In the line of fire

Are our buildings adequately protected against the risks from fire and smoke? The MBS Roundtable panel looks at the safety issues amid reports of poor design, installation and maintenance of fire dampers and other critical equipment. Andrew Brister sounds the alarm.

Can there be a more important discipline within building services than the provision of life safety systems? Critical systems such as fire and smoke control equipment are there to save lives and protect buildings, yet there is growing disquiet in the industry that what is being installed is not fit for purpose.

Does it need to take another disaster with tragic loss of life for standards to be tightened or are there other measures that the industry should be taking to ensure best practice? MBS convened a roundtable of representatives from all sides of the industry (see below) to discuss what is going wrong and how change can be brought about.

Of course, there is existing legislation in place that should protect both lives and buildings. Part B of the Building Regulations sets the design standards that must be complied with when it comes to fire safety, and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO), which came into force in 2006, should ensure that regular maintenance is carried out.

Yet, according to research carried out by trade body Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES), a worryingly high percentage of smoke and fire dampers are incorrectly designed and installed, never tested, or impossible to reach for maintenance.

Rogers: many installations simply wouldn’t help in the event of fire.

‘We highlighted this issue with the publication of “A guide to good practice for the installation of fire and smoke dampers (DW/145)”,’ said Peter Rogers, chairman of the B&ES Ductwork Group. ‘Dampers play such an important role in the building, yet we’ve seen evidence of many installations that simply wouldn’t help in the event of a fire. Hopefully, with DW/145, we are starting to get the message out and make people more aware that fire dampers have to be installed correctly to do their job.’

While publications such as this will inevitably start to help with new builds and major refurbishments, we may be sitting on a time bomb when it comes to existing buildings.

‘I am currently looking at the firestopping in a hospital that is around 10 years old,’ said Steven Morgan, executive engineer at consultant Hoare Lea. ‘One of the biggest issues is the ductwork and dampers. Some have been incorrectly installed in my view, so much so that the Fire Brigade has issued an enforcement notice because the situation was so serious.’

It seems that this is no isolated case, and firestopping, particularly around ductwork and compartment walls and floors, is a serious problem.

‘I think it all comes to competency,’ said Rav Dhanjal, associate director, fire engineering at Arup. ‘Does the designer understand what he is designing? Has he got the joint stiffness, flanges, the rods that support the ductwork right, the damper right? Then is the contractor competent enough to understand what he is doing? Does he understand the risk if the fire dampers are not installed correctly? Does he understand the products he is using around the damper, are they fit for purpose? And then has the person inspecting the installation got the skills to look at whether it has been installed correctly, according to the design, and in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions?’

It seems that the answer is a resounding ‘no’ and that more education is needed.

Timpson: low standards compounded by lack of approval scrutiny.

‘Competency and CPD are both massive issues,’ said Russ Timpson, CEO of Horizonscan, specialist in fire safety risk and insurance issues and secretary of the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network. ‘There are people out there, in leading-edge companies in fire safety design and installation, that have not done one minute of CPD in the last 15 years. You have to question whether they are working to current best practice, and they are probably unaware of documents such as DW/145. The current system is broken — it does not work.’

Timpson believes that the current Building Regulations set the bar too low, with the industry looking to satisfy those minimum standards by the cheapest means possible, compounded by a lack of approval scrutiny. ‘There is a complete lack of application of Regulation 38 which stipulates that the contractor should hand over a user manual to the building owner or occupier detailing the fire safety systems,’ said Timpson. ‘It’s not happening, no-one is policing it, and I find it staggering. If you buy a car you’d expect a handbook, a warranty and a service manual with some up-to-date stamps in it, and yet you can buy a hospital or a major tower block in London, and the information that is provided in terms of fire strategy is non-existent.’

Sainsbury: a number of buildings are not fit for purpose.

Yet, given the relatively low number of deaths from fires in buildings, in comparison with deaths from road accidents for example, the Government is unlikely to be motivated to strengthen legislation in this area. ‘You can argue that the target set by the Building Regulations is working when you look at the number of deaths and injuries due to fire each year,’ said Steven Morgan.

Colin Sainsbury, sales manager with Zeta Compliance Group, works with a number of health authorities on fire risk assessment. ‘A number are not fit for purpose. The fact that there has not been a major hospital fire for a long time — is that good luck or good management? People may be managing fires better but you can’t be complacent.’

Munson: need to consider business continuity.

Kevin Munson, managing director at Ruskin Air Management, which manufactures fire and smoke control equipment, thought that the argument needs to go beyond life safety. ‘Life safety is a primary consideration, but we should be looking at business continuity because statistics show that business failure is a big risk following a fire. Yet, the building industry sees fire and smoke control equipment as an inconvenience rather than an essential part of the building.’

Clearly, not all clients are the same, and some will place great emphasis on staying operational. ‘We’ve worked with airports and rail operators at Arup, and if they have to shut down for any length of time they are going to lose a lot of money,’ explained Rav Dhanjal. ‘So, for some clients, they want to get this right, they want to contain a problem and operate as normal.’

Others are not so enlightened, and perhaps believe that the fire service will bail them out in an emergency. ‘Clients have to understand that we’ve now got a risk-averse Fire Service that will only now as a last resort get involved in proactive firefighting,’ explained Russ Timpson. ‘If there is no life risk they are not going to go into that building.’

Despite that backdrop, regulations are actually being relaxed in some areas. Section 20 was a residual part of the London Building Acts (Amendments) Act 1939 which dealt with fire safety in tall or large cube buildings. Section 20 was repealed by The Building (Repeal of Provisions of Local Acts) Regulations 2012 with effect from 9 January 2013.

Morgan: clients are stripping out life safety systems.

‘We’ve seen with the repeal that clients are actually looking to save money during refurbishments by stripping out smoke ventilation or sprinklers that had been provided because they no longer have to comply with Section 20,’ said Steven Morgan.

‘When you look at fire standards and specification, you have to remember that there’s always a fire waiting to happen,’ said Peter Rogers. ‘Only when it does do people sit up and take notice.’

The panel did feel that the RRO had its merits. ‘You’ve got to applaud the direction of the legislation because, for the first time, we brought ourselves into line with the rest of Europe with the RRO which is based on a fire risk assessment and a proactive look at the building,’ said Timpson. ‘The problem is that it is mired by a lack of understanding, and a lack of understanding of the application of it. Going forward, we are going to see an awful lot of painful prosecutions of both companies and risk assessors.’

Unlike gas installers and electricians, there are no competency skills requirements for fire risk assessors in this country. ‘There is a perfectly good fire risk profiling system for buildings contained in BS 9999,’ said Timpson. ‘I believe that this should be linked to the competency of the fire risk assessor that you engage.’

Competency was a recurring theme of the discussions — in design, installation and maintenance as well as assessment.

‘Some way of demonstrating competence has got to be a key issue,’ thought Steven Morgan. Yet, not all accreditation schemes are worth their salt. ‘I’ve seen remedial firestopping works which were not adequate in my view because the contractor has not been able to reach all areas, and they’ve still signed the job off as being firestopped.’

Dhanjal: it all comes down to competency.

Rav Dhanjal argued that it comes down to costs: ‘We’ve inspected all the firestopping work on an airport project, and if it doesn’t comply we get the contractor to take it out and start again. But the client has paid for us to do that.’

Another airport throws up another solution: ‘We carried out a hot smoke test on an airport project at the end of a build,’ said Russ Timpson. ‘That way you can see the poor quality of workmanship on compartments, ductwork and so on. Nothing focuses the mind of the contactor more than a hot smoke test.’

While mandatory hot smoke tests may be wishful thinking, Timpson has an alternative solution to the problem. ‘I believe that until we link the knowledge and understanding of that building in terms of fire safety to the risk it presents as an insurable asset, things won’t change. High-risk buildings, ones where we don’t understand the systems that are inside them, or those where systems have been installed incorrectly, should be loaded as such in the insurance market.

Who’s who on the panel

Kevin Munson, managing director, Ruskin Air Management

Rav Dhanjal, associate director, fire engineering, Arup

Steven Morgan, executive engineer, fire engineering, Hoare Lea

Russ Timpson, CEO, Horizonscan and secretary of the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network

Peter Rogers, managing director, Ductwork Projects and chairman, B&ES Ductwork Group

Colin Sainsbury, sales manager, Zeta Compliance Group

Yet, we have a very soft insurance market at the moment with too much capacity, so insurers will insure pretty much anyone and will look at their claims record in preference to a detailed look at the actual risk itself. However, you only need a few more hurricanes like the one that hit New York recently for that to change. Business interruption costs are rising; for every £1 that it costs to rebuild a building it will cost you £2 of business interruption cover on your policy.’

BS 7478 Part 8 looks at fire engineering from a business-continuity perspective. ‘The building has to be seen as an asset, and when a client acquires a building they must demand a greater level of information,’ said Timpson. ‘They must demand that their building’s life-safety systems were designed and installed correctly and demand a handbook that explains the strategy at building handover.’

The most enlightened clients are the ones that are getting the best insurance deals. Those that can demonstrate ‘fully protected’ status are getting a big discount on their premiums. Will this prove to be a greater driver for effective fire safety than legislation? Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait for another major fire to find out.

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