those in charge of Houses in Multiple Occupation have to adhere to the Housing Act 2004 (18), which specifies that smoke alarms must be installed and maintained such that they’re kept in good working order. Again, there’s no reference to grades, category or interconnection. Before even mentioning the recently amended Scottish legislation, it’s evident that standards, regulations and legislation in England are misaligned and, at times, lacking in clarity and specifics.
In contrast, the 2019 amendment to the Housing (Scotland) Act has extended the existing high standard of fire and carbon monoxide protection required in the private rented sector to all homes in Scotland, regardless of their tenure situation. This is significant. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there’s no requirement for homeowners to fit smoke alarms (although detailed guidance is found in the British Standard). Potentially, this could leave vulnerable occupants at risk.
Category L2 focus
To mitigate this situation, the Fire and Rescue Service attempts to prioritise such individuals where possible and assist, but this still leaves many without adequate – if any – protection. The legislation clearly states requirements directly reflecting those outlined in the British Standards. The focus is on Category LD2, with all fire alarms being interconnected either via traditional cabling methods or on a wireless basis.
The legislation also encompasses carbon monoxide considerations, stating that a carbon monoxide alarm should be fitted where there’s a carbon-fuelled appliance or flue. This is another noteworthy addition in line with British Standards recommendations. This revision and coherence in legislation across the entire housing sector in Scotland provides a minimum standard for safe houses and promotes a clarity of approach.
There’s clearly a defined disparity and complexity throughout the requirements for fire and carbon monoxide safety within the housing sector across the UK. The requirements outlined through regulation and legislation are not only very different, but also cause confusion and, as mentioned, leave some vulnerable occupants unprotected.
There’s a need for the extension of private rented legislation in England to include social rented accommodation and ensure a minimum standard for safe homes, as is the case in Scotland. The terminology needs updating in both private rented legislation and Approved Document J in England to reflect the more encompassing phrasing that exists within the legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There needs to be the inclusion of all fuel burning appliances and a reduction in the level of ambiguity involved, making the recommendations clear and overarching.
One of the Top Three most visited web pages on our own site is that surrounding standards and their attendant requirements, with over a third of all incoming queries received by our technical team focused on what systems should be fitted to meet the current safety requirements. Our mantra is always to follow the British Standards where possible. Not only is this all about up-to-date and Best Practice advice, but it also covers all tenures, whether they be new build or existing properties.
Ultimately, fire and carbon monoxide alarms are life safety devices. That being the case, it’s of paramount importance that there’s a concerted move towards standardisation in this area.
Andy Speake is National Technical Manager at Aico (www.aico.co.uk)