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Making the right connections

28 April 2021

In view of evidence heard at the ongoing Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry, the Government’s White Paper on social housing and the draft Building Safety Bill, there has arguably never been a more intense focus on improving fire prevention and response infrastructures for social housing. James King and Nick Rutter evaluate the role to be played by connected technology

FIRES PRESENT a major problem here in the UK. Back in 2016, the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS) reported that there’s an average of 174 fires in the nation’s buildings each and every day. While it’s the personal responsibility of private homeowners to install and subsequently maintain their own smoke alarms, the situation pertaining in the social housing sector is somewhat different. For their part, social housing owners have a ‘Duty of Care’ when it comes to the provision of adequate fire safety measures for protecting their tenants.

Fire safety legislation and policy dictate the level of protection a social housing provider must deliver. Some of the policies and factors impacting the specification of domestic fire safety systems in the context of social housing are the Housing Act 2004, the Fire Safety (Regulatory Reform) Order 2005, BS 5839 Part 6 and, of course, the Building Regulations themselves.

An earlier study – this one being conducted in 2014 – by the FDIS highlighted that almost half of those individuals directly responsible for managing fire safety in Houses in Multiple Occupation (a central element of the social housing estate, of course) were simply unaware of their legal obligations. With a high percentage of vulnerable tenants residing in such accommodation, there’s a clear need for absolute clarity when it comes to legislation and standards.

Fundamentally, this boils down to an understanding of the three levels of fire safety. The top level concentrates on the aforementioned law and legislation (including specific Acts of Parliament and legislation drafted by Westminster). The middle level is centred around guidance and the best Codes of Practice. The base level is about standards (including specific product and system test specifications).

Principal legislation

The principal piece of legislation in England and Wales that covers safety in social housing is the Housing Act 2004. This identifies no fewer than 29 categories of potential hazards, one of which is fire. Additionally, the Fire Safety Order applies to the common parts of multi-occupied residential housing and requires landlords or housing owners to carry out a fire risk assessment (more of which anon) and implement appropriate precautions.

Further, given that somewhere in the region of 43% of social housing tenants have a long-term disability, housing providers also have a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to not place any such  residents under any unfair disadvantage. This also chimes with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which requires all employers or organisations to ensure that all people (including the disabled) can safely leave a building in the event of fire.

The general consensus for a fire risk assessment in social housing is to follow a five-step process: identify the fire hazards, identify those people at risk, evaluate, remove or otherwise reduce and protect against remaining risk, record, plan, instruct, inform and train and then also review.

In a risk assessment, it’s also important to consider vulnerable tenants that may live in an adapted property or possess a host of technological devices. In these circumstances, social housing landlords should work closely with the tenant(s) and any personal carer(s), duly acknowledging their specific needs and requirements.

The risk assessment should be the first process in a standard step-by-step fire safety guide for tenants. Beyond this, housing providers should provide safety information to tenants (and provide awareness about evacuation procedures), always making sure that they liaise with the local Fire and Rescue Service to arrange free home fire safety checks.

Importantly, social housing providers should also install and test fire alarms (simultaneously to annual gas safety and electrical checks) in all properties. For their part, tenants are advised to independently check their alarms on a weekly basis. Furnishings and furniture should also be compliant with the Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations (1998) and electrical equipment with the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994.

While many registered providers of social housing do so, it’s deemed Best Practice to deliver bespoke instructions for new tenants focused on taking care of their home via a ‘homeowners pack’ or ‘tenant information pack’. This will allow tenants to independently maintain and mitigate their own fire risk.

White Paper

The Government’s White Paper on social housing sets out how it will deliver fundamental change to ensure people feel safe and secure in their homes. Two key steps are to legislate to strengthen the objective of the Regulator of Social Housing such that it will explicitly include fire safety within its remit and also require social landlords to be regulated and remain transparent.

The Government is launching a consultation on requiring smoke alarms in social housing. Also, the Government has stipulated that it will expect the Regulator of Social Housing to prepare a Memorandum of Understanding in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive to ensure effective sharing of information with the Building Safety Regulator.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that success in the social housing sphere will require new approaches to how social housing providers monitor and manage fire risk in their buildings. The White Paper on social housing and the new Charter for social housing residents, published last November, are to be welcomed. They aim to ensure greater landlord accountability and transparent communication with tenants.

Clearly, we’re now at a stage where technology can shoulder some of the responsibility of fire safety, with social housing providers, Fire and Rescue Services and regulators able to make good use of it in protecting tenants and homes far more effectively.

Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the relationship between the Fire and Rescue Services and social landlords has strengthened. Continuing the systems theme, there’s now huge interest from both parties in how connected technology can provide real-time information, assess risk and engage with tenants to ensure they are – and feel – safe. With the right technologies to hand, it’s fair to suggest that fire prevention and response can become easier, more effective and more proactive as a process.

The IoT and AI

By introducing connected technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), social landlords can create serious efficiencies. Post-Grenfell, more than 400 ‘Waking Watches’ were established around the country to monitor buildings. However, they’re expensive and only designed to work as an interim measure. Relying on humans for fire prevention shouldn’t be the only intervention and it certainly isn’t sustainable in the longer term.

Underpinned by remote monitoring and the cloud connectivity of smoke detectors, social landlords can streamline fire prevention as this development creates an opportunity for centralised, off-site monitoring such that multiple sites can be managed from a single base. Connected technology can be installed within the parameters of an existing budget and, potentially at least, provide more protection.

This combination of the IoT and AI technologies provides 24/7 oversight of buildings and their changing fire risks, collecting data that can be analysed for trends and patterns. AI can even offer predictive analysis based on these trends. The more data it processes, the more accurate it becomes. With the right technologies, we can automate key processes and highlight who needs more support to help social housing providers engage directly with at-risk tenants, encouraging independent living and proactive intervention.

From the Fire and Rescue Services’ perspective, connected technology and remote monitoring enable them to assess data relating to not only the condition of the building materials, but also vulnerable tenants, thereby managing and preventing risks. From a tenant’s perspective, digitisation means they can be informed on the state of the safety system within their own homes, report any concerns and easily engage with social landlords. For the Fire and Rescue Services, connected technology can enable them not only to monitor, but also prevent risk before it turns into a 999 call.

Safety for the vulnerable

Recently, the British Standards Institution withdrew its guidance on fire risk assessments following the threat of legal action from a bereaved Grenfell Tower family. The assessments stated that it was “not normally practicable” to identify people with disabilities or for landlords to make provision for their evacuation in a fire scenario.

For the aforementioned 43% of social housing residents who live with a long-term disability, the use of cutting-edge technology that remotely monitors the home environment 24/7 – and generates live data that illustrates the real-time risk level unique to each property – has the potential to prevent life-threatening events.

Cognitive and/or physical impairments that may arise in ageing populations can influence the probability of a fire, the residents’ ability to detect a fire in its early stages and promptly evacuate the property when required. Taking this into account, the remote monitoring of individual residents’ home environment offers a tangible opportunity to mitigate risk.

Installing connected fire safety technologies underpins the principles of the Building Safety Bill, which aims to provide transparent accountability for safety throughout a building’s life cycle, including the provision of fire safety and related equipment such as smoke alarms, heat alarms and carbon monoxide alarms. Cutting-edge connected safety offers a quick and easy-to-install safeguard achieved by interlinking alarms with wireless technology. If one alarm is triggered, the remaining alarms and ancillary devices are immediately activated, alerting a person with impaired hearing to the developing blaze.

Not only can the data monitored in real-time alert social landlords to the status of alarms in the property when they’re triggered, but also advise as to when those systems need to be replaced. Prevention is always the foremost priority.

Connection to the IoT enables social housing landlords to monitor important features such as the building’s age and condition as well as the wear and tear realised on electrical appliances. Being able to combine this information with data on individuals’ physical or mental status is also hugely important and beneficial in equal measure. If an individual has dementia, is partially-sighted or uses a wheelchair, they will be slow to respond in the event of a fire.

Using connected technology, a person-centric approach can be applied to fire safety procedures and systems. Adopting this approach means safeguards can be implemented, managed and maintained according to a vulnerable resident’s individual needs, helping to support many of the requirements set out in the Government’s Charter for social housing residents.

Paul Rutter is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer and James King is Connected Homes Director at FireAngel (www.fireangel.co.uk)