In the aftermath of Grenfell, social landlords are often under pressure to ensure the best fire safety and often need to by deliver swift improvements in properties they own. With several inquiries, most notably the Hackitt Review, calling for urgent improvements, particularly in high-rise buildings, there is a developing consensus within the industry that wireless fire detection is the best way to achieve this, without compromising on quality or reliability.
Why is wireless the obvious solution?
The best wireless fire detection technology offers a no-compromise approach to protection with a number of unique benefits that make it ideal for social housing. Wired fire systems can take weeks to install, with outlays for fire watches, tenant displacement and remediation costs. Conversely wireless fire devices, following a survey, can be programmed offsite, then installed in minutes delivering the highest level of protection, with no need for cabling or renovation. This is good news for residents, specifiers, responsible people and installers in social housing, whether they require a speedy solution for a permanent fire system.
Wireless devices were traditionally viewed as best suited to large manufacturing sites or significant structures (ie. Stately homes), because of their ability to cover large areas and the fact that they can be fitted with minimal disruption to the building’s fabric. However, they can also offer noteworthy benefits to the social housing sector and are becoming the standard solution. Simple and convenient installation can offer cost reductions, with additional savings on refurbishment, wiring and manpower. An installer can complete each property in hours, needing only short-term access to properties, radically reducing the disturbance to tenants and giving them long-term lasting peace of mind. If any social landlord is required to renew or upgrade the fire system outside of the normal maintenance cycle, these are all beneficial.
After more than 20 years of development led by companies such as the UK’s Hyfire, wireless fire detection and alarm devices have reached new levels of quality and excellence, with solutions ranging from optical, multi-criteria and heat detectors to notification, alarm, interface and control units. The range here at Hyfire also includes a Visual Alarm Device (VAD), which is certified to EN54 Part 23, using LED technology to extend battery life.
All wireless devices available in the UK need to be certified to the relevant EN54 standards and fully compliant with BS5839 Part 1. It is also worth noting this as there are some less approved and poorly-suited systems crossing over from security to fire that may leave tenants and owners lacking in adequate protection.
Wireless detection systems are now seen by many as the equal of the old-fashioned wired versions and the basic topology of panels and loops remains the same. Standard addressable panels still used, and are connected via the fire loop to wireless translators, which build up the wireless communication network, onto which sit the input and output devices. The fire loop can also carry standard wired devices in a hybrid system format, maximising the flexibility for installers, tenants and end users. Systems can grow from very small to very large, very easily and reliably. The extent of these high-performance systems is limited only by installation standards or the number of devices that a fire panel can control.
A pre-installation survey certifies the cost of the project, which means no hidden surprises as no holes need to be dug in walls or made good. This also ensures that the system will perform as specified, which is a guarantee that wired systems with their susceptibility to loop faults can often struggle to maintain.
Additionally, using smart interfaces, wireless devices can also be added to most existing fire systems (conventional and addressable) without any requirement to replace the existing cabled components. This would be particularly useful, for example, in a high-rise apartment block with a system that formerly only covered stairs and shared areas. It would be possible to add detectors, sounders and other devices inside the individual properties with minimum disturbance and no requirement, in the majority of cases, to replace the existing system.
Wireless and hybrid systems can be scrutinised and controlled remotely in the same way as any wired installation, offering a round-the-clock view of system status. In terms of monitoring and control, while some wireless systems limit the communication with the panel to maintain battery life, the best, such as Hyfire’s, deliver rich data over the loop and are essentially indistinguishable from a wired system in configuration and control terms. This means that all cause and effect, such as false alarm management and monitoring, are readily available.
Turning the Hackitt Review into Reality
Two precise terms recurring throughout the Hackitt Review were the principles of ‘risk ownership’ and the need to treat ‘buildings as a system’. These are highly pertinent here as, by taking steps to ensure that each property has a fit for purpose fire system, landlords are in effect taking ownership of the hypothetical threat of fire within that building. This allows them to reduce fire risk, to ensure that residents are alerted and evacuated in a timely manner should the need arise, and also to achieve rapid containment and suppression of the fire, using internal systems, the Fire Brigade, or more likely a mixture of the two.
Responsible social landlords also acknowledge that the fire system is a vital component in the overall system that administers and safeguards every building with two or more residential units, and especially those with three floors or more. We are seeing this in the ways that different elements within the building, ranging from fire systems to HVAC and CCTV can now interact to enhance safety and efficiency. Even fire door closers, which were once acoustically triggered, can now be linked directly to the fire panel via wireless door holders to maximise their reliability in fire conditions.
Wireless technology has a crucial role to play in delivering on the Hackitt Review suggestions. This is not due to any specific mention, or stated preference for, wireless devices in the report, so much as the way that wireless can offer rapid and ingenious solutions for landlords and their fire installers. For example, one major social landlord in the south of England has embarked on a rapid review and upgrade of the fire systems right across its estate, fast-tracking a cyclical process that would usually span a decade or more. In this case, the group installed more than 13,000 Hyfire wireless devices across 400 sites in 2019 alone. Without wireless solutions, this would be an even more expensive and convoluted undertaking, causing major disturbance for residents who are very often aged or frail.
Wireless is the Future of Fire Systems
Industry bodies such as the FIA (Best Practice Guide to Fire Safety) have acknowledged the value of wireless technology to help meet both the revised statutory environment and the expectations of social housing residents, especially in high-rise developments. The Scottish Government, which has amended the The Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 in response to its own review, specifically mentions the use of wireless and hybrid devices as acceptable for the upgrade, expansion or replacement of existing systems.
In the Queen’s Speech (January 2020), the UK government announced it will bring forward the Building Safety Bill this year. This will adopt the key elements of the Hackitt Review into law, increasing the pressure on social landlords to deliver rapid and effective fire safety solutions, which means we can expect the use of wireless technology in the social housing sector to increase further, quite possibly to a point where it becomes the first choice of many fire system specifiers and installers.