Effectively supporting a temporary change of evacuation strategy from ‘stay put’ to ‘simultaneous evacuation’ requires the introduction of interim fire protection solutions, but which approach is best, waking watch patrol or a fire alarm?
Identifying the risk
Immediately following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) focused on the risks associated with some, unsuitable cladding systems. It identified that aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, used on Grenfell Tower, was highly combustible and measures needed to be taken to mitigate the risks on all buildings where ACM cladding systems had been installed.
Where combustible materials have been identified, it is no longer safe for the building’s occupants to follow a ‘stay put’ policy, which relies on the ability of each flat to contain any fire for at least one hour, to ensure the safety of residents in other flats in the building.
Minimising the risk to life as a result of a fire involving these external wall systems is crucial, yet in cases of buildings containing flats, alternative housing options can place people into worse living conditions or even leave them without accommodation. To enable people to continue to live in relative safety in their own homes, interim solutions are vital to mitigate the risk.
Keeping residents safe from fire yet within their own homes while unsuitable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding is removed, requires careful planning.
Various interim fire safety solutions are available to landlords dealing with the need for a temporary change in building evacuation strategy from ‘stay put’ to ‘simultaneous evacuation’.
Waking watch involves trained staff continually patrolling all floors and the exterior perimeter of the building. The purpose is to ensure sufficient warning in the event of fire to support the evacuation strategy. This arrangement is intended for short periods of time, while any increased fire risks identified are being urgently addressed.
Despite waking watch being regarded as a temporary solution, in many cases this arrangement is being relied upon for far longer periods than intended. The Fire Protection Association (FPA) said: “While waking watches are supposed to be temporary measures, some have been in place for years, and some back to June 2017, with concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could extend their use. In turn, 34 councils had spent £29.4m on waking watches at 134 buildings.”
Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the MHCLG found that costs per hour for waking watches ranged from £12 to £30 per person, with the median monthly cost per building being £11,361; and the median monthly cost per dwelling being £137. With the UK being in some scale of lockdown measures for over a year now, due to the global pandemic, waking watches have arguably become more important than ever as residents have become confined to homes in buildings with flammable cladding. However, concerns have been raised that the additional cost of these temporary measures puts greater financial strain on occupants during a time when many may be out of work because of the crisis.
This problem continues to spread as more buildings are identified as unsafe. For example, in London, the number of buildings with patrols has doubled since March 2020 to 573 blocks. While Manchester and Liverpool Cladiators campaign group have suggested that there are: “up to 1,000 buildings in the country, where a waking watch is in place”.
Cost/benefit and consultation with residents
As the length of time between identification of unsuitable cladding and remedial work grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify using a waking watch, particularly when its associated charges are often passed onto the individual leaseholders, who may well be unable to afford them. In determining the most suitable interim arrangement for buildings with combustible cladding, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) suggests that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out.
As part of this exercise, it is recommended that building owners consult with residents and leaseholders to explore cost-benefit options. In doing this, the emphasis should be placed on considering the benefits of installing a common automatic fire alarm system, especially where temporary fire protection measures are likely to be in place for the longer term.
In its own Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance, the NFCC states that it: “strongly recommends that where a change to a simultaneous evacuation is deemed appropriate and will be required for medium to long periods of time, that a temporary common fire alarm system is installed. This is because a temporary common fire alarm, when designed, installed and maintained appropriately is a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection. An appropriate communal fire alarm and detection system will generally provide more certainty that a fire will be detected and warned at the earliest opportunity rather than rely on using trained staff.”
Fire alarm systems
Earlier this year, the Waking Watch Relief Fund was launched by the government – dedicated funding available to cover the costs of installing an alarm system as a replacement to waking watch patrols that have been implemented within high-rise residential buildings while removal of unsafe cladding takes place.
In total, £30million was made available, with £22million allocated to a number of key cities highlighted as needing the greatest support, these included: London, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and Sheffield.
In line with NFCC recommendations and in order to bridge the gap between ‘stay put’ policy to temporary ‘simultaneous evacuation’ and back again, fire system manufacturer Advanced’s technology and expertise provide the ideal solution. Following agreement with a competent person that installing a common fire alarm is the right solution for the building, a BS 5839 Part 1, category L5 fire alarm system should be fitted – before cladding removal begins.
Advanced’s MxPro 5 fire panels fulfil this requirement by complying with all the required standards. Intuitive programming, comprehensive cause and effect, powerful diagnostic features and compatibility with four leading detector protocols bring the highest levels of protection for residents – and peace of mind for building owners and facilities managers.
The ability for a fire alarm system to detect a fire with a high degree of accuracy is considerably superior to the capabilities of even the most highly trained of waking watch staff. Fire alarm systems are less likely to fall victim to human error in not detecting a fire at the earliest opportunity, and are less prone to raising false alarms, such as those triggered by cooking. Once a fire alarm system has been installed, tangible savings can be realised in very short periods of time.
It’s estimated that the cost of installing a fire alarm system in place of a waking watch can be recovered in an average of three to seven months, and in some areas with very high waking watch costs, such as London, the investment can potentially pay off in as little as six weeks.
Returning to ‘stay put’
Once cladding has been removed and residents’ homes are safe, the building’s evacuation strategy may return to ‘stay put’. In scenarios where a fire alarm is no longer necessary, residential buildings may now be advised to instead install evacuation alert control and indicating equipment (EACIE).
Following the publishing of BS 8629:2019, EACIE is now strongly recommended in England for all tall buildings containing flats with a storey located at a height of 18 metres or more – and is mandatory in Scotland. The EACIE must operate completely independently of fire detection systems and be designed to support any evacuation strategy chosen by the fire and rescue service. This also helps to avoid confusion over safe evacuation for residents until the concept and management of evacuation alert systems becomes well established and understood.
Advanced’s evacuation alert system, EvacGo, is designed using its MxPro 5 technology, providing the assurance for installers and building owners that their sites are protected with robust and proven technology that’s been rigorously tested to EN 54 parts 2 and 4 as recommended in BS 8629. In addition, the devices supplied as part of the EvacGo system have been approved to BS EN54 Part 13. Third-party test certification to the standard provides additional peace of mind.
Developing EvacGo with the proven technology of its MxPro 5 fire panel counterpart makes the replacement of a building’s fire alarm system with an evacuation alert system simple and straightforward, whether using wired, wireless or hybrid devices.
Installing a temporary Advanced fire alarm system that’s so quick to convert to an evacuation alert system brings significant cost and safety benefits over alternative approaches too, with the initial investment contributing towards the overall protection of the building once the BS 8629 system is installed. This approach ensures building owners and facilities managers are following the NFCC’s recommendations for best practice, as well as ensuring easy conversion to the BS 8629 Code of Practice after the ‘stay put’ policy is reinstated.
While only an interim measure, addressing the change from a ‘stay put’ policy to ‘simultaneous evacuation’ still requires thorough planning and consultation to enable the effective management of fire risk to residents of buildings containing flats. As frustration over the pace of remedial works to residential buildings continues, building owners are under ever-greater pressure to provide a clear pathway to achieving higher standards in fire safety.
Taking into account realistic timescales for the removal of cladding and the financial burden interim measures have on both building owners and their occupants, implementing a common fire alarm system that offers easy conversion to a BS 8629 evacuation alert system is an ideal solution. The approach tackles this modern fire protection challenge by addressing both the immediate need for mitigating fire risk, as well as the longer-term fire safety recommendations set out for residential buildings containing flats.
If you are dealing with any of the issues raised above and would like to discuss ways of addressing them, email firstname.lastname@example.org for support and advice. Further information is also available at EvacGo and highrisefiresafetysolutions.co.uk