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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
October 5, 2022


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Cost of living

Fuel poverty… A crisis set to spark fire hazards?

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The well-known saying should perhaps also highlight that the more desperate you are, the more mistakes you make. That is the view emerging as the impact of the UK’s energy crisis begins to be more fully understood. The ‘Heat or Eat’ dilemma blighting low-income households in the UK can also spark off the threat of heating-related fires due to hazardous experiments to keep warm.

Hunter Seymour reports on the impact rising energy costs are having, how it is likely to feed through to a growth in fire hazards as a result, and what the fire industry is doing to help combat the issue.

As the World Energy Council warns, the failure to protect those in fuel poverty could see a “cost of living crisis move to a cost of lives crisis” in the colder months in areas of high deprivation and social exclusion.

Critically, the LFB (London Fire Brigade) has issued an urgent safety warning for vigilance to safeguard “The Left Behind” in the Energy Crisis. Following a recent fire in southwest London as rising energy bills hit UK homes, fire Investigators determined that the cause of a significant house fire in New Malden involved an open fire being used instead of gas central heating.


Image credit: 57Stock/Alamy

DIY heat sources: The threat of dangerous alternatives

As the LFB cautions: “With over 100 fires involving open fires, log burners and heaters in just the last few months alone, the Brigade fears that costly energy bills could result in a surge of fires as people resort to alternative means to heat their homes.”

Improvised drying of washing is identified as a particular hazard. Clearly there is a public safety risk if fireguards are not in place. “Anything that can catch alight should be kept well away from the fire, such as logs and kindling which could be ignited by radiating heat.”

Such examples, however, are evidently not the only risky expedients in an energy crisis. According to the latest 2022 Home Office crime statistics, electricity theft – ‘hotwiring’ or tampering with a line or bypassing a meter – has risen by a record-breaking 13% compared with the previous year. Energy regulator Ofgem (The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) warns that the offence of “interfering with electricity meters or wires is a serious risk to safety”.

“One in four UK households is now in fuel poverty, which means millions are facing impossible choices because of their high energy bills. Some are choosing between heating and eating, others are self-disconnecting from energy suppliers completely and some are even starting open fires. These aren’t coping strategies. It’s people who feel they have no safe choice to make.”

Illegal tampering to bypass meters could result in overheating of wires, property damage and possible loss of life. Seeking makeshift substitutes for powering lighting or cooking in the home is similarly fraught with inherent dangers that actively hasten fire-raising incidents. The increasing use of candles or paraffin lamps indoors is now regularly reported in the national press, together with accounts of significant growth in sales of “survival packs” of camping gear such as portable gas stoves.

Meanwhile, there is news of households using outdoor barbecue appliances instead of their kitchen ovens. Recently, a strengthening trend in wood-burning stoves has seen a 60% leap in sales of firewood.

Such trends point to a worsening step in the heating of homes by householders unfamiliar with the hazards. The fuel poverty charity, National Energy Action, describes fire incidents arising from improvised heating by open fires as a “harsh and dangerous reality of the cost-of-living crisis”.

The charity’s verdict is stark. “One in four UK households is now in fuel poverty, which means millions are facing impossible choices because of their high energy bills. Some are choosing between heating and eating, others are self-disconnecting from energy suppliers completely and some are even starting open fires. These aren’t coping strategies. It’s people who feel they have no safe choice to make.”

This verdict is echoed by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition: “There are more than 10,000 excess winter deaths per year because people cannot afford to heat their homes.”

The silent killer

The NFCC (National Fire Chiefs Council) points out the particular public safety risk of temporary portable heaters and urges people to take fire safety precautions in the home to stay safe. Some kinds of heaters may also present a poisoning risk from “the Silent Killer”, CO (carbon monoxide). The use in households of CO alarms is strongly advised. “Fires involving heaters have a particularly high mortality rate. This may be due to circumstances where bedding or blankets are too close to a heat source.”

Cost-saving electricity usage in off-peak night time hours can seem like budgetary good sense but it may lead to the running of high-energy white goods such as tumble dryers and washing machines whilst occupants sleep; a practice that could leave sleepers less time to respond quickly and safely in the event of fire.

Meter cheating

Image credit: Crimestoppers

Improvised heating is also an observably emergent criminal activity. Every year innocent people are injured, some fatally, as a result of meter tampering. It’s estimated that more than £400 million worth of energy is stolen each year across the UK, a crime reckoned to add between £20 and £30 to the bill of every honest household.

The UKRPA (UK Revenue Protection Association) is committed to combating the tampering and illegal abstraction of electricity and gas. This year the UKRPA reported an increase in criminals selling meter tampering or meter removal as a service. And it is so often the innocent who are the victims.

For example, the electricity meter of an Essex pub was bypassed in 2018. A small child was fatally electrocuted from touching lighting in the garden, and both the electrician and landlord were prosecuted. Ofgem warns: “Under no circumstances should consumers attempt to connect electricity meters themselves.”

According to news reports, in many cases criminal gangs can carry out in excess of 15 “tapping-in” bypasses of domestic supplies each day. For instance, in one single terraced street of 20 houses, where a house was destroyed in a suspected gas explosion, investigators found five instances of gas theft and two of electricity theft.

The scale of the destruction meant the cause of the explosion could not be identified but this example demonstrates the wide prevalence of this life-threatening malpractice with, allegedly, UK homes in incalculable numbers avoiding paying for usage by bypassing their supply.

The two principal utilities, gas and electricity, are each individually sources of unique danger when subjected to tampering – but together they can combine in an explosive mixture with unforeseen fatal consequences. Leaking gas is highly flammable and can be easily ignited. A faulty electrical connection as the result of “hot-wiring” is all it would take to cause an explosion, risking terrible injuries. Meddling with exposed wiring can make switches or appliances “live” to touch or cause them to overheat or malfunction; the outcomes can be catastrophic.


Telltale signs of energy theft

Here are some signs of gas meter theft to look out for when examining a gas meter:

  • Meter turned around the wrong way so the normal dials can’t be seen.
  • Smell of gas – A smell of gas near the meter box. Call immediately 0800 111 999.
  • Dial has disappeared – There is no visible dial or counter on the meter anymore.
  • Working but no credit – Meter shows credit has run out but gas is still available.
  • Meter dials not moving – Meter’s dials aren’t revolving even when gas is being used.
  • Rubber piping – All gas meters use metal piping so, if rubber piping has been substituted, your gas meter has been changed from its original state and should be checked.

Some typical signs of electricity meter theft. The fallout from this criminal activity can be fatal.

  • A burning smell or even smoke or sparks near the meter box can be a sign of a potential bypass.
  • An illegal bypass is extremely dangerous and should be reported immediately.
  • Changes to wiring. Check visually the wire that runs between the meter and the property.
  • Damage to the meter. Look out for signs like scorching or burn marks.
  • Meter acts strangely. Such as the numbers on the dial moving the wrong way, or not at all.
  • Sparks and electric shocks from sockets or appliances could be linked to electricity theft.
  • Casing damaged or removed completely or the cables disconnected.
  • Extra wires sticking out or wrapped around with connector clips attaching them to the meter.

Rethinking fire risk in an energy crisis and the role of fire risk assessors

As these cautionary examples have shown, there are strong indications for fire risk assessors to regard themselves as a key participants in a wider support network composed of representatives from responsible authorities to develop community safety plans in consultation with partners for whom vulnerable and disadvantaged residents exposed to fire risk is an issue of the highest priority.

Accordingly, information-sharing agreements with partner agencies can yield multi-agency psycho-socio-behavioural assessments that provide enhanced insights into occupants of high-risk environments.

As a case in point, the risk assessment framework developed by Nottinghamshire FRS for its PEO (Person-Environment-Occupation) model demonstrates an exemplary approach in action.

When assessing risk to occupants of a property, the PEO is a way of looking at all the information gathered about the person, environment, and occupation (the term “occupation” is used to describe the occupants’ important and meaningful activities: washing and dressing, cooking, childcare, exercise, work, etc.).

The risk assessor then considers how the different areas intersect to understand the quality of the individual’s occupational performance, which may impact on their risk of fire. The direct application of these analytical insights to those most vulnerable residents struggling in the current fuel poverty crisis may be understood by considering the real-life case history that follows.

Real-life scenario – A fatal fire

The practical function of the PEO model is evidenced in a NFR Report of a high-risk case previously visited, its content prompted by key PEO information gathered concerning vulnerable occupants; essentially, their environment and situation as residents.

Image 1 – Before the fire

NFRS reported (see image 1 evidence):

  • Elderly occupiers living in a single room
  • Unsafe smoking, including smoking in bed and not using ashtrays safely
  • Regular alcohol use
  • Fuel poverty – the couple have been using wood from the furniture to burn in the open fireplace (they have burnt a leg from the bed, so they are using a chair to prop up the mattress, also wardrobe shelves)
  • Social isolation – no regular visitors or contact with services
  • Exit (doorway) blocked by wardrobe
  • Previous signs of fire – burn mark on headboard
  • Cluttered environment

Cause of fire (see photo 2)

Tragically, NFRS attended the property again when there had been a fatal fire. Photo 2 was taken from the same perspective as the earlier picture and the metal frame of the chair that was under the bed may still be seen in the burnt-out room. The brigade’s findings included:

  • Plaster removed from the wall by fire fighting jet
  • Alcohol use
  • Inappropriate use of smoking materials
  • The fire started where the wardrobe stood
  • Fuel poverty
  • Charred springs from the mattress
  • Chairs used to support the bed

Image 2 – After the fire

Key safeguarding criteria include: Care plans; Cooking; Hoarding; Alcohol and drug related fire incidents; Reduced mobility; Living alone; Inappropriate smoking; Elderly and electrical risk awareness; Previous signs of fire.

Within the PEO assessment methodology, the Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service Prevention team aims to work with professionals who are in contact with, care for, or visit, community members who may be at risk of fire or incidents in the home.

Professor Mary Law, co-originator and populariser of the PEO concept, commends the Notts FRS project: “I am VERY impressed by the website and content and the way in which the PEO model has been used to identify important factors related to fire risk.”

Dangers of single-room-isolation

Crew Manager Graham Tuckwood from Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s Persons At Risk Team, highlights isolation as a critical risk for vulnerable occupants living alone:

“We use the PEO model as part of our prevention work in communities, in order to identify areas of risk within the home. The vast majority of domestic fires are linked to occupational performance and the misuse of domestic appliances. The model can be applied to any area within the home, including a person with a single room existence using portable heaters close to other combustible materials.

“As people may begin to shrink their environment to cope with fuel poverty, the risk is compounded. People can begin to live in one room, carrying out multi-functions that may make them vulnerable to fire. Old chimneys may be used without proper inspection, and more candles may be lit, both increasing the risk from carbon monoxide. We find that disorganised living, substance misuse and smoking also increase a person’s risk.

“Our Prevention Team identifies persons at risk, and we are committed to working with partner agencies across Nottinghamshire to keep people safe.

“This winter, as we expect the cost of living to increase, we are only too aware of the impact this will have on our most vulnerable. Those concerned about someone in their local community should report it to their fire service or local authority.”

Multi-agency collaboration

In many respects, the “Fire Safe & Well” project of the LFB (in partnership with London’s NHS, Public Health England, and the capital’s Councils) can be seen as a PEO counterpart at scale.

Certainly, this “Healthy London Partnership” points the way to the future of enhanced home fire safety visits supported by a multi-agency transactional assessment for possible interventions.

So judged by these successful projects alone, concerned health, local authority and voluntary sector organisations – faced with the looming challenges of the Fuel Poverty Crisis – should see plenty of reassuring evidence of the wisdom of working collaboratively with the fire service to improve health and reduce fire risk in their most vulnerable communities by focusing on local issues and priorities.

The gravity of the UK Energy Crisis can be measured by increasing demands on food banks over the past three months, which have seen a 30% rise according to leading UK charities and, particularly, a change in the nature of need with appeals by food bank users for food that requires no energy to cook… shockingly, now known as “cold parcels”.

Shortly after the publication of this article, the London Fire Brigade released its own safety advice amid fears that rising energy bills could lead to more heating-related fires. So far, the Brigade has already attended 148 heating related fires this year, with incidents expected to rise as we move into the colder months.


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