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FS North: Fire safety in tall buildings

11 October 2017

THE BREAKFAST briefing at the Fire Safety Event in Manchester this morning (11 October) was the first of two sessions today to look at the topical issue of fire safety in tall buildings.

Panellists Joe McCafferty, of BAFSA, Sean Quinn, of FireVu, and Chris Hyndman, of STI, discussed the issue from their own perspectives. Joe started proceedings off by acknowledging that if all fire risks can be eliminated then buildings will be safe but, otherwise, sprinklers are a good option, particularly as they can cover deficiencies in other fire-safety measures, such as a failure in terms of compartmentation.

He then addressed the issue of retro-fitting sprinkler systems in social housing – obviously a major topic since the Grenfell tragedy earlier this year. “In the wake of the report into Lakanal House,” he reminded delegates, “retro-fitting was held to be too expensive. However, we recently completed a project – Callow Mount – where the verified commercial cost of retro-fitting a sprinkler system (five sprinkler heads per flat) was just £1145 per flat. In this case, we worked with the landlord and the tenants and it all went very well. The tenants didn’t all have to be moved out and they welcomed the work, because it was properly explained to them. We worked with them, and with the other agencies involved, to minimise disruption.”

The benefits of fitting automatic fire suppression systems are many, Joe continued. “First and foremost, they provide an immediate response to fire, containing and holding it at least, but also often putting it out. They also compensate for other fire-protection problems, such as those posed by single staircases, damage to fire-stopping and fire-separation measures, etc.

“The benefits to tenants include collective protection and protection when other methods fail. For landlords and building owners they reduce the need to rehome tenants while repairs take place and demonstrate compliance with relevant duties under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Finally, for fire and rescue services they can provide safer access to the compartment where the fire is located, make stay-put policies less risky and reduce the overall firefighting burden.”

The discussion was then taken up by Sean Quinn, who focused on video fire detection. Explaining how it works, he said: “The video analyses images from the detector to identify the presence of smoke and flame. The detector doesn’t have to wait for physical contact between smoke, fire and heat, therefore reaction to the fire at source is faster.”

Sean believes that with the expected move towards the use of high-pressure mist sprinklers, additional detection capability will be needed because sprinklers alone don’t detect early enough. He went on: “Video detection can be deployed quickly and economically, and especially in high-risk areas. It can be used with existing building power and networking infrastructure. And video alarms can be received in a number of ways, thus ensuring rapid response and evacuation.”

Chris Hyndman wrapped up the day’s first session by asking: can more be done to improve fire safety in tall buildings? “Yes, of course it can,” said Chris. “Maintenance, upkeep and protection of systems are crucial. Keeping systems operational is vital to maintaining safety. If you don’t maintain your systems, then they are prone to damage, accidental triggering of call-points, misuse of equipment, etc.”

He went on to mention a number of low-cost, effective solutions to such problems. “Fit cages to your detectors, bells, sounders and emergency lighting. Use covers to protect your call-points, as now recommended in BS5839-1: 2017. Then there are local alarms, which can be fitted to the likes of fire extinguishers and fire doors.

Summing up, Chris reminded delegates of the importance of having suitable and sufficient risk assessments and acting on them and carrying out regular maintenance. “Protect the things that protect you,” he concluded.