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Has Grenfell Ground to a Halt

Here Adam Jurka, National Sales Manager at Ramtech Electronics, looks at why buildings with dangerous cladding should follow NFCC guidance and move over to safer and more permanent interim measures to protect residents from fire.

It is now three years since the devastating fire at Grenfell. Soon afterwards it emerged that many other buildings around the UK had similar dangerous cladding. A way forward was identified; implement interim fire safety arrangements for the temporary, short term management and mitigation from the risk of fire, until replacement of the cladding could be carried out.

The question therefore is why, after three years, are residents still relying on these ‘temporary, short term’ measures, such as waking watch to alert them of a fire. It hasn’t helped that the government has adopted a ‘hands-off’ approach to remediations by insisting that the work is responsibility of building owners.

The fact there is still confusion about who should pay for remediation works hasn’t helped. A consequence of this is that building owners who implemented waking watches – an expensive system that is prone to human error – as a short-term solution are finding that they are still having to rely on them. The fact that some waking watches have been in place for three years shows just how protracted this affair has become.

Official figures illustrate the scale of the problem with 300 tower blocks over 18m in England alone, all with ‘Grenfell-style’ cladding and still waiting to be made safe. This is only the tip of the iceberg because it doesn’t include the government’s estimated 1700 buildings over 18m that have systems known to be dangerous including, some timber, high-pressure laminate and polystyrene cladding and insulation systems. Then there is an estimated 100,000 buildings between 11m and 18m across the UK that may have dangerous cladding materials on the outside. There’s certainly a case that the Building Safety Fund should cover all buildings with dangerous cladding, regardless of height.

However, at current levels of progress, remediation work will take decades. Would you, as one of the 500,000 residents living in these dangerous buildings, be happy relying on waking watch for the foreseeable future, knowing that the EWS (External Wall System) is a serious fire risk? Even last week, over 1,000 residents at a six-block housing and student accommodation development in West London were evacuated from the buildings over fears about fire risks.

Waking watches are far from ideal because they rely on the person seeing the fire in a very large building with multiple floors. Others with dangerous cladding are protected only by security guards who are expected to patrol 24 hours a day, alerting residents should a fire break out. The cost of doing this – borne by the building owner and / or residents – can be as high as £250,000 a year per building. Then there is the issue of how long it takes a waking watch person to alert an entire block of residents, when we know that fire in buildings with dangerous cladding can spread in minutes. They are usually required to do this using an airhorn, which is hardly an efficient method in a multi-occupancy building. Plus, whilst the fire is spreading, guards are required to hold their finger on an airhorn to alert and evacuate a building full of people. Do they put themselves at risk whilst carrying this out?


A technology-based approach

NFCC has recently released their third edition ‘Guidance to support a temporary change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy in purpose-built blocks of flats’. They clearly state that building owners should move to install common fire alarms as quickly as possible to reduce or remove the dependence on waking watches. This is the clear expectation for buildings where remediation cannot be undertaken in the ‘short term’. This approach should, in almost all circumstances, reduce the financial burden on residents where they are funding the waking watches. Others have also supported this guidance, with Inside Housing calling for affected buildings to move over to safer and more permanent interim measures such as sprinklers and fire alarms.

That is why, in this paper, we support the guidance from NFCC calling for all buildings with dangerous cladding to have a technology-based fire alarm that is capable of simultaneously alerting the whole building.

A major benefit of wireless fire alarm systems is that they can be rapidly deployed to create a ‘common’ fire alarm system in any size of building. Significantly, being wireless avoids having to drill holes through walls for cabling, so maintaining integrity of the fire compartments. The NFCC has identified holes or apertures as a potential issue; “common alarm systems installed in the premises must not have any adverse effect on the other fire safety provisions in the building. For example, the installation of a wired system must not create a route for fire and smoke to spread in fire rated walls which were previously imperforate’’.

A wireless fire alarm system allows the signal to pass through all commonly used materials in a building, whilst avoiding having to drill holes through walls. If just one of the heat / smoke detectors in a wireless system is activated, it sounds an alarm via multiple interconnected call points in all areas of the building allowing ‘simultaneous evacuation’ of residents. It does not rely on manual intervention, or a waking watch person seeing the fire. Systems such as our WES3 are fully wireless, so no cabling or mains power is needed – and they have a three-year battery life, so little or no maintenance is required, whilst automatic detection reduces human error. When specifying a wireless fire alarm system, it should be compliant to EN 54 and scalable to any size building utilising flooded mesh radio technology. They are tamper proof, available for hire or sale, and can be despatched on next day delivery.

Innovation in internet connectivity, apps and the ability to collect, analyse and interpret data in live stream have extended the functionality of wireless fire alarm systems. For instance, REACT cloud system can remotely communicate alerts raised by the alarm system in real-time to relevant personnel such as property managers who are based off site via an app installed on their smart phone or tablet device. Alerts raised can be supported with site specific plans to highlight the incident’s precise location. Users can then record actions on their device, which are automatically uploaded to the cloud for feedback to relevant group members.


The way forward

One thing that is clear from the Grenfell tragedy is that owners of multi-occupancy buildings are legally responsible for fire safety. There are justified concerns from residents about having a succession of ‘waking watch’ guards in the building especially at a time when they are required to maintain social distancing. We should give a thought to residents in lockdown who are living in buildings with unsafe cladding. It certainly can’t be easy for them, aware that they are of the increased fire risk, whilst guards who have to self-isolate can make around-the-clock staffing difficult.

That is the reason why we are joining the growing number of organisations that support NFCC’s call for ‘common fire alarms or sprinklers’ because it avoids the need for ‘waking watch’ and all the issues associated with it.

With protracted negotiations on where the money for remediations will come from, now is the time to follow the guidance set out by NFCC and others on effective interim measures that better protect residents. In terms of performance, cost and ease of installation, EN54-compliant wireless fire alarms offer a very effective way forward and have already been used on a number of buildings with dangerous cladding.