Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
September 9, 2015

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Is Airbnb Getting a Free Ride over Fire Safety?

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Like so many industries the traditional hotel and B&B sector has been largely impotent as the internet-driven ‘sharing economy’ undermines its business model.

And just as taxi app Uber has driven black cabbies to strike action in both Britain and France the success of Airbnb and similar peer-to-peer platforms like Wimdu, OneFineStay and HouseTrip are causing no little consternation in the B&B trade.

Airbnb, which matches property owners with accommodation to let with holidaymakers or business travellers, has been a phenomenal success. Now approaching a million properties across 190 countries the site is valued at more than £6bn – eclipsing Snapchat, Dropbox and Zoopla.

Lessors can rent out their home while they’re on holiday or leverage the value of empty space, while lessees enjoy a wider menu of often more affordable accommodation options from the homely to the idiosyncratic (lighthouse in New York anyone?).

Alastair Sawday, founder of characterful B&B association Sawday’s, has damned the site as a “”devoid of style, character, meaning and any underlying purpose other than making money for its investors.” But with peer-to-peer sites on course to put a 10% dent in hotel takings, is this just sour grapes?

Perhaps, although David Weston, chief executive of the Bed & Breakfast Association, argues a different point. Peer-to-peer platforms have been “handed a complete opt-out from the regulations that apply to B&Bs,” he claims.

“There are big questions unanswered, for example on insurance. I doubt the insurance industry is interested in providing cover for paying guests in people’s homes.

“B&Bs are often just three or four rooms in a home. There are endless regulations for things like fire doors and allergens, however.”

Obligation

Simon Ince, head of business resilience at BB7, believes the burgeoning industry needs to take its responsibilities seriously.

“They are not home swaps, which in my opinion are different,” he says. “These are properties where you pay for staying. They therefore have an obligation to provide safe accommodation – which includes fire safety.”

Far from seeking special treatment, though, Airbnb boss Brian Chesky professes to want a level playing field too: “We want to be regulated as that would recognise us,” he said.

And indeed they are regulated – in theory.

The Daily Telegraph has reported that in May 2014 the then Fire Minister Brandon Lewis confirmed that the Fire Safety Order “applies to all those offering accommodation to paying guests irrespective of the business model being used to market the accommodation.”

Pretty unequivocal then.

Except Lewis then went very close to claiming that enforcing that law vis-à-vis the 25,000-plus UK properties on Airbnb was virtually impossible.

However challenging enforcement might be, though, Simon Ince believes Airbnb should not exist beyond the law’s scope.

“There is a drive in Europe to use consumer protection legislation to drive up fire safety standards for tourist accommodation across the EU,” he says. “The main driver for change is that people should not be paying to be put at risk from unsafe accommodation.

“As this is a transaction for a short-term let, consumer rights would in my opinion apply – ie the accommodation should be safe; no one should be paying to be put in danger.

“Therefore these Airbnbs are a business and should be subject to the same standards as other businesses; they should have a fire-risk assessment and be as safe as can reasonably be expected.”

Airbnb would no doubt fret about the deterrence effect of mandatory fire-risk assessments on the thousands of hosts who rent out their home for just a couple of weeks a year.

Alan Cox, an experienced, influential voice on fire safety, says “the guidance is clear. It appears that the industry would like to be regulated but it is unlikely that the EU will do anything about it at this point in time.”

The one-time NHS fire safety officer (whose article on the Fire Enforcement Authority attracted more comments than any other last year) penned and sent ‘Travel Safe Europe: A Proposal for Improving Tourism Accommodation in Europe’ to the European Commission in 2014.

The green paper “could have catered for this problem quite easily and would have given the industry and public some confidence that the safety issue had been considered as well as a procedure for complaints.

“There are still some people and organisations that are still very concerned that nothing is happening in this area and anything that brings the matter into the public arena is good.”

Fire stats by building | Create infographics

Fire and rescue services

Bob Docherty, a former firefighter who now runs Flamerisk Safety Solutions and recently spoke about the Airbnb issue on the ITV news, says that fire and rescue services could enforce regulations in this area more effectively.

“In my opinion, Airbnb are subject to the RRFSO but the guys in F&RS for some reason don’t appear to see this as a priority,” he says. “I know their resources are spread thin but they need to look at where the real risk is.”

“They seem too busy focusing their attention on places like care homes and similar, especially those with a good record of fire precautions.”

With domestic property accounting for a majority of fire-related deaths, Airbnb surely warrants some attention, though the F&RS obviously has only limited resources.

Nevertheless, continues Docherty: “Last year a fire an F&RS pursued a small holiday let owner doggedly through the courts and won their case. If they can do that, then my argument is that they have enough resources, time and motivation to do the same with properties similar to those of Airbnb.”

“Risk recognition is the key,” he continues. “Risk changes and new risks emerge and F&RS should be able recognise this, act on new intelligence and focus on these rather than plodding down the ‘well-trodden way’.

“If they don’t adapt, I have a feeling that their confidence and competence to deal in these areas will be challenged and enforcement may end up with another authority.”

But Nick Coombe, FSR management support for audit and performance at the London Fire Brigade, believes the “the current system of inspection is appropriate” and says the allocation of limited resources is based on hard, up-to-date data.

The F&RS run risk-based inspection programmes (RBIP), where a risk score is assigned to a property based on access, operational needs and several other factors, and strategic inspection programmes based on fire and enforcement data to analyse trends or the frequency of specific incidents in particular buildings or sectors.

“Neither of these approaches or assessment of risk has identified either STORC [short-term online rental company] premises or indeed guest house or bed and breakfast accommodation as necessary targets for inspection,” insists Coombe. “In fact, in 2013 we only have records of one fire at a bed and breakfast in London.”

“Given there are potentially 750,000 premises within London where fire safety regulation could apply we have to balance our resources to ensure we have the greatest impact on risk reduction across London which must take into account the most vulnerable people in our community.

“In view of what our data and local officers can tell us, we are satisfied that the current system of inspection is appropriate as it continuously responds to changes in data and any emerging trend using a recognised national matrix system.”

Free smoke detectors

For its part Airbnb will hope the fire-prevention and safety guidance included in its ‘responsible hosting’ section will help ward off further regulation. In the UK the company says it is planning to provide free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, emergency safety cards and first-aid kits to hosts.

The site’s terms and conditions, however, lays responsibility for regulatory adherance squarely at the door of the hosts.

Despite a largely effective peer-review system and ‘Verified ID’ feature – which cross checks personal details against users’ social media identities – the site has been subject to numerous court actions, with the Catalonian government, for example, levying a £24,000 fine for lets found to be illegal.

One user told Telegraph Travel about a flat that “wasn’t properly wired, possibly because it was a converted small warehouse, and the lights were hooked up to one plug in the centre of the flat, then draped over the cupboards and pinned roughly to the ceilings. The one socket looked pretty overloaded.”

In the interests of balance, the traditional B&B and hotel sector is not entirely virtuous when it comes to fire safety, as this story attests.

“I have personally stayed in some very poor hotels and holiday accommodation with scant regard for fire safety, and even though these types of property are subject to the fire safety order there can be poor provision,” says Simon Ince, who thinks Airbnb’s unusual business model is nevertheless more vulnerable to dubious or non-existent fire safety measures.

“I would guess that for those Airbnb providers who are not aware of their obligation guests may be lucky to get just a domestic standard of fire precautions. At worst there may be no smoke detection and an inadequate means of escape.”

Anyone hosting on Airbnb can learn more about their fire safety and other responsibilities in the government document called Do you have paying guests?

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kurnal
kurnal
September 13, 2015 4:44 pm

I think the article and comments within overlook the huge range of services offered by airbnb and the differing legislation applicable in many cases. Looking at the fire safety legislation applicable to England and Wales I believe there are significant differences. For example there are some airbnb arrangements (house sitting or exchange) where the premises can only be considered as domestic accommodation and outside the scope of the RR(FS)O 2005. Then there are most commonly holiday cottages and  B&Bs to which the RR(FS)O 2005 applies and the guidance contained in the leaflet “Do you have Paying Guests is relevant. Then… Read more »

Adam Bannister
September 14, 2015 2:28 pm

kurnal Thanks for your contribution to the debate! Interesting points. Good to tease out some more nuances to this issue…