The recent fatal blazes at Cameron House and Grenfell Tower have heightened operators’ awareness of the importance of fire safety. Elly Earls finds out what business owners need to know to be prepared.
Fire safety rocketed up the agenda of businesses across the UK following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017. Sadly for hotel operators, the fire at Cameron House hotel in West Dunbartonshire in December 2017, in which two guests, Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson, died, served as another stark reminder of the importance of fire safety.
On 18 December, a blaze swept through the five-AA-star, 132-bedroom hotel overlooking Loch Lomond. Although the cause has not yet been confirmed, sources close to the investigation have said the fire may have spread quickly because of voids in the 300-year-old building. A police investigation into the deaths, under the direction of the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit, is ongoing.
The four-red-AA-star Crathorne Hall Hotel in Yarm, North Yorkshire, underwent a £4m restoration following a fire in 2014 that broke out in the roof of the east wing. In October 2016, a fire destroyed one of England’s oldest hotels, the Royal Clarence in Exeter, Devon. More recently, four guests were taken to hospital when a fire broke out at the 99-bedroom Dilkhusa Grand hotel in Ilfracombe, Devon, in November 2017. Hotel staff were praised for their actions during the fire.
All of these incidents have heightened awareness that, although regulatory systems are in place to minimise the risk of tragedy, the onus is on hotel operators to ensure they have the right safety measures and procedures established.
What you are responsible for
Since 2005, fire risk assessments have been the responsibility of hotels. Under a fire safety order, the ‘responsible person’, usually the manager or owner, must ensure that a sufficient assessment is undertaken by a competent person – ie someone who is trained in hotel-specific assessments.
This must cover both the design and operational sides of fire safety. Nick Tilley, co-director at Common Sense Compliance, an international provider of advice on food hygiene, health and safety, fire management and leisure, explains: “You’ve got to look at the types of material used and how they will protect the building, how the building is compartmentalised and how the escape routes are designed. You’ve got to look at how you manage the operational side of safety – for example, carrying out weekly fire alarm checks and six-monthly evacuation checks.”(See ‘Five steps of fire risk assessment’.)
“The fire risk assessment is one of the first steps to plan, organise, control, monitor and review the fire precautions and arrangements. Getting this wrong can lead to disaster,” says Stuart Kelly, managing director of Acoura, a member of the Lloyd’s Register group, which specialises in brand protection, fire safety and food safety services for hotels, bars, restaurants and retailers.
For Craig Webb, general manager at the Cotswold House Hotel & Spa in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, the fact that the responsibility now lies with hotels has been a positive development. “In the past, the fire brigade would perhaps come around once a year to point out errors, but now the onus is on us. We spend a full day going through the risk assessment with an independent expert who drills much deeper, so we do it in much more detail,” he says.
Kelly agrees: “Since the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in 2005, more emphasis has been placed on the responsible person. This is coupled with a more targeted approach to enforcement visits to hotels, which has resulted in fewer fire deaths in these premises. However, recent events remind us all of the need to remain vigilant – not only to save lives, but also jobs.”
When selecting a third party to carry out a fire risk assessment, operators should look for people who have at least a base level of competence – a qualification equivalent to the Level 4 Certificate in Fire Safety. It’s also important to ensure that the risk assessors are current in their knowledge and can show continued professional development.
A whole-building approach
One of the most common areas operators miss, according to Kelly, is compliance in relation to fitting, testing and maintaining fire safety systems and ensuring these systems extend to the entire premises.
“We regularly find non-public parts of premises not linked to fire safety systems, from living areas in tenanted pubs to roof voids in hotels, containing material such as wooden joists and electrical equipment,” he says.
The devastating blaze at the Grade II-listed, timber-framed Royal Clarence hotel was able to spread via concealed voids and passageways, according to the Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service. This is a common problem in heritage buildings, so it’s crucial that hotels engage with local authorities at the earliest stages of design, both for new buildings and when making changes to existing ones.
Other failings most commonly found in Acoura inspections are defective or non-closing fire doors, combustible materials stored in fire exit areas, and breaches to fire compartmentation, such as new beer lines or air conditioning unit installations. It only takes a minute gap in a fire compartment to let smoke through and reduce the time available to exit a building. Oversights like this could lead to tragedy, as well as potentially invalidating a hotel’s insurance cover.
The most common causes of hotel fires are faulty electrics, both fixed and portable, heating systems, laundry facilities and commercial kitchen systems such as extraction, but there are also some unexpected culprits.
Tilley says: “Used chef’s cloths can self-combust if they have oil ingrained in them, are dried in a tumble dryer, and are then stacked and insulate heat,” he says. Even in non-smoking buildings, it’s vital for staff not to smoke near combustibles, wheelie bins or where gas is stored.
Fire safety training: the dos and don’ts
Fire safety training is a compulsory requirement for hotel employees. According to Kelly, the most efficient way of training people in any fire-related topic is to ask the following three questions:
- Has the training been designed to take into consideration the specific job role functions, people, processes and policy at the premises? Does it ensure that each person has the right level of knowledge to do what they need to do in a fire situation?
- Does training reduce risks highlighted in the fire risk assessment? “You need to think about what has been identified in the assessment and how you can make it safer through training,” he explains. “For example, training staff to ensure fire doors are kept closed can reduce the risk of fire and smoke spreading.”
- Are the training and assessment scenarios matched to the physical and functional areas of the working environment?
While hotels are generally aware of their responsibilities in this area, Kelly has found that they often do not provide the general manager with sufficient fire safety training to look after their premises effectively.
“Normally, large companies will pay a third party to undertake a fire risk assessment, which is fine, but what happens in between those visits is vitally important. The general manager must be able to implement any actions from the fire risk assessment and maintain standards,” he says.
It’s also crucial to weave fire safety training into the day-to-day routine of other hotel staff, according to Webb. At Cotswold House Hotel & Spa, new staff members have fire training during their induction, and live-in and night staff have follow-up training every three months. All other staff have follow-up training every six months, but it’s also included in daily and weekly briefings.
“People think fire training has to be everyone sitting in front of a projector and doing the same training as before,” he says. “Yes, you have to do that occasionally, but at the beginning of a service session, you can add on a couple of minutes to talk about candles or closing fire doors – that’s refresher training. It needs to be woven into the day.”
Keeping up to date
Although the fire safety regulations do not specify how often a fire risk assessment should be reviewed, operators should see it as a live document, going back to it at least once a year and certainly every time a change is made.
“Have we moved a fire door? Have we got new furniture? Have we got a new menu? If you’re changing anything at all, you should take another look at it,” Webb explains, adding that this is often forgotten with menu changes.
“You have to have your kitchen extraction cleaned twice a year to remove the fat – it’s a legal requirement. But if you have a menu change and you offer more grills, burgers and chips, your fatty deposits will build up more quickly. Within even knowing it, you’ve changed your risk.”
In the end, Kelly concludes, it all comes down to people: “Detection, systems and building design continue to improve, but they are still no substitute for vigilant staff, well-trained teams who react professionally to manage a situation and not panic, and a company culture that puts safety at the heart of everything they do.”
Five steps of a fire risk assessment
- Identify fire hazards
- Identify people at risk
- Evaluate, remove, reduce and protect them from risk
- Record, plan, inform, instruct and train
The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 led many hotel operators to reassess their fire safety procedures and the materials used in their buildings.
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) has a broad range of measures relating to fire safety, some of which go beyond the requirements set out in UK building regulations. The company explicitly requires that the owners of its hotels ensure they meet all building regulations and local codes, and it has been working closely with owners to assess their properties and remind them of their obligations.
“IHG has been the conduit between several local authorities and hotel owners and has been in contact with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to engage with them regarding hotel safety after Grenfell,” a spokesperson says.
“We are continuing to closely monitor government and local authority investigations into the Grenfell tragedy and will work with owners and operators of IHG-branded hotels to provide appropriate support and guidance, as well as reviewing our own fire and safety requirements once any changes or recommendations to building regulations and best practices are published.”
According to Stuart Kelly from Acoura, it’s important to remember a hotel is different to a residential high-rise, purpose-built block of flats.
“If you are unsure about cladding, the safety of the cladding you have on your building, or have any other concerns around fire risk, then it is critical to consult with a fire specialist to provide you with advice on the matter,” he says.