The new UK Fire Safety Bill (FSB) – or the Fire Safety Act 2021 as it officially known after gaining royal assent – introduces new legal requirements that all high-rise building owners and managers will need to follow. The requirements are complex, and not exclusively related to cladding, so it makes sense to take an in-depth look at the document. The good news is that wireless fire technology provides a rapid route to compliance with many of the key stipulations.
The main aim of the FSB is to clarify the multiple deficiencies in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 that were identified after the Grenfell Tower fire. It confirms that the regulations covering external walls also apply to door openings, windows and balconies within those walls, as well as dictating the specification of entrance doors from residential units into communal areas, and introducing new enforcement measures to ensure that the new and existing regulations are met.
The FSB applies to all high-rise residential structures over 18 metres, including those built before it came into force, and includes provisions for blocks where defective cladding has not yet been removed. It also requires full inspections of all relevant buildings to ensure that refurbishment and improvement projects, such as new windows, plumbing or electrical renewals, have not compromised the compartmentation of each residential unit.
While many buildings will fail to comply with at least one of the new stipulations relating to cladding, compartmentation or evacuation, the government is not expecting these to be sorted overnight, especially given the ongoing debate over who should pay for cladding remediation. What is clear, however, is that solutions must be implemented to make all high-rise residential buildings safe in the short-term, and that is where wireless fire technology can help.
Despite much speculation and debate, the government has concluded that the traditional UK policy of ‘Stay Put’ was not in itself to blame for the death toll at Grenfell. In fact, given that the vast majority of our high-rise residential buildings have only a single staircase with, at best, limited smoke control capability, they continue to regard it as the optimum solution. This comes with the proviso that the building must have fully intact, uncompromised compartmentation and ideally a BS8629-compliant evacuation control system as well.
The government and its advisors are very aware of the fact that it was the defective cladding that allowed the Grenfell fire to spread, as opposed to any issues with the compartmentation designed by the original architects, and this has clearly led the thinking behind the new legislation. There is also recognition of the fact that cladding is not the only potential cause of compromised compartmentation, which is why internal factors are also covered. This is where buildings previously unaffected by the defective cladding scandal may come into the spotlight.
If any building is found to have compromised compartmentation, it will be subject to similar measures to buildings already affected by cladding issues. In the immediate term, this will mean Waking Watch, although a more cost-effective medium-term solution will be an upgrade from a Part 6 to a Part 1 fire system, which will ensure that all residential units have their own detectors and sounders. It is also possible to place additional detectors to monitor specific areas, such as a balcony doorway, window or even an internal fireproof wall where the compartmentation has been breached.
These Part 1 systems can be extensions of the existing Part 6 installation in the communal areas, or a standalone system. They will result in immediate cost savings of several thousand pounds per month compared to Waking Watch, so it makes sense to get them installed as quickly as possible. Using wireless fire devices, such as those manufactured by Hyfire, it’s possible to design, specify and install a system in a very short time. The installation itself can be done in a few minutes, with the devices pre-programmed offsite, which helps to limit contact with residents, while the lack of wiring means there is no need to ‘make good’ after the installation.
While a Part 1 system is the short-term solution, it is not the long-term standard. Despite Grenfell, experts continue to believe that a building-wide alert is not the optimum solution for any high-rise structure, as it could lead to uncontrolled evacuation attempts, clogging up the single staircase and preventing firefighters from getting to the fire incident. For this reason, the mandated solution is a Part 6 fire system combined with a BS8629-compliant evacuation control system. The latter introduces a single control point to manage remote alerts to each residential unit, in place of the historical method of organising an evacuation, which quite literally involved firefighters knocking on doors and telling residents to get out.
The good news is that investment in a temporary Part 1 system need not be wasted once the building is brought up to standard and returned to a Part 6 standard, focused on communal spaces, lift shafts, staircases and service areas. Provided that any wired elements are fitted with two-hour fireproof cable, as opposed to the one-hour mandated for a Part 1 fire system, the wireless devices can be repurposed as part of the BS8629-compliant system, thereby removing the need for a second full installation.
Looking to the future
The FSB is not going to solve the problems of the post-Grenfell era overnight, but it does at least give our industry clear direction on the future of fire regulation and safety in high-rise residential buildings. It is a foundation for further new laws, which are likely to include the writing of BS8629 into legislation in England and Wales, as it already is in Scotland. There are problems with the FSB, such as question marks over who should pay for cladding rectification, but from the point of view of fire professionals, it provides much-needed clarity.
The government is clearly convinced that the concept of ‘Stay Put’ was not at fault at Grenfell, and given the design of high-rise residential buildings in the UK, it remains the most effective way to effectively organise an evacuation, but only if one is needed. With an average of 20 to 30 high-rise fires in the UK every week, more than 95% of which are contained within the residential unit where they originate, it is clear to see why a full evacuation is undesirable, or even dangerous, in the majority of incidents.
The basic message is not to panic, even if you are in charge of a building that fails the new checks due to compartmentation or other defects. With wireless technology, an effective solution is within reach and, with clarification on the future of fire standards for high-rise residential finally provided by the FSB, we now have an end goal to move out of the post-Grenfell era and restore public trust in the fire industry.