Under UK guidelines, high-rise buildings are defined as any building taller than 7 storeys or 18 metres; structures of this type are typically complex to evacuate, and as such, should be fully equipped with comprehensive fire detection, alarm and control systems, as well as robust evacuation protocols.
Failing to ensure that a high-rise building meets these fire safety requirements will mean it presents significant risks to the people and property inside and nearby.
Grenfell Tower: The Consequences Of Neglecting Fire Safety
In June 2017, a fire outbreak at Grenfell Tower - a high-rise building in Kensington, West London - caused the deaths of 72 people, including 18 children. The counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett KC, stated that ‘Each and every one of the deaths that occurred in Grenfell Tower on the 14th June 2017 was avoidable’.
A wide range of fire safety failings was identified at the inquiry, including the polyethene cladding panels that were identified as the ‘primary cause’ of the fire, and which had failed to pass fire testing procedures all the way back in 2004.
In addition, while most of the fire doors had been replaced in 2011, neither the original nor replacement doors complied with the results of the latest fire test, which resulted in smoke gathering in the stairwell - the only escape route in the building.
While there were smoke extractors in the building, they did not operate effectively, and the central alarm system did not sound on the night of the fire, meaning that residents were not alerted to the outbreak of the fire in time. There was also no sprinkler system to contain the spread of the fire.
Changes To Legislation
In response to the Grenfell disaster, the government has made several changes to fire safety legislation, which are due to be enforced as of January 2023. Under this legislation, an appointed Responsible Person must:
• Install a secure information box in or outside the building to provide specified information about the property to the fire and rescue authority. This must include a detailed floor plan, and the information must be inspected and reviewed annually
• Keep a record of the design of the external walls of the building, including information about which materials were used for its construction
• Carry out routine monthly checks of the lifts for use in emergency situations, to ensure that residents can be evacuated from the building safely and that firefighting personnel and equipment can be effectively transported to the affected floors
• Electronically provide the local fire and rescue authority with the floor plan and details of the design and construction materials
For any building that contains two or more sets of domestic premises and communal evacuation routes, the Responsible Person must also:
• Ensure fire safety instructions are displayed in an easily accessible and visible area of the building
• Provide information regarding the fire doors to residents, to include informing them that fire doors should be kept shut when not in use
Essential Fire Safety Systems
Grenfell Tower is a chilling example of how quickly fires can escalate if a high-rise property is not equipped with the fire safety systems necessary to save lives. In particular, it illustrates the importance of using a fire alarm system that alerts all residents of the building, as well as having measures in place - such as fire doors – which will control the spread of fire.
Here, we will outline the fire safety systems required in high-rise buildings, and outline steps that property owners can take to ensure they’re as well protected as possible from outbreaks.
‘Smoke detectors’ and ‘fire alarms’ are frequently used interchangeably by laymen; however, these are two different systems. Firstly, the smoke detector detects the smoke, and this information is relayed to the fire alarm, which then raises the alert.
Some smoke detectors may make a noise, and these are known as ‘smoke alarms’, but the sound will not be loud enough to alert all occupants of a high-rise complex - this function is designed solely to work in small residential properties.
Larger properties should always be equipped with a fire alarm, which ideally would be monitored by an external monitoring service - or, in the case of high-risk buildings such as hospitals, schools, and care homes - by the local fire department.
Smoke detectors come in several different types. Ionized smoke alarms are usually better at detecting fires with lots of flames, while photoelectric alarms respond better to smouldering, smoky fires. Meanwhile, a dual sensor alarm uses both of these technologies for a more comprehensive - and therefore more reliable - alarm.
If your property has any kind of fuel-burning equipment within it, such as a boiler, furnace, gas water heater, or fireplace, you should also consider installing a combination smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarm, which will detect levels of the poisonous gas in the atmosphere.
If there is carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, residents may experience carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause them to lose consciousness and suffocate. By ensuring that any CO present is swiftly detected, you can quickly evacuate the premises while your residents are still conscious and able to respond to directions.
Fire alarm systems come in three different types; conventional, addressable, and wireless.
An addressable fire alarm is best suited for most large buildings, as they show the precise location of the fire. This allows residents to evacuate quickly and safely and enables fire services to target the fire in a precise manner, without having to search through the building - thereby saving precious time.
Another benefit of using an addressable alarm is that it can be configured to go off in different areas at different times, which is a crucial aspect of enforcing a staged evacuation. This prevents overcrowding in escape routes, which can lead to people becoming injured and/or trapped in the building.
Addressable alarm systems can also be configured to go off only in the affected area, therefore minimising disruption for other occupants of the building. Alternatively, they can also be programmed to set off all alarms simultaneously if a higher level of fire security is required.
While addressable alarms are suitable for most large premises, you may find that your individual building’s requirements vary. If you have any questions regarding which fire alarm system is most suitable for your building, call our experienced professionals and we will be happy to help!
Fire doors are designed to slow the spread of fires throughout the building, buying valuable time during an emergency. This is crucial, as it may not always be possible to evacuate the premises immediately, and in this instance, fire doors provide some limited protection until the emergency services arrive.
Fire doors come in a wide range of ratings; these ratings are described as FD (fire door) and then a number. The number in the rating represents the number of minutes that the door will defend against flames in the event of a fire - for example, FD60 will last for 60 minutes. The higher the rating, the longer the door will protect against fire.
Fire doors for a high-rise building must be tested and certified for use in a high-rise building. In addition, residents must be advised to keep fire doors shut when not in use, and to never tamper with a fire door’s shutting mechanism.
In England, all buildings over 18 metres must have a sprinkler system, and in Scotland, additional regulations mean that all new flats, maisonettes, social housing, and shared multi-occupancy residential buildings of any height must have one of these systems installed.
A sprinkler system is designed to spray water when a fire breaks out in the building. Not usually connected to the alarm or smoke detection systems, the sprinkler system detects when the heat level in the premises reaches a certain point, and then discharges water.
The water helps to manage the spread of the fire or extinguish it where possible, which allows time for residents to evacuate safely.
There are four different sprinkler types that may be used in a high-rise building:
• Wet pipe system - This is the most commonly used type of sprinkler system found in high-rise buildings, and it is reliable and easy to install. An automatic water supply is directed to the pipes by the system, allowing it to be dispensed throughout the building
• Dry pipe system - Dry pipe systems are usually used for unheated buildings, where water in a wet pipe system may freeze at low temperatures. To replace the water in the pipes, this system uses air at a lower pressure than that of the water.
When the automatic sprinkler heads are activated, the air pressure is released, causing the water to flow through the system in order to manage the fire
• Deluge system - Deluge systems are most commonly used in buildings where there is a risk of fire spreading rapidly. When the alarm sets off the deluge system, the deluge valve will open, causing jets of water to spray simultaneously throughout the building
• Pre-action system - These types of sprinklers are designed to prevent accidental activation where there is a risk of serious water damage; like for example, in buildings that contain large amounts of electronics, or which hold high-value artefacts, such as art galleries and museums.
Pre-action systems may be either single interlock or double interlock. A single interlock is similar to a dry-pipe system, but for the system to go off, it must be activated by a fire detection event, such as a smoke detector being alerted.
The double interlock is more like a deluge system, but it has to be preceded by a fire detection event and an automatic sprinkler activation before the water reaches the system piping. If these events do not take place, water will not enter the piping system
Emergency lighting is essential for enabling residents to navigate the building during a power cut. Without emergency lighting, occupants may become lost, or may fall and injure themselves, causing them to become trapped.
There are two types of emergency lighting:
• Emergency escape lighting - Emergency escape lighting is designed to direct occupants away from the source of the fire and towards a safe exit. These may be wired into the network, or powered by batteries.
Emergency lighting can be described as 'maintained' or 'non-maintained'. A maintained emergency lighting system acts as a standard light fitting in daily operations, and will continue to function during a power outage. A non-maintained emergency lighting system, however, will be activated only during a power cut
• Standby lighting - Standby lighting is simply a backup lighting system to be used during a mains supply failure. It does not direct occupants away from danger or towards an exit
Want to ensure your high rise building is properly protected against fires and other security threats? Give our expert team a call!