How to… reduce the risk of fire

09 March 2012
How to… reduce the risk of fire

How do you stay on the right side of fire safety regulations and steer clear of the pitfalls?

Complying with fire safety regulations is a must. The consequences of non-compliance can be very expensive. As well as the obvious effects of fire on your business, there are now cases coming to court where heavy fines have been imposed for breaches of the regulations.

Two weeks ago saw a landmark £210,000 fine for the owner of Chumleigh Lodge hotel in Finchley, London, for failure to comply with fire regulations that make fire risk assessments the responsibility of the business owner. After a fire at the hotel, London Fire Brigade inspectors identified serious safety concerns, including defective fire doors, blocked escape routes and no smoke alarms in some bedrooms. As the corporate defendant, Chumleigh Lodge was fined £30,000 and its sole director, Michael Wilson, was fined £210,000.

So how is it possible to keep clear of such significant pitfalls and ensure you are doing all you can to keep staff and guests safe?

Owners or operators of public buildings have a legal duty to identify and mitigate fire risk to all the occupiers of the premises. To demonstrate they've done this they must carry out a risk assessment, identify the risks and act to reduce them. The risk assessment isn't just more bureaucracy, but a vital tool in fire safety.

You don't have to employ a professional to carry out the risk assessment, but if you aren't confident you can recognise the risks then it's a wise move. The Passive Fire Protection Federation strongly recommends using a third party-accredited assessor. Likewise, any fire safety measures in the building should use third party-certificated products, installed by recognised contractors.

Inadequate risk assessments produced by under-qualified or incompetent consultants can have tragic results; 14 people died in a fire at a Scottish care home that could have been avoided if a proper risk assessment had been competently carried out and the findings acted on.

The need won't go away if you ignore it. It is vital that you are aware of the potential sources of fire, and how flames and smoke could spread from the source to other parts of the building, endangering the occupants.

David Sugden is chairman of the Passive Fire Protection Federation

How to meet fire safety regulations

1 Plan your risk assessment There are two kinds of fire-safety measures to take into account - active and passive (or built-in). Active measures - such as alarms - are easy to check, it's obvious what they do. Built-in measures are harder to recognise, but must be in place and intact because they divide a building into compartments that can be closed to stop the spread of flames and smoke (compartmentation).

2 Check the obvious things Are alarms working and sprinklers and extinguishers maintained?

3 Check the fire doors They are an essential part of compartmentation. An open fire door is useless, and a fire door that has been modified in any way is just a door since its ability to withstand fire is compromised.

4 Be aware that alterations and improvements can affect safety Holes in a compartment wall or ceiling for pipes or wires must always be stopped with suitable fire-protective materials, so smoke, fumes and flames can't easily spread.

5 Take human behaviour into account If everyone reacted immediately to a fire alarm, or left the building in an orderly fashion, it would be a minor miracle. Good compartmentation allows vital time and safe exit routes.

6 Don't file it and forget it The risk assessment isn't the end of the story as far as safety is concerned. It must be a dynamic document, updated and acted on whenever repairs or refurbishment cause changes in the fabric.

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