Six years after Grenfell, the UK’s high-rise dwellers continue to be burdened with the issue of fire safety in their buildings. With successive changes in rules, regulations and best practices, building managers are under pressure to achieve rapid results, especially in the tens of thousands of buildings blighted with defective cladding and other issues. In reality, however, with our over-burdened fire industry and ongoing battles over who should pay for what, this problem is not going to be solved any time soon.
The good news is that wireless fire devices can deliver rapid and cost-effective solutions, significantly reducing the pressure on building managers and slashing the cost in comparison to the alternative of waking watch, which remains surprisingly common despite the technological solutions available.
In buildings with defective cladding, a BS5839 Part 1 L5-compatible system can be specified with wireless heat detectors placed in external window and door openings, working as ‘cladding detectors’, along with detectors in each room, to create a wireless simultaneous evacuation system. Once the building is fully rectified, the heat detectors can be removed and the remaining devices used for this system can be repurposed to create a wireless evacuation solution specified to BS8629, facilitating an effective evacuation controlled by the fire brigade.
Putting Waking Watch to Bed
Waking Watch is a term we’ve become familiar with over the past six years, with residents paying out thousands each month for 24-hour patrols of their at-risk buildings. This was only ever intended to be an interim measure, but with the debate over the removal of cladding, and who should pay for it, now heading into its fifth year, it has become a permanent fixture in many high-rise blocks.
The truth is that, even with dangerous cladding still in place, there are alternatives to Waking Watch available now that can be specified and installed in weeks, with minimal disruption to residents and major costs saving compared to a 24/7 physical presence. By comparison with 24/7 waking watches, which can cost up to £30 per hour in Greater London, or a total of £262,000 per year according to Inside Housing, a temporary or permanent wireless fire system, working either independently or alongside the existing fixed wired system, will cost only a fraction of that.
Systems are available to both enhance the performance of existing fire systems and facilitate an effective evacuation of buildings in which the ‘Stay Put’ system was previously employed. The nature of the installation and the precise cost will be dependent on numerous factors, including the size and layout of the building, the age and specification of the existing fire system and the presence, or not, of defective cladding.
One option is the installation of a temporary wireless fire system, covering all communal areas and residential units, although given the relative simplicity and low impact of wireless devices, it often makes just as much sense to consider a permanent installation that can be expanded or adapted in the future. If there is an existing wired or wireless system covering only communal areas that is fit for purpose, this can often be expanded into residential units using wireless devices with new or updated panels, thereby negating the need to replace existing installations that are still fit for purpose.
Once the dangerous cladding has been removed, the best commercial wireless systems, such as those from Hyfire, can be easily modified to a permanent BS5839 active fire protection system. Without having to rewire, the Hyfire wireless products can be easily moved to expand or modify the system. Alternatively, the wireless devices can be converted to a BS8629 compliant evacuation system by simply removing all heat detectors in each flat, and swapping the control panel for an evacuation panel.
Before Grenfell, requirements for fire systems in high-rise residential buildings in the UK were relatively light-touch, with coverage only mandatory in the flats themselves. Although the fire system itself was not the reason for the rapid spread of the fire, there were weaknesses identified in terms of both protection within the residential units and communication with residents during the evacuation. Now there is intense pressure on building managers, and social housing operators in particular, to bring systems up to standard as quickly as possible, with minimal intrusion for residents during the current pandemic.
Whereas wired systems require extensive cabling work, disruption during installation and making good afterwards, which is why they are usually installed or upgraded during a wider refurbishment of the building, wireless fire devices can be pre-programmed offsite and installed in minutes, with minimal disturbance and no need for further works.
The British Standard BS8629, introduced in Scotland in November 2019, and mandatory in England since December 2022. applies to all high-rise residential buildings over 18 meters and identifies the critical design criteria required to achieve an effective evacuation, controlled by the fire brigade. The standard is applicable to both new and existing buildings, currently covering all residential properties over 18 meters, and it provides recommendations about the evacuation alert system comprising the evacuation alert control indicating equipment (EACIE), along with the audible and visual alarm devices, to ensure simple, consistent and intuitive operation.
The challenge is how to install the evacuation devices in a large number of residential units, while minimising inconvenience for residents, complying with health and safety regulations, and keeping to project timelines and costs. Given these requirements, wireless evacuation technology can represent the optimal choice for the evacuation system within high-rise buildings, thanks to the ease of installation, simplified maintenance requirements and the limited disruption to ‘business as usual’. Hyfire’s EvacWireless evacuation solution involves minimal cabling and, like all Hyfire systems, devices can be pre-programmed offsite.
Wireless is the Future of Fire Systems
Even before recent world events, bodies such as the UK’s FIA (Best Practice Guide to Fire Safety) had acknowledged the value of wireless technology to address some of the key challenges we are facing in high-rise residential building. With less time needed to install or update each system, it’s possible to deliver improvements quickly and efficiently, with short lead-in time, less manpower and immediate savings where Waking Watch can be eliminated.
Unlike some new technologies, always waiting for widespread adoption and acceptance in the industry, wireless fire systems are already mainstream and have been for many years. They were already becoming a default choice to address the challenges we faced post-Grenfell and now, with the current pandemic situation forcing fire installers and their teams to limit the time they spend on site and in contact with building users, the adoption of wireless is only going to accelerate.