Fire safety in buildings

A guide to understanding how fire safety regulations apply to all residential and commercial buildings. What you need to know if you are extending your home and what you can do if you are concerned about the fire safety of a public building.

Whether you reside in a detached home or apartment block, work in an office or warehouse or spend time in a gym, library, or coffee shop, fire safety regulations apply to every building. From the moment an architectural concept is put to paper, to the time a building’s doors first open, the potential cost of skimping on fire safety is far too huge to ignore.

In fact, in the UK, fire safety is so prevalent in all of our lives that we no longer have a dedicated National Fire Safety Week. This used to take place in late September or early October, but it’s now something that we not only shouldn’t have to be reminded of – it’s essential advice we are legally required to address. And we believe it’s better that way.

Despite summer heatwaves and icy winters, fire isn’t seasonally choosy. In the last two years, the most fires attended by Fire Rescue Services in the UK were in April (2016/17), and August (2017/18). It is powerful, destructive and indiscriminate, which means we must all be equally as relentless and uncompromising when it comes to fire safety.

From when the first foundations of a building are put in place, it is likely that the three components required to start a fire are already present. What we call ‘The Fire Triangle’ is the combination of an ignition source, a type of fuel, and oxygen. As the last of these three fire elements is everywhere, builders and architects focus their design efforts on eliminating the risk of ignition and carefully choosing the location of fuel sources.

This design process also involves considering how a building will fare in the event of a fire. How will the structure withstand a lengthy, high-temperature blaze, what is the quickest way for its occupants to reach safety, how efficiently can the fire be contained, and what level of fire safety equipment will be required to address these concerns?

Being able to plan for fire alarm systems, fire doors and curtains, automatic sprinkler systems or extinguishing units, builders design with a wealth of fire safety knowledge at hand. While modern buildings do have the advantage of being designed with these principles in mind, many older, stone structures are still very capable of withstanding intense fires – so don’t give up on your dream of an idyllic country cottage just yet.

Until the smoking ban came into force in the UK in July 2007, one of the benefits of having offices and workplaces filled with cigarette smog was the impact on the design of building materials. With the risk of fire evidently much higher in public spaces, before the ban, designers and developers of materials dedicated themselves to creating less flammable materials for the home and workplace.

Now prominent not just in building materials, including insulation, they are also in our furniture, textiles, plastics, and electronic devices. However, the best way to make use of them now, as it has always been, is by taking preventative, fire safety measures in every aspect of our lives.

Essentially, these principles are the same on every level of any building and at every stage of the building’s life. Being careful with the heat produced by mechanical or welding equipment during construction is akin to taking care with the heat produced by electrical equipment in the kitchen when a building is later occupied.

However, while a regular fire safety check on the kitchen or home is simple, in larger premises, it can be more complex. If you are the owner, occupier or manager of a building, or in any way in charge of a premises, it is your responsibility to perform regular fire safety inspections and make residents or employees aware of your findings.

If you are in charge of a public building, you must also consider the needs of a wider audience. People with mobility issues, visual or auditory impairments or learning difficulties and those for whom English is not a first language must have the opportunity to understand the fire safety principles that apply to the building.

An unfortunate consideration people who run public buildings do have to account for, however, is the potential risk of arson. Every year, schools, council buildings, many types of workplace building, and even construction sites themselves are deliberately vandalized. This makes the placement and storage of any fuel sources an extra level of concern for builders or building managers.

The risks to any property or business owner, town or council planner, or building construction company not paying attention to fire safety regulations are immense. Even without an incident, businesses can be closed and fined by fire and rescue authorities – and, in more serious incidents, even prison sentences can occur.

Below are numerous questions that will help you understand how fire safety applies to the buildings you visit or maintain. Outside of the home, the majority of buildings are legally required to have fire safety regulations in place, so business and property owners can also deal with certain queries.

How does fire safety apply in a shared building?

In a residential setting, the owner or landlord is responsible for ensuring that fire safety regulations are in place and regularly maintained. The same applies if you are in a shared workspace – the owner of the building is responsible for managing fire safety procedures. Communication between different businesses is also key in the maintenance of any shared property, as is the implementation of individual procedures.

The likelihood is that even different businesses operating in the same building will be performing similar fire safety duties. An office in the same building as a small manufacturer, for instance, will still make use of the same escape routes and alarm system. A business with more staff, files, workstations, equipment or even furniture will, however, identify more fire hazards, and encounter a higher level of risk, than a lone entrepreneur.

Unless other businesses within the same workplace are aware of these different needs, no fire safety risk assessment can be totally comprehensive. Communications between businesses, therefore, and between businesses and building owners, are essential. People need to be aware of who is working in a building at any given time, what sort of hazards exist within their workspaces, and what is in place to prevent or deal with an incident.

Any business growth, change of office layout, delivery of large new equipment and even organising of an office party should be communicated to building owners. Unless the person responsible for the building can be sure of who is in it at any given time, they cannot be certain that fire safety procedures are adequately prepared.

What if I am concerned about fire safety in a public building?

Before the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, most public buildings, including schools, were maintained by local authorities. With fire safety already expected to be of a high standard in council buildings anyway, this has changed in recent years. There are now more privately run – or, at least, self-maintained – public buildings, and the same Order now requires that fire precautions are to be put in place that match the needs of the premises in question.

This means that, if you have any concerns over fire safety in a public building, there should certainly exist a fire safety policy you can query. If the concern is related to where you work, there should be a designated fire safety person either within your own staff or employed by the owner of the building.

Fire safety procedures exist to protect everyone, so nobody should feel unsafe asking about them. If your concern is with a school, then contact the headteacher, governing body or senior leadership team, and if your concern is with a leisure facility, then get in touch with the manager or business owner.

If it’s your own building, like an apartment or housing block, your landlord or building owner should provide you with further information. If you are still concerned, then you are entitled to contact your local authority or local fire and rescue service for more advice. Even if the matter appears to be a trivial one, authorities will address each concern seriously, where fire safety is concerned.

What do I need to consider when planning a new building?

From adding a utility room or conservatory to your house, to building a new office or weekend getaway on a purchased plot of land, you or your builders will need to consider fire safety immediately.

You will need to think about how the new building will affect any existing structures, any people living near or on the premises and what fire safety measures are required during and after construction. The following quick guide will help you plan effectively:

  • Regulations – is the new building compliant?
  • Fire protection – are active fire protection measures required, such as sprinkler systems or automatic extinguishers? Alternatively, will passive measures, such as fire-resistant insulation or fire doors suffice?
  • Materials – do the structure and all its components meet with the level of risk involved?
  • Fire – will any incidents be detected quickly and dealt with effectively, during and after construction?
  • Heat – how will the structure manage an incident, and for how long?
  • Smoke – is there adequate ventilation, as well as detection systems in place?
  • People – can others safely escape the building in the event of an incident?

While each of the above points can certainly be addressed in more detail, this gives you an overview of the considerations any builders need to make when implementing fire safety in their blueprints. Considering how each element interacts with another at this early stage of planning could lead to time, money and even life-saving dividends later.

What should I do in the event of a fire in a building?

Remember your most recent fire safety training? Yes, but the responsiveness of the human mind and body does have the potential to be overly abrupt here. Another piece of advice would be to ‘stay calm’, but it’s likely that we’re already way beyond that when faced with a fire. This is a big reason why fire safety regulations exist and are so important to implement.

In an ideal world, every building has the appropriate equipment, procedures and personnel in place to deal swiftly and effectively with an incident. This means that the first step – alerting others – should be dealt with by a fire alarm system or following the agreed communications plan already in place to alert others.

If the fire is spreading or already out of control, the next step is evacuation. Get yourself, and everybody who could be affected, out of the building or premises immediately. Regardless of whether it’s the home or a large building, there should already be an evacuation plan and route in place. If this has been planned efficiently, it will be the most straightforward route out of the building. This means that, if you still can’t remember your training, you’re hopefully already following it anyway.

Calling emergency services is essential, but don’t stop to do so until you are completely clear of the blaze. Smoke from any fire is extremely toxic – and when started in buildings, smoke can be filled with materials and debris that make both vision and breathing much more difficult. Do not stop to collect personal belongings, do not return to the building, and – if initial attempts to douse the blaze fail – do not try to fight it yourself.

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