Rethinking housing safety

In the aftermath of the Grenfell tower fire, Kidde safety explains why it’s more important than ever for developers to consider appropriateness of fire detection.

As a straightforward, low cost early warning, the wider installation of interconnected smoke, heat and CO alarms is an essential first step for fire safety in all types of housing, offering reassurance to developers and buyers alike.

The various inquiries, investigations and regulatory reviews currently in hand follow- ing the Grenfell Tower fire cover issues ranging from sprinkler systems to material combustibility. Little has been said however about fire detection and alarms, their key role in housing occupant safety, and how that will be reflected in new regulations and standards.

Not fit for purpose

Generally, Dame Judith Hackitt’s recently published ‘Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ considers how “the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice…is not fit for purpose. The Government should consider how the suite of Approved Documents could be struc- tured and ordered to provide a more streamlined, holistic view while retaining the right level of relevant technical detail.” And this does not just apply to high-rise, high-risk buildings.

Clearly, it will be some time – probably years – before new regulations and standards are in place. So, what should be done in the meantime? The Hackitt report points out that “there is a widespread culture in relation to building and fire standards of waiting to be told what to do by regulators rather than taking responsibil- ity for building to correct standards. The approach is very much driven by aiming for minimum compliance, not ensuring safety for the lifetime of the building.” All those involved with all types of housing should now reassess the standards of fire safety that they consider appropriate.

Code of practice

Building Regulations Approved Document B (AD B) and other recommendations for smoke and heat alarms are based on the Code of Practice BS 5839-6:2013. It defines ‘Grades’ (the reliability of a system in terms of its power sources) and ‘Categories’ (in which areas smoke/heat alarms are required for detection). The Code is based on an individual risk assessment approach, although it recognises that, in most cases, guidance can be applied as a minimum recommendation set out in tables.

Building Regulation guidance documents in Scotland and Northern Ireland generally mirror the Code with Category LD2 for most general housing. This sensible level of protection means interconnected smoke and heat alarms, including smoke alarms in principal living rooms and heat alarms in kitchens, in addition to smoke alarms in circulation areas on each storey. However, in England and Wales, AD B falls short, requiring only Category LD3 with smoke alarms just in escape routes. But smoke alarms in living rooms are an important consideration. As the Code stresses, with Category LD3 the evacuation time once fire is detected in the escape route “might not prevent death or serious injury of occupants of the room where fire originates.”

Cost-effective solutions

In addition, AD B only calls for heat alarms in kitchens open to escape routes. With over 60 per cent of domestic fires starting in kitchens, this is a misguided approach. Although some kitchen fires are started accidentally by occupants, other less obvious sources can go unnoticed – notably faulty electrical appliances, perhaps operat- ing at night while occupants sleep. Heat alarms are therefore essential in all kitchens and must always be interconnected with smoke alarms elsewhere. Straightforward, hard-wired interconnected smoke and heat alarms provide a cost-effective solution in existing properties, as well as new-builds, particularly during refurbishment or rewiring works. And the extra cost of additional alarms to meet Category LD2 is negligible.

Interestingly, wide-ranging new proposals recently confirmed by the Scottish Government call for a consistent, high level of smoke and heat alarm provision to be applied across all types of housing. They herald a fresh, straightforward approach to fire and carbon monoxide safety, recognising the key role of alarms as the first line of defence to provide critical early warning at low costs. Based on the BS 5839-6:2013 Code of Practice ‘Category LD2’ level of protection and Scottish Building Regulations, the minimum standard will now be extended to all types and tenures of housing.

Fire and co protection

The proposals call for “CO alarms in all homes” – although this is likely to mean all dwellings with a fixed combustion heating appliance – commenting that “it makes practical sense to combine installation programmes for … smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms together.” There is growing interest in combining smoke, heat and CO alarms to provide more coverage, ensuring that occupiers are awoken and alerted wherever they are in the property, whatever the risk.

Developer Thakeham Homes is one example. A Thakeham spokesperson commented: “Interlinked products provide an integrated alarm system, meeting all our technical requirements from a single manufacturer. At Thakeham, we aim to exceed minimum standards and regula- tions. A working chimney will be installed with a solid fuel appliance – along with a CO alarm to meet current Building Regulations. But we also ensure a CO alarm is positioned in the proximity of any gas boiler, as an extra precaution. We insist that all the alarms – including CO – are mains powered, interlinked and have battery back-up to give our home owners real peace of mind should the unthinkable happen.”

Crucially, all the alarms have different, distinct alarm sounder patterns for carbon monoxide and fire. So, without the need for any further operation of the system (such as remote switches), the system automatically alerts occupants of the specific hazard that confronts them. This allows them to respond quickly, making the right choice from the very different alternative actions for either fire or the presence of carbon monoxide.

As a straightforward, low cost early warning, wider installation of smoke, heat and CO alarms is an essential first step, whatever else is done to make housing safer.