Over three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, the fallout is still rarely out of the news, with stories relating to unsafe cladding, new fire regulations and ongoing inquiries continuing to generate headlines and keep the tragic event and its implications in the public eye.
In the aftermath of the fire, new rules and regulations were issued around the world, with the UK government and its devolved partners revising the law on everything from the cladding itself to sprinkler installations, location of fire devices and evacuation systems. While nobody would argue that these changes were not necessary, they have created unprecedented challenges for fire systems manufacturers and installers. The good news is that, in many cases, wireless technology is the simplest solution to ensure rapid compliance.
According to Inside Housing magazine, there were over 300 high-rise towers with vulnerable cladding at the time of Grenfell and, although this number has fallen since, efforts to remedy the situation are still ongoing, with many private homeowners, usually leaseholders, being asked for tens of thousands of pounds to replace the cladding on the blocks.
While negotiations and legal processes take their course, many building owners and managers chose to employ 24/7 waking fire watches, which can cost up to £30 per hour in Greater London, a total of £262,000 per year. By comparison, a temporary or permanent wireless fire system, working either independently or alongside the existing fixed wired system, will cost only a fraction of that. These systems can be planned and installed in days, not months, covering all parts of the building and offering total protection and peace of mind to residents. A permanent installation offers the added benefit of meeting new requirements for detectors and sounders to be installed in each residential unit, and will continue to fulfil this function even after the cladding issue is resolved.
Once the dangerous cladding has been removed, the best commercial wireless systems, such as those from Hyfire, can be easily modified to a BS5839 active fire protection system or a BS8629 evacuation system afterwards or dedicated to other scopes. Without having to rewire, the Hyfire wireless products can be easily moved to expand or modify the system. The wireless devices can be converted to a BS8629 compliant evacuation system by simply removing all fire detectors, including sounders in common areas and swapping the control panel for an evacuation panel, with no need for additional cabling or infrastructure.
Before Grenfell, requirements for fire systems in high-rise residential buildings in the UK were relatively light-touch, with coverage only mandatory in communal areas, stairwells and plant rooms. 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 of residents.
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. Due to the way wireless devices are managed, they can also be retrofitted to an existing fire system without any need to replace the existing wired components. This would be particularly useful, for example, in a high-rise block with a system that previously only covered stairwells and communal areas.
The British Standard BS8629, introduced in England and Wales in November 2019, and now mandatory in Scotland also, 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’. The Hyfire’s evacuation solution involves minimal cabling and, like all Hyfire systems, devices can be pre-programmed offsite.
In an industry already facing challenges, 2020 has presented yet another test of the ingenuity and flexibility of the fire sector. With COVID-19, we face yet another potential impediment to progress that threatens to increase costs and delay projects. If the UK is subject to further lockdown measures beyond the two we have seen this year, it has the potential to delay urgent fire system upgrades and the removal of dangerous cladding.
The good news is that wireless fire technology offers a readymade solution to many of these new challenges. As we’ve already covered, wireless allows teams on site to work more efficiently, while reducing stress and upheaval for building occupants at the same time. By keeping contact and time on site to an absolute minimum, installers can offer enhanced peace of mind to building managers and tenants, which may make the difference between proceeding with a fire system install, or delaying it until the pandemic is over.
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. With less time needed to install or update each system, it’s possible to deliver improvements quickly and efficiently, with short lead-in times and less manpower.
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 events of 2020 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.