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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.
August 26, 2022


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New simultaneous evacuation guidance for purpose-built blocks of flats

Ron Alalouff highlights some of the main provisions of the new edition of simultaneous evacuation guidance for purpose-built blocks of flats, published by the National Fire Chiefs’ Council.  

EvacuationThe guidance seeks to encourage building owners and managers to install common fire alarms or alternative technologies, to reduce the dependence on waking watches in buildings where fire safety remediation is required.

The guidance is primarily designed to apply to buildings that pose a significant and immediate risk to residents’ safety that cannot support a stay put strategy, and where making an immediate change to the evacuation strategy – by implementing short term interim measures – is the only alternative to immediately prohibiting the occupation of the building.

In support of the previous edition of the guidance, the government made available over £30m to install alarms (later increased to over £60m) and replace costly waking watch measures in all residential buildings in England where a waking watch is in place at cost to leaseholders. Over 300 buildings have benefited from the fund, and over 200 of these buildings have now installed a common alarm system.

Fire risk assessment

The fire risk assessment should be undertaken by a competent person to ensure a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks, and the identification of the fire precautions which are required to ensure the building is safe. The fire risk assessment must be reviewed and updated to reflect the risk posed by a combustible external wall system and/or other significant failings in the general fire precautions. Additional guidance on this type of risk assessment can be found in PAS 9980. Such assessments should only be carried out by a competent fire engineer or other competent building professional.

Where the main issue is the external wall system, the responsible person should:

  • Check there are no potential routes for fire spread from the interior of the building to any combustible external wall systems
  • Close any car parks in which a vehicle fire could impinge on any combustible external wall systems
  • Ensure that external fuel sources that could allow a fire to spread to any combustible external wall systems are removed or managed appropriately (for example, bin stores)

Evacuation strategy

Purpose-built blocks of flats are generally designed to support a stay put strategy, where only residents from flats directly affected by fire, heat or smoke should need to evacuate. Those in unaffected flats should be protected by the fire precautions provided by the building – usually adequate fire separation between each flat and between flats and the common parts – and therefore should be safe to stay put. But a responsible person, with advice from a competent person, may determine that all or parts of the building can no longer support a stay put strategy.

A change in evacuation strategy will be necessary where there is a risk of fire and/or smoke spread – either internally or externally – which would place residents at risk if they did not quickly evacuate the building. Responsible persons should notify their local fire and rescue service of any change to the evacuation strategy, so that they can consider their operational response.

Once a building becomes a simultaneous evacuation building, it is the duty of the responsible person to ensure that all residents evacuate the building safely. This includes an emergency evacuation plan for all people likely to be in the building, including disabled people. The evacuation plan should not rely on fire and rescue service intervention to make it work.

The guide also says that responsible persons must proactively engage with residents when implementing a change in evacuation strategy. Such engagement should include:

  • Explaining to residents the risk identified in the building
  • Steps residents can take to help reduce the risk of a fire
  • Information about the measures being put in place
  • How long these measures are likely to last

Waking watch

The guidance states that “an appropriate common fire alarm and detection system will generally provide more certainty that a fire will be detected and residents warned at the earliest opportunity, rather than rely on using a waking watch.”

While the guidance says that installing a common fire alarm system may be more cost-effective than a waking watch, a waking watch may be needed in the short term if the risk assessment has identified that there is an imminent risk to residents and the alternative is to prohibit occupation of the building. It’s a system where suitably trained people continually patrol the building and its perimeter in order to detect a fire, raise the alarm, and alert the fire and rescue service. Those individuals can then assist in managing an evacuation, if needed.

The fire risk assessment or other documentation should identify the operational requirements for the waking watch, including the areas that need to be patrolled, frequency of patrols, and the means of raising the alarm for residents who need to evacuate. The guidance then goes on to set out criteria for assessing the required evacuation time including the type and extent of the external wall system, the risk of internal ignition of the external wall system, the height of the building, the type of occupants, any sprinkler or other automatic fire suppression systems installed, and any other known fire safety issues such as poor compartmentation. Residents should be made aware of how the waking watch will raise the alarm, the actions to take, the identities of those carrying out the waking watch and how to contact them.

Vulnerable residents

The responsible person should also take account of the needs of vulnerable residents and the effect that any changes may have on their ability to safely evacuate, and ensure that all residents can be alerted in the event of a fire, accounting for factors such as hearing impairments, different languages and cognitive abilities.

Common fire alarm

A temporary simultaneous or partial evacuation strategy relies on early warning to ensure residents escape safely. The safest and most effective way of ensuring this is by installing a suitable common fire detection and alarm system conforming to BS 5839-1. The guide emphasises that a common fire detection system is an interim measure, and should not be relied on as a long-term solution or as an alternative to remediation. It’s also important that all flats are fitted with smoke alarms to provide early warning to residents in the event of a fire in their flat.

It may be possible to retain or repurpose aspects of a common fire alarm system once the building has been remediated, either converting it to an evacuation alert system for use by the fire and rescue service, or as a means of giving a remote warning of a fire in a flat. These possibilities should be discussed with a competent fire alarm engineer at the design stage of the common fire alarm system.

Duties of the responsible person

The duties of the responsible person are laid out in part 2 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and include ensuring:

  • That a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been carried out and is reviewed regularly, particularly if there is a reason to suspect that it is no longer valid
  • The ongoing management and monitoring of the evacuation strategy and other fire safety provisions in the building, including testing and maintenance of fire safety provisions
  • The roles and actions of waking watch personnel are clearly defined and the individuals undertaking this function are competent to fulfil the role
  • Any processes and procedures put in place allow compliance with other applicable legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • Residents are repeatedly informed of the procedures and actions to be taken in the event of a fire
  • The local fire and rescue service is informed of a change to a temporary simultaneous evacuation
  • The responsible person continues to engage with their local fire and rescue service

“After consulting on the draft with a range of stakeholders and leaseholder groups, over 500 comments were received,” said Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council. “Data collected from English fire and rescue services shows that buildings known to have a waking watch (of all heights) fell by nearly 63% between June 2021 and March 2022, from 773 to 288. I’m really pleased to see this tracking down and hope this trend will continue.”


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