The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London has raised serious concerns about fire safety in high rise buildings, which are often used for commercial purposes as well as residential accommodation.
The fire, which is believed to have started on the fourth floor, spread quickly to engulf the entire 24 storey building. All floors from the second floor up were affected and seventeen people are known to have died, with police saying they expect that number to rise.
Residents who escaped the fire said that alarms in the building did not work and there was only one escape route. They also said they were advised to stay in their flats rather than evacuating once the fire broke out and those who decided to evacuate found the one staircase full of smoke and blocked. The Grenfell Action Group had warned about dangerous living conditions for several years, saying it would take a catastrophic event to expose the conditions in the building.
Major refurbishment work was completed on the building in May 2016, including the installation of new exterior cladding and replacement windows. Rydon, the firm that carried out the refurbishment, said:
“Rydon completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) on behalf of the council, which met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulation and health and safety standards – and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea building control.”
He says there are unique considerations for high rise buildings particularly those which have high-occupancy such as Grenfell Tower.
Things to consider when conducting a fire risk assessment on a high rise building include:
Occupants – How many people are in the building and what is the profile of the occupants e.g. age, fitness, ability/disability, languages spoken. In event of an evacuation, all these factors will need to be considered.
Evacuation route – Is the evacuation route able to cope with the evacuation of occupants in an emergency and is it also the way that the fire brigade would enter the building?
If there is only one escape route, as in the case of the Grenfell Tower, then this could cause a bottleneck with residents coming down the stairs as fire fighters were trying to come up. It’s also important to ensure that the escape route is regularly checked for obstructions e.g. furniture, luggage, prams etc. Businesses should consider whether visitors to the premises may leave these items in escape routes.
While modern buildings are required to have more than one evacuation route, many older buildings such as Grenfell Tower only have one staircase.
Communication to occupants – How is the alarm operated and what are the occupants informed to do in the event of a fire?
Probability of fire on the floors below – Are there any activities on the floors which could increase the likelihood of fire e.g. cafes, restaurants or businesses on the ground floor.
Internal and external spread – Are there materials present in the building which would assist in the spread of a fire? What is the fire resistance of such materials? Where there is a standard for the materials, how is this guaranteed/checked? Fire and flame flows upwards, increasing the temperature and speed of the spread so any building materials must be fire rated to include the fire acceleration rate of the materials. Materials and alterations would need to go through the planning and building control of the local borough council to ensure they met all regulations.
Structural fire resistance – How will the building structure act in a fire?
Presence of voids – Are there any voids in which a fire could go undetected? In the case of the Grenfell Tower, there has been some speculation that the cavity between the newly-installed exterior cladding and the building could have acted like a chimney, causing the fire to spread quickly to all floors above the initial source. Until a thorough investigation has been completed, it is impossible to tell if this is what happened but such a cavity would raise concerns.
Alarms and suppression systems – Is there an alarm? Does it work? How often is it tested? Are occupants aware of what the alarm sounds like?
History of fire/arson attacks – Have there been any incidents that the fire brigade has previously been called out to? This could be a result of social conditions in the area, such as crime or gang disputes or incidents of arson.
Maintenance/cleaners cupboards and storage – If these are present, are there combustible materials stored within these areas or any hot works carried out on site? Are they stored securely?
Refurbishment – Have any systems e.g. alarms, detection, sprinklers, dry/wet risers been disabled during refurbishment work and what temporary measures have been put in place during the project? Have these systems been re-evaluated after the refurbishment to ensure that they remain able and have the systems been activated again? It is the client’s duty to ensure that whoever is contracted to carry out work on the building must be competent and steps are taken to ensure that any work is carried out in compliance with the relevant building regulations and the contractors and designers have the necessary skills, experience and competency to complete them sufficiently. The usual risk assessments and method statements, including permits to work should be in place and assessed prior to and during work with necessary reviews throughout the duration of the works. All these documents need to be scrutinised along with a construction phase plan, laying out the chronological order for all work to be carried out with the health and safety of workers, visitors and, ultimately, residents in mind.
Reviews – Generally fire risk assessments are reviewed during any works as risk profiles change, including the introduction of new risks and alteration of fire systems, and will be updated upon completion of any refurbishment. They should then be periodically reviewed afterwards dependent on the level of risk – we would normally recommend annual reviews as a minimum. Determining responsibility as to who completes a fire risk assessment can sometimes be complicated where some units within a building are owned by multiple people or companies.
Danny Clarke is Group Operations Director for the ELAS Group. He says:
“The government has promised a full and thorough investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire and, it’s safe to say, there may be changes to health and safety and fire safety legislation as a result of this investigation. While it’s too early to say what happened here, clearly something went very wrong. It’s vital that we all work together when it comes to health and safety to ensure that something on this scale never happens again. Thankfully fires in tower blocks are rare however, it’s important that we learn lessons in order to further improve safety in these types of buildings.
Fire safety failings highlighted in a 2010 report
“A previous fire at a tower block in 2009 which claimed 6 lives highlighted a number of fire safety failings, including insufficient fire risk assessments and panels on the exterior walls not providing the required fire resistance. This prompted a report in 2010 which highlighted a number of areas where fire safety could be improved, including reducing the risk of fire in tall buildings through ongoing education and awareness for occupants, ensuring occupants are aware as to what to do in the event of a fire, placing emergency procedure notices in every corridor of high rise blocks such as those which are found in hotels, and making fire risk assessments available to residents.
“The government committed last year to the review of Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 which relate to fire safety however a date for this review is yet to be confirmed. These regulations currently apply to 4,000 tower blocks throughout the UK and recent evidence has found that materials used to construct more energy efficient buildings are, not only, not fire resistant but in some cases flammable which is a concern.
21% increase in fire fatalities last year
“Taking into account that there was a 21% increase in fire fatalities last year, all landlords need to ensure they have the appropriate systems and resources available and utilised to manage fire safety risks. This applies to housing providers, councils and housing associations and private landlords, who have a clear responsibility under the law to ensure their premises meet all relevant fire safety requirements and are effectively managed in order to provide protection to their occupants and keep them safe in the event of a fire.
“Stringent controls should already be in place but we would advise landlords, councils and management companies to ensure that they do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of their tenants. Any concerns raised by tenants, whether commercial or residential should be fully investigated and remedial action taken where necessary.”
Business owners cannot afford to be complacent with fire risk assessments
“Business occupants already have a legal duty to complete fire risks assessments for their premises, and to make sure any fire fighting equipment is kept ready and available for use. Often business owners view this as a ‘box ticking exercise’ to comply with legislation. Sadly, this tragedy has brought home the absolute importance of fire risk assessments and why completing them with due diligence is absolutely vital.”