Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats

Fire safety in blocks of flats. Following the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, awareness of fire safety policies in purpose-built blocks of flats is being raised. Learn more about how to help prevent fire posing a danger to people residing in a flat.

Following the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, more is being done to raise awareness about fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats.

Local Government Association guidelines

In 2011, the Local Government Association led work commissioned by the Government to develop sector-led guidance regarding fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats. This guide was produced by experts in the field of fire safety and was released after a number of landlords raised concerns about levels of fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats.

In order to produce sufficient levels of guidance, the LGA worked alongside private sector landlords, management agents, housing and environmental health and local authorities. This particular type of guidance focuses on responsibilities of private sector landlords who rent out individual flats in purpose-built blocks of flats owned by others. The guidance also applies to converted blocks of flats so long as the conversion was carried out in accordance with the 1991 or post-1991 Building Regulations and still complies with said regulations.

Breaches of safety in individual flats can be enforced by local housing authorities using their powers under the House, Health and Safety Rating System.

In regards to fire safety in individual flats, the main objectives of LGA guidance are for each front door to be a fire door fitted with smoke seals and intumescent strips, as well as a self-closer. It is also important to ensure that any work carried out in the individual flat does not compromise the integrity of the compartmentalisation.

In regards to compartmentalisation, any gaps should be fire stopped to help maintain the integrity. Each flat should have a working smoke alarm placed within good circulation of each room, this does not need to be interlinked with any other system. This alarm should be a mains interlinked alarm with a standby battery back-up for maximum protection.

In addition to this, each flat should be within its own fire safety box, as the compartmentalisation of individualisation flats is in place to stop any fire that breaks out from spreading within the perimeter of the flat itself.

The internal hallway of the flat should be fire resistant for 30 minutes with fire doors to each room fitted with smoke seals and intumescent strips. However, unlike the front door, they do not need to be self-closing. Due to the serious nature of fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats, it is likely that you have a lot of questions, or there may be some things that you are uncertain about. We have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions and answered them in detail.

FAQs about fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats

  • Often, there is a “stay put” policy in place in the case of a fire. What is this?
  • A. When a fire occurs, occupants must alert others in the flat, safely and quickly make their way out of the building and call for the fire and rescue service. Residents not directly affected by the fire are expected to stay put and remain in their flat unless directed to leave by the fire and rescue service. However, those not directly involved will not be prevented from leaving the building if they wish to do so.
  • Is the “stay put” policy safe?
    A. The principle of the “stay put” policy is that, when a fire does occur within one dwelling, it is generally safe for other residents to remain within their flat. However, following the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, “stay put” has been brought into question.

The London Fire Brigade has defended the policy – but, in this case, the policy was made deadly due to cladding on the outer side of the tower. Cladding has since been removed from high-rise buildings across the UK, and the “stay put” policy is still deemed the best advice for residents living in purpose-built blocks of flats. However, if residents do wish to evacuate, they are free to do so.

  • What actions can you take to prevent a fire?
    A. It is important that residents make sure their smoke alarms are in working condition by testing them regularly. Residents must also ensure that their front doors are well-maintained and fully close when released.

Residents should work together to make sure communal areas are kept clear and free from ignition sources and any combustible materials. Any combustible materials and waste should be stored well away from the building.

Escape routes from the building should also be kept clear and free from obstruction at all times. Residents should adhere to the no smoking policy and be knowledgeable of the emergency procedures for their building. Should residents notice any issues of concern, they should raise the alarm immediately.

Regarding the building standards, residents should review when they last checked the building for fire safety arrangements. Any automatic fire detection systems such as smoke alarms and fire alarms should be maintained and up-to-date; if not, the relevant action must be taken.

Any automatic fire systems and emergency lighting should also be tested regularly in line with requirements. Similarly, any fire protection systems such as sprinkler systems and extinguishers should be serviced and up-to-date. 

  • Is there any need for changes after maintenance work?
    A. For planned and preventative maintenance, these services should be maintained in accordance with the correct requirements, and records should be kept up-to-date. This includes gas safety, lightning protection, electrical installation and portable appliance testing.
  • Who is responsible for fire safety in tower blocks?
    A. In both tower blocks and purpose-built flats, the responsibility for fire safety is generally decided between the landlord, managing agent and residents.

    Residents are responsible for their own flat and making sure that they have appropriate detection, such as working smoke detectors. For freehold properties, the tenant must also ensure that the front door of the flat is a fire door of a suitable standard – and, if the flat is leasehold, the leaseholder and tenant are jointly responsible for ensuring that the front door is a fire door of an adequate standard.

For the common areas of purpose-built blocks of flats, the landlord or managing agent is responsible for fire safety in areas including corridors and stairwells. That said, in some tower blocks, a member of the Residents’ Association may hold the responsibility.

Regardless of who this is, they are the designated Responsible Person for fire safety in those common areas – meaning it is their duty to ensure that there is a valid fire risk assessment for the property and that common areas are protected from fire, while making residents aware of the building’s fire safety policy.

Having a person responsible for fire safety in the building is a legal requirement under the Fire Safety Regulatory Reform Order. 

  • What is a fire risk assessment?
    A. This is an organised and detailed look at the premises to review the activities carried out there and the possibility of a fire that could cause harm to people residing in the premises.
  • What fire detection do residents need?
    A. Domestic smoke detectors are essential. These can be provided free of charge by the fire and rescue service, and it is highly recommended that these detectors are fitted with 10-year lithium batteries to reduce the likelihood of the batteries going flat.
  • Interlinked detectors should be in every room, while any escape routes such as corridors should also have smoke detectors.
    What does the Responsible Person for fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats need to do?
    A. People responsible for fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats should carry out a fire risk assessment. This is not only a legal requirement but also the basis of all of the flats’ fire safety plans. Following the fire risk assessment, any recommendations must be implemented immediately.
  • What is the duty to residents from a Responsible Person?
    A. After carrying out a valid fire risk assessment, the Responsible Person should make sure that the preventative fire safety measures are being observed, whether this is the serving of firefighting equipment or making sure that escape routes are clear.

It is essential that the Responsible Person clearly communicates the property’s fire safety policies and procedures to residents. This can be in an email or letter, and residents should be reminded annually.

The law surrounding fire safety in blocks of flats summarised

All residents in purpose-built blocks of flats must be made aware of the importance of maintaining any fire safety measures required by legislation at the time the block was constructed. Any alterations that residents make within their own flat must not compromise the safety of others, while any material alterations to flats must be controlled under the Building Regulations 2010 and must be approved by a controlling body.

Under the Housing Act 2004, if the housing authority is made aware of any significant fire hazards, they must inspect the relevant properties. For this purpose, they have power of entry and may make requirements for improvements to preventative measures. If there is potential for a serious risk, the housing authority has the power to take emergency action.

The Fire Safety Order applies to all parts of purpose-built blocks of flats, other than within the individual flats. All fire safety measures must be adequately maintained – and, if inadequate fire safety measures put people at risk of serious injury or even death in the event of a fire, an offence is committed.

The Fire Safety Officer requires that appropriate fire safety measures are determined by means of a fire risk assessment. This assessment must be both suitable and sufficient so that it ensures the correct fire safety policy is in place within common parts of the building. However, such an assessment does not address the safety of residents from fire from within their own flat.

Grenfell Tower

In June 2017, a fire started by a faulty fridge-freezer broke out at Grenfell Tower, a purpose-built block of flats. The fire started on the fourth floor and, upon the signalling of the smoke detector, the resident alerted neighbours and called for the fire brigade. Unfortunately, the fire proved deadly and ripped through the tower, causing 72 residents to lose their lives.

Following the tragedy, a report called for an end to cost-cutting material. Flammable material known as cladding was installed on the exterior of the tower in a bid to reduce the price of refurbishing the building. Due to the cladding, the fire burned at a faster pace, and the material is set to be banned to help prevent similar tragedies.

The cladding was newly applied Reynobond 55PD plastic and unfortunately proved to be a source of fuel for the fire, with the flames working around the protection provided by the concrete that formed the walls of each flat.

It is because of this that the “stay put” policy failed to work. If the fire is contained to one flat, the policy is the right protocol, as it prevents a mass number of people from going down the stairs when the firefighters are trying to work – but, here, it proved fatal. The “stay put” policy has been subjected to huge criticism following the tragic events of Grenfell Tower, as it emerged that residents should have instead been evacuated. The horror of Grenfell speaks volumes about how seriously fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats should be taken.

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