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Fire Alarms – When does my building need one and why?

The driver for a fire alarm within a multi-occupancy building starts with the requirement to keep the occupants safe from smoke and fire and to provide an early warning system which might include the need to evacuate. The best way to keep residents safe from fire will depend upon the style of the building and how it has been designed, with guidance from legislation and regulatory requirements which informs fire safety policy.

The requirement for alarms and detectors must reflect the fire policy for the building and this is created by a professional fire risk assessment in line with current legislation and standards.

There are many different types of fire alarm systems and smoke detectors that accompany the system, but the fire assessment will begin by determining whether the block is able to operate a ‘stay put’ policy. The alternative to a ‘stay put if safe to do so’ policy also known as a phased evacuation, is a GOSO – ‘Get out, stay out’ policy otherwise known as simultaneous evacuation. Any building with a GOSO policy will usually need a fire alarm.

Automatic Fire Alarms

An Automatic Fire Detector also known as an AFD is any system which can detect a fire and raise the linked alarm so residents can evacuate the building. AFDs can be linked to and work in combination with other types of fire safety equipment such as fire shutters or AOV systems.

An Automatic Fire Alarm is usually installed when there is a GOSO policy in place. In these circumstances, the implementation of an AFD will be specific to the individual block and the defined risks which have given rise to the existence of the GOSO policy.

Usually, the majority of blocks operating a GOSO policy are likely to be conversions where it is much harder to be able to create the level of compartmentation required for a ‘stay put’ policy.

In most cases, a residential block with a GOSO policy will install a Grade A, LD2 system or where the property requires a more bespoke system, an L5 system.

What is a Grade A, LD2 system?

Grade A means that the system is described as ‘fully addressable’ and this allows anyone to look at the fire alarm panel and determine where in the building the fire is located. The software for the alarm divides the building into zones and provides information about the fire according to which zone the fire is located in.

The moniker, ‘LD2’, relate to the alarm’s coverage and will include communal escape routes and other areas of high risk such as flats which open onto the designated escape route.

‘Stay put’ policies in residential blocks

Apartment blocks which are reasonably modern and purpose built are usually designed to operate a stay put policy. A residential block with a ‘stay put’ policy will not normally have an AFD as this causes confusion and people to evacuate when this is not necessary or desirable. This is supported by Local Government Association (LGA) guidance.

However, it is not uncommon for some blocks which have a ‘stay put’ policy to also have a fire alarm installed. The concept is laudable, offering every possible defence and protection but communal fire alarms can cause unnecessary evacuation and prevent the fire brigade from doing their job so sometimes are at odds with a ‘stay put’ policy.

Each building needs an individual evaluation as some purpose-built blocks cannot support a ‘stay put’ policy because of specific issues like the presence of cladding or because of their design and problems with compartmentation.

Understanding the difference between a communal alarm system or AFD and independent detectors

A communal alarm system will alert the whole building or sections of the building depending on size and how the alarm is installed, to smoke or fire. Independent detectors such as fire alarms or smoke detectors installed within residents’ flats, will only alert the individual occupants of that specific flat. The latter are recommended for all flats in multi-occupancy blocks whether or not there is also an AFD fitted.

Local Government Association (LGA) Guidelines

The Local Government Association undertook research in 2011 to develop a set of guidelines regarding fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats using experts in this field. The guidelines focus on the responsibilities of private sector landlords who rent individual flats in purpose-built blocks owned by others. Converted properties are also included providing they satisfy the criteria and comply with the 1991 Building Regulations.

The guidance is informed by best practice which has developed since 2011. The Home Office is currently working on a new guide which should be available in 2022. Some key points for the current guidelines with regard to individual flats include:

  • Each front door should act as a fire door and be fitted with smoke seals as well as a self-closing mechanism
  • Any work carried out on or within an individual flat should not compromise the integrity of the overall compartmentalisation within the building
  • Each flat should have a working smoke alarm which can be heard within all rooms in the apartment and this can be standalone and not necessarily linked to any other system within the building. The smoke alarms should be mains interlinked with battery back-up. Flat occupants should not be encouraged to buy and fit their own cheap smoke detectors from a DIY store – these are usually just battery operated and can fail
  • Each flat should sit within a designated fire safety box as part of the compartmentalisation scheme to contain a fire and stop it spreading to the perimeter
  • The doors opening onto hallway of each flat should be fire-resistant for 30 minutes
  • The doors to each room should be fitted with smoke seals

Regulatory requirements for the upkeep and testing of fire detection equipment

Where a fire alarm is installed, there is a requirement to test it regularly, service and maintain it in good repair. Service, maintenance and testing should be in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and current regulations and be incorporated into the fire safety policy for the building. Obligations to test, maintain and repair also extend to all other fire safety equipment, such as smoke detectors, emergency lighting systems and sprinklers.

Who is responsible for fire safety?

In apartment blocks like tower blocks and smaller purpose-built flats, the responsibility for fire safety is defined by the arrangements between the landlord, resident management company, managing agents and the residents.

Residents are responsible for their own flat and if the flat is leasehold, then the leaseholder and tenant are jointly responsible for ensuring that the flat complies with the relevant regulations regarding the front door and the fitting of smoke detectors.

For communal areas, the landlord or resident management company is usually responsible for fire safety, however, will often make arrangements through their managing agent. Having a nominated person to oversee fire safety – the Responsible Person – is a legal requirement under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

The designated Responsible Person has a duty to ensure that all measures are being observed to support the requirements of the fire risk assessment. This includes ensuring there is a valid and up-to-date fire risk assessment, that there are correct fire notices within the building, that fire prevention equipment is properly tested, maintained and serviced, that communal areas are kept free of rubbish and that residents are made aware of the fire safety policy for the building. It is an offence to put people at the risk of injury or death because of the inadequate implementation of a fire safety policy.

How HML can help?

The issue of fire safety is a hot topic and is an area of serious priority for any managing agent or block owner. Fire safety is subject to detailed and sometimes complex regulation with ongoing changes in light of new developments and government guidance.

HML offer expertise in the management of fire safety in residential blocks of different types and design throughout the entire process of fire risk assessment through to the implementation of fire policy and the testing and maintaining of all fire safety equipment via their dedicated and experienced Health & Safety team. This also includes responding to changes and alterations in building design and modifications within individual flats. HML have a track record of assisting leaseholders and building owners be compliant with the fire safety policy for their building. If you require further information, please contact your property manager in the first instance.