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Official government statistics show that there has been a gradual if fluctuating increase in the number of incidents attended by the English Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) over the last decade. While the Grenfell tragedy has understandably received the most focus, a number of other incidents have been reported.

In this blog, we’ll look at cases like this, highlighting the legislative changes that have been made to reduce fire risks and showing how you, as a building owner or manager, can stay on top of things with our all-in-one property inspection and operations software.

Understanding fire safety in commercial real estate

There’s a tendency to go about our everyday lives with little regard for the dangers of fire. This applies both within our domestic residences and across commercial real estate.

However, the need for vigilance was reflected in the 591,676 incidents during the year ending in September 2023, with 278 fire-related fatalities in 258 fatal fires.

The 23% drop from the year up to September 2022 can be put down to the comparatively cool and wet weather.

In more general terms, there are around 22,000 fires across the UK’s workplaces each year. A quarter of these fires result from the faulty or incorrect use of plastics, with overloaded circuits, substandard workmanship, and lack of maintenance among the recognised causes.

However, the risks can be mitigated through measures including the hiring of registered electricians and keeping PAT testing up to date.

What are the causes of workplace fires?

  • Misuse of equipment (placement of heaters beside flammable materials and spilling drinks on electrical items)
  • Inappropriate storage of waste and other combustible materials
  • Inappropriate storage and use of flammable liquids
  • Smoking outside designated areas and failure to safely dispose of cigarettes

Occurrences like these can be minimised by ensuring staff members take fire safety training and are given regular risk updates. Fire escape routes must be kept clear, with fire extinguishers and alarm systems being regularly tested. There should also be a continual presence of staff with knowledge of how to use the fire safety equipment.

What do the regulations say?

As highlighted in our guide to the Building Safety Act, the Grenfell tragedy of 2017 prompted a review under the leadership of Dame Judith Hackitt. The Fire Safety Order (FSO) was found insufficient, with a clear need for government action to prevent such incidents in future. This led to the passing of the most significant building safety reform in a generation, with the introduction of the Building Safety Act being followed by new fire safety regulations in January 2023.

The updated fire safety regulations added vital clarity to the duties that would have to be carried out by Responsible Persons (RPs). These RPs would be held accountable for the safety of all people in use of “regulated premises”. While there was an understandable focus on high-rise buildings, some of the provisions would apply regardless of property height. For example, the regulations specify that all RPs must provide residents with fire safety instructions and information about the importance and proper use of fire safety doors.

The Fire Safety Regulations 2022 also specify the need for responsible persons to:

  • Prepare a single plan page for each applicable building, including details of:
    • access for fire and rescue appliances
    • the number of building storeys and basement levels
    • building access points
    • the secure information box location
  • Undertake monthly checks of lifts for use by firefighters, evacuation lifts, and essential fire-fighting equipment
  • Share electronic records of any relevant building’s external wall system and copies of floor/building plans with their local FRS
  • Arrange for the repair of lifts and firefighting equipment as necessary
  • Display fire safety instructions in conspicuous building areas
  • Ensure that fire safety instructions are easy for residents to understand.

RPs can be assured of conducting comprehensive fire risk assessments with the free template from Property Inspect.

Key updates to fire safety legislation

Although making for improved fire safety, the regulations came under review and were updated on the 1st of October 2023. This fire safety act extended the range of applicable buildings to include small shops, takeaways, holiday lets, and small blocks of flats. RPs would be held accountable for carrying out fire risk assessments and making arrangements for minimised risk across all such building types. Further expectations were also set out in terms of cooperation and coordination between RPs in multi-occupied buildings or those where the occupier and owner are not the same person.

Other legislative updates have required RPs to:

  • Record completed fire risk assessments in full (including all the findings)
  • Record the name and employer (where applicable) of the person(s) employed to undertake/review any or all of the fire risk assessment
  • Record their fire safety arrangements (including established procedures for management of the fire safety risk)
  • Identify any other RPs and accountable persons, with introductions being made.

More severe penalties have been introduced for offences such as intentionally deceptive impersonation of a fire inspector and failing to comply with the instructions of a fire inspector (without reasonable excuse). The importance of the safety information box has also been emphasised, with the RP’s failure to include vital documents (from floor plans to details of vulnerable residents) potentially leading to legal action, fines, and imprisonment. This could also delay the development and occupancy of new buildings, besides increasing the risk to life.

The cost of fire safety failure

As Stephanie Barwise QC, a board member at the International Building Quality Centre, said, “the failure to identify and address the problem of fire safety in facades … [is reflective] of a prolonged period of concealment by government which should properly be regarded as one of the major scandals of our time.”

This concealment led to the tragic loss of 72 lives as the Grenfell tower block was engulfed in flames on the 14th of June 2017. It was subsequently found that thousands of other tower blocks had been constructed with dangerous cladding.

As mentioned, this catastrophe prompted a comprehensive government review, with the introduction of new laws for improved fire safety across domestic and commercial settings. However, there’s more to be done in terms of increasing awareness, remediating existing buildings, and ensuring the use of fire-resistant materials.

This much was made clear following the fire which engulfed a block of Wembley flats on January 29th. A subsequent review found that the building owners had identified Grenfell-like cladding on the building a few years prior but hadn’t taken action. It later emerged that the fire alarms hadn’t gone off, even during the blaze.

The increased fire safety focus also prompted the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS) to review more than 100,000 fire door inspections. Finding that three-quarters of fire doors were not up to standard, the FDIS branded this as a “tragedy waiting to happen”. It came as particularly shocking news, given that a high proportion of the sub-standard doors were found in healthcare buildings and private housing.

In another case, a fire enforcement notice was issued for the remediation of a block of Shropshire flats after the residents raised their fire safety concerns. The subsequent investigation showed that shafts included as part of the original design were in breach of the updated fire safety regulations.

Such breaches have been the focus of the RSH report on fire safety remediation, revealing that:

  • Fire risk assessments have been undertaken on 98% of all buildings reported
  • The vast majority of social landlords have plans in place to address life-critical fire safety defects identified across the relevant buildings
  • Remediation work is completed or due to be completed in the next five years for 71% of 11-18 metre buildings and 84% of 18 metre plus buildings assessed as having an external wall system-related LCFS defect.

Landlords, building owners and other Responsible Persons can go a long way to the fulfillment of their fire safety duties with Property Inspect.

Designed for all types of real estate, our all-in-one software allows for the unlimited capture of property conditions, photos, and maintenance issues.

From the recording of property defects to the issuing of work orders, our user-friendly app can be the difference in achieving and maintaining optimum fire safety standards.

Sign up for a free trial and stay on the right side of fire safety with Property Inspect.

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