The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London this summer has focused property managers’ minds strongly on fire protection. By law, all residential blocks are required to have an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment or FRA. However, this document only does what the name suggests: it assesses the possible risks and hazards that may be present in a block of flats and recommends actions that should be taken to rectify problems. Simply having an FRA on file doesn’t protect residents and if any recommended actions are not taken, in the event of a fire, property managers and/or RTM Company directors could find themselves in breach of the health & safety regulations and could face hefty fines or even prosecution. Therefore, anyone responsible for managing a residential block needs to show diligence in servicing and maintaining their fire protection systems. There is an argument that says your block’s FRA should pick up ALL areas of concern. In reality this will not necessarily be the case and even FRA consultants will willingly state they are not experts.
I received this recent statement from a leading FRA consultant: “we only make recommendations and whilst we keep ourselves up to date with BSI specifications we do not portray ourselves to be experts in every field; this is where highly specialised contractors step in such as fire alarm engineers or lift maintenance companies. This allows us to afford an impartial standpoint in regards to our recommendations concerning remedial works”.
This is by no means unusual and property managers should ensure they are up to speed on their fire protection obligations to residents.
Fire doors and fire stopping
Two key areas that are often not reported upon in FRAs are some of the most basic: fire doors and fire stopping. As a result, property managers should be vigilant and take responsibility for ensuring that these two aspects of fire protection are regularly inspected by a fire protection expert. There should also be a heavy emphasis on passive protection – which often proves to be the poor relation in fire protection – as this is frequently neglected in inspections and even in service and maintenance reporting.
Before calling in the experts to ensure block fire protection is up to scratch, there is a lot that property managers can do themselves. As with any other life-saving product, a fire door should be checked regularly to ensure it functions correctly and is ready to use. It should be considered in exactly the same way as testing a smoke alarm or a fire extinguisher. Any slight alteration to the door or its surroundings can affect the performance of a door. Periodic checks should be carried out at least every 6 months, or more regularly depending on the traffic using the door. A maintenance checklist should be utilised to ensure you check all of the items correctly, in conjunction with your asset records. If property managers are too busy to undertake these checks themselves, they should employ a fire protection specialist to carry them out instead.
4 Step Fire Door Check
Here is a simple fire door check which should be carried out in every block on a regular basis:
- Check the gaps
Check the gaps around the top and sides of the door are consistently less than 4mm when closed. You can use a £1 coin to give a feel for scale, this is about 3mm thick.
- Check the seals
Are there any intumescent seals around the door or frame, and are they intact with no sign of damage? These seals are usually vital to the fire door's performance, expanding if in contact with heat.
- Check the hinges
Are the hinges firmly fixed (three or more of them), with no missing or broken screws?
- Check the door closes properly
Open the door about halfway, let go and allow it to close by itself. Does it close firmly onto the latch without sticking on the floor or the frame?
Preventing the spread of fire
The spread of fire can be restricted by sub-dividing buildings into a number of discrete compartments. These fire compartments are separated from one another by compartment walls and compartment floors made of a fire-resisting construction which hinders the spread of fire from one compartment to another. Normally, all fire compartments will have a fire door and so can be readily recognised by property managers by a Fire Door Keep Shut sign); Examples of fire compartments – apart from individual flats within the block - are
Electrical/water risers; and
Escape routes such as corridors/stairwells
Property managers should assess the fire compartments within their block/s and then have these areas inspected, in conjunction with say another service and maintenance discipline such as fire door inspection (as you would have to open the fire door to inspect inside the compartment) or fire alarm servicing.
Fire stopping is a more specialised area, requiring an expert eye to fully understand breaches. Again, property managers can do a lot to identify potential problems themselves. For example, they can visually inspect the following:
Any new holes produced by building works i.e. the installation of a new service (electrical cable) and not sealed;
Existing holes reopened by removal of a service (electrical cable) and not sealed; and
Damage to cladding, boarding etc.
Should no or incorrect cladding, boarding and other external systems be identified, these should be inspected by a specialist.
What is a fire stop?
A fire stop is defined as “a seal provided to close an imperfection of fit or design tolerance between elements or components, to restrict the passage of fire and smoke.” (source: Approved Document B, Fire Safety). Joints between fire-separating elements such as walls or floors, should be fire-stopped to maintain the continuity of resistance. Openings for timber beams, joists, purlins and rafters, and pipes, ducts, conduits or cables that pass through any part of a fire-separating element should be kept as few in number and as small as possible, and fire-stopped using
Cement-based or gypsum-based vermiculite/perlite mixes.
Proprietary fire-stopping and sealing systems.
In the case of a pipes or ducts, fire stopping should allow thermal movement.
I have recently been advised by an existing client that they have no control policy or terms & conditions stipulated in their Orders to Contractors, to cover fire stopping works. Where this is the case, property managers should act quickly to review and advise accordingly, as the ownership should lie with the contractor carrying out the breaching of compartments. If the contractor is unable to carry out certified fire stopping where compartments have been breached, then dialogue between contractor and client can take place and a specialist commissioned to complete the works.
Bradley Parker is MD of Future Fire Systems