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Compartmentation

Effective compartmentation within residential blocks is an essential element of a passive fire protection strategy and is a concept which has been around for a long time.

Compartmentation works alongside fire resistant materials, safety equipment and an evacuation plan specific to the building. It is a key component in a fire safety strategy for a residential block, to keep people safe in the event of a fire whether that is to support a ‘stay put’ policy or emergency evacuation.

The premise is simple but effective. The fire is contained at its point of origin, allowing time for people to leave the building and the fire and rescue service to tackle the fire. Compartmentation also minimises damage to the structure of the property and its contents.

What does effective compartmentation look like?

A building is divided up into sections or compartments using the walls or floors as a barrier, deploying fire-resistant materials and by using measures such as fire doors.

The key objective is to contain any fire at its source, so it does not spread or spreads very slowly, allowing time for evacuation of the building and giving the emergency services an opportunity to put the fire out.

Compartmentation can also keep fire away from vulnerable parts of the building such as service areas which contain flammable and hazardous materials.

How does this apply to residential blocks?

Modern, purpose-built residential blocks are designed with innate compartmentation so a fire should not spread from its source regardless of the point of origin. Compartmentation is effective through the separation between walls and floors. Where a compartment has to open, then a fire door is installed.

Each flat within a residential block can form its own compartment with the flat entrance door also doubling as a fire door.

As well as being unquestionably the best practice within the construction industry for multi-occupancy blocks, compartmentation is also essential for compliance with existing fire protection regulations.

Why is compartmentation necessary?

Compartmentation in residential blocks prevents or delays the spread of fire, allowing for safe evacuation of the building. It can also limit the damage to property and buy time so that the fire services can respond and extinguish the fire before it turns into something more dangerous and potentially out of control.

Whilst compartmentation is a passive fire safety system, it cannot be ignored as just something that is part of the building’s structure. The compartmentation system will require monitoring and maintenance to ensure it is effective and fit for purpose at all times.

What does poor compartmentation look like?

There are lots of incidences where effective compartmentation in a building can become vulnerable or below standard. An obvious example of this is poorly maintained fire doors, installed at the breakpoint between compartments. Fire doors are also favourites for misuse and are often wedged open to make life easier for the residents. Compartmentation is only as good as its weakest point and so regular inspection and management of fire doors is an essential responsibility of any landlord or managing agent.

Third party contractors like plumbers and electricians working on services to the building will often create breaches in walls and ceilings as part of their repair and maintenance brief. This is not usually a deliberate breach but remains a potential point where fire or smoke could spread from one compartment to another. It only requires the smallest compromise to the integrity of the compartmentation for the effectiveness of the whole system to become compromised. Managing contractors effectively is a big part of maintaining the integrity of compartmentation within a residential block.

Poor maintenance programmes that cause deterioration, leaks or shoddy repairs of walls and floors can all lead to vulnerable points within a building’s compartmentation system.

Unfortunately, without regular close inspections, some of these breaches can go unnoticed especially if they are in cavities which are not usually visible or on display. The use of inappropriate materials can also weaken compartmentation and compromise fire safety.

How can an agent or building owner manage compartmentation?

Managing compartmentation requires a multi-faceted approach underpinned by the requirements of current fire safety regulations and legislation.

Compartmentation control is a complex blend which reflects the design and construction of the building, the use of fire-retardant materials and the presence of other fire safety devices such as sprinkler systems. All these combine to form a designated minimum period of fire resistance for each compartment wall or floor.

Managing compartmentation requires a level of structural compliance within the building, alongside an ongoing programme of review, inspection and repair to ensure that the compartmentation for the block continues to comply with regulations and is still effective at doing its job.

This includes regular assessments and reports on fire doors, the supervision of third-party contractors whilst they work on site, plus the inspection of areas of work after completion.

A compartmentation survey on a regular basis as part of the buildings FRA – Fire Risk Assessment – can review all aspects of the system and implement a programme of safety checks to ensure compliance, repairs and upgrades. This will manage the use of the building by residents and the involvement of third-party contractors, both of which can challenge the integrity of a compartmentation system on a regular basis.

What are the risks of  inadequate or poorly maintained compartmentation?

Compartmentation that is not fit for purpose poses several risks and these include:

  • The risk that fire will spread and spread more quickly than if the compartmentation was intact
  • The ability for residents to evacuate safely before the spread of the fire is compromised
  • There is an increased risk of damage to the building, which could have been limited to the seat of the fire and the immediate area around it
  • The Fire Services face heightened danger when they attend the fire
  • The risk of enforcement and penalty imposed by legislation for compliance failures
  • Building insurers may reduce pay outs for fire damage claims if the compartmentation can be shown to be poorly maintained or inadequate under current fire regulations

HML can help with the regular inspection of all passive fire safety measures in your residential block, including testing and maintenance in line with legislation and current manufacturers’ protocols.

We have years of experience in fire risk assessments for residential buildings and can conduct a complete review in conjunction with qualified professionals who will look at all measures of fire control and safety, including the compartmentation system, fire doors and flat entrance doors. Regular reviews are essentials to keep pace with legislative changes and to manage repairs and upgrades, ensuring that the compartmentation and all aspects of the passive fire protection system are fit for purpose.