Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
April 12, 2021

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Contact tracing and COVID-19 director’s briefing

Evacuation procedures

Disagreements exposed over personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people and stay put policies in high-rises

Disagreement has broken out over the role of personal emergency evacuation plans for people with disabilities or limited mobility in high rise residential blocks.

The report of phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry recommended that personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) are required for all vulnerable residents of high rise blocks. In its response to its own fire safety consultation, the Government proposed to have details of any residents requiring assistance to evacuate made available to their local fire and rescue service and to place such information in a premises information box, but limited the requirement of PEEPs to residents only of higher risk buildings with a waking watch in place.

In a legal challenge to the Government’s failure to implement the inquiry’s recommendation for all those needing assistance to evacuate, the family of Sakina Afrasehabi, a disabled woman who along with her sister Fatemeh Afrasiabi was killed in the fire, forced the Government to agree to run a further consultation specifically on PEEPs, to pay the family’s legal costs, and to disclose notes and minutes of a special interest group meeting held under the auspices of the Fire Industry Association (FIA) on 22 April 2020. The cross-industry group was set up to advise the Home Office on the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations.

The notes of the meeting, chaired by a Home Office representative and seen by IFSEC Global, make clear that participants were sceptical on the wholesale use of PEEPs for people with disabilities in high rise residential blocks. They said this was “completely impracticable and not doable,” as such buildings do not have the staff available to assist with evacuation.

Participants also pointed out that it would be difficult to keep up-to-date records of people needing assistance, for example where a disabled visitor stayed overnight or a resident broke a leg. And, problems could occur if someone was registered as deaf but was out for the night, for example, leaving firefighters searching for someone who is not there.

The FIA said the recommendation was “totally impracticable, as there are no staff within a high-rise residential building to carry out a PEEP. It would also be extremely difficult to keep any such PEEPs up-to-date in a building with a dynamically changing occupancy and sub-let flats (in which there is little or no interaction between the building owner and the residents). Consideration might be given to person-centred risk assessments, telecare enabled smoke alarms, etc. for disabled residents who seek such support.”

Stay put?

Participants in the meeting also appear to have backed a continuation of the ‘say put’ principle, which is based on the assumption that a building is properly built and compartmented so that it is safer for residents unaffected by fire or smoke to stay in their flats, until the fire and rescue service has suppressed the fire and/or evacuated them. As the notes from the meeting said: “The best thing is to build safe buildings where people can stay put.”

Those taking part also questioned the inquiry’s recommendation that there should be national guidelines for carrying out evacuations of high rise buildings, saying it would be difficult to have such standard guidance because such evacuation plans would need to be “building-specific”.

Can technology support in the issue?

One solution to enhancing the safety of vulnerable residents is the provision of telecare-enabled smoke alarms. For social housing residents who live with a long-term disability, the use of technology that remotely monitors the home environment 24/7 – and generates live data that illustrates the real-time risk level for each property – has the potential to mitigate risk, says Nick Rutter, FireAngel’s Co-founder and Chief Product Officer.

“Using remote alarm monitoring, Internet of Things (IoT) and predictive data analysis, connected safety technology also has the potential to identify a fire risk before it escalates to a 999 call. Not only can the data monitored in real-time alert social landlords to the status of alarms in the property when they are triggered, but also when they need to be replaced.

“Connection to the IoT enables landlords to monitor important features such as the building’s age and condition, as well as the wear and tear of electrical appliances,” says Rutter. “Being able to combine this information with data on individuals’ physical or mental status is also important. If a person has dementia, is partially sighted or uses a wheelchair, they will be slow to respond in the event of a fire.

“Using connected technology, a person-centred approach can be applied to fire safety procedures and systems. Adopting this approach means safeguards can be implemented, managed and maintained according to a vulnerable resident’s individual needs, helping to support many of the requirements set out in the Charter for Social Housing Residents.”

In its response to the recommendation that the building owner/manager should be required to draw up and maintain evacuation plans, the FIA said: “In a high-rise block of flats, with a stay put strategy, it is difficult to see what an evacuate plan might comprise, other than a simple reiteration of the standard stay put strategy. Reiterating this strategy for every high-rise residential building in information provided to the fire and rescue service would be an entirely asinine exercise.”

The FIA continued: “The fire and rescue service expect a modern block of flats to adopt a stay put strategy; any variation from this should be known to the fire and rescue service from familiarisation visits and information provided at the design stage. At most, simple information on the evacuation strategy could be kept within the premises information box.”

Responding to the recommendation that the owner/manager of a high-rise residential building be required to include information about people with reduced mobility and their PEEPs in a premises information box, the FIA said that having consulted with the housing sector, this was “completely impossible” without staff on the premises.

“Due to the nature of the housing sector and the constant change in occupation, this information will never be up to date and correct. Due to the inaccuracy of the information it could place firefighters at risk. The freeholder of the property might not be in position to obtain this information in the first place and tenants are under no legal requirement to provide landlords with the information. A stay put policy is conducive to the safety of disabled people if they cannot evacuate unaided. Alternative measures are available, such as suppression systems and telecare.”

In addition to the FIA, participants of the meeting included representatives from the Home Office, Local Government Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council, a consultancy called Ensure Safety and Compliance, fire risk assessment providers Allsaved and Metro Safety, fire consultancy BB7 and fire equipment provider Johnson Controls.

Shahrokh Aghlani, one of Ms Afrasehabi’s five children, told Housing Today: “I don’t think providing evacuation plans is difficult. That’s an unacceptable argument when we are talking about the safety of citizens. We would be outraged if the aviation industry said safety was too difficult to do. It makes the whole idea of the inquiry appear a joke. It’s too late for my family now, but there are many other disabled people living in high-rises and I fear for them.”

Fire risk assessment code of practice suspended

In another development, BSI has suspended its fire risk assessment code of practice for housing, PAS 79-2: 2020, in response to threatened legal action by the same family.

The code of practice makes no recommendation for the provision of PEEPs for disabled people, and states that it is “not normally practicable” for fire risk assessments to identify people with disabilities or for residential landlords to “make provision for their evacuation in a fire”. In a statement last month, BSI said the suspension of the code of practice is pending a further review, as new information about PEEPs has emerged from the Grenfell inquiry and the Government’s response to it.

“The Steering Group, which is made up of experts in fire safety, fire risk assessment and the housing sector, will reconvene and have the opportunity to take them into account before reaching consensus on the guidance and recommendations in the code. As part of this, the Steering Group will also re-visit points raised during the public consultation relevant to persons with a disability, and it intends to further consult with experts in this field.”

Fire Safety in 2020 Annual Report - A year of challenges and change

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Michael Floyd
Michael Floyd
April 15, 2021 11:42 am

If an evacuation plan for a tall block is not difficult as claimed, why have all the other expert parties been unable to formulate one?

Simon Ince
Simon Ince
April 22, 2021 11:32 am

PEEPs are for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If someone needs assistance evacuating their apartment and the building, where is that support coming from? Who is going to fund that assistance? It isn’t the Fire and Rescue Services job to evacuate people, that’s fundamentally the purpose of a PEEP. General needs and evacuation is a massive issue that must be addressed with a reasonably practicable approach! The Beechmere Retirement complex fire, is an example of a property which wouldn’t come under this proposal; therefore residents wouldn’t have PEEPs. Look at the photos of… Read more »