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February 4, 2021

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Fire protection

Protecting the vulnerable from fire – Suppression systems and a new approach?

Yusuf Muhammad, co-founder and Design Director of Plumis, explores how fire suppression systems could be implemented to protect the vulnerable in cases of fire – a rising issue according to a recent study from the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

Against an overall background of a significant reduction in fire fatalities in Great Britain in the last 30 years, fire safety challenges are constantly changing. An ageing population and increasing prevalence of dementia means we need to find new ways to protect vulnerable residents. Fire safety technology needs to be a key part of a combined solution.

The recent report by Building Research Establishment (BRE) titled “Fire fatalities in Scotland and recommendations to help reduce them” is a significant and helpful piece of research. It reviewed 123 Fire Investigation reports of all accidental dwelling fires, in Scotland, from April 2013 to March 2017. Over this period 19,645 accidental domestic fire incidents resulted in 147 serious injuries and 126 fire fatalities.

New regulations in Scotland

The report comes as the housebuilding industry prepares for the introduction of new regulations in Scotland on automatic fire suppression systems (AFSS). The changes in regulations require AFSS to be installed in new new-build flats and maisonettes, social housing dwellings and shared multi-occupancy residential buildings where a building warrant is applied for on or after 1 March 2021.

While this is a step in the right direction the new regulation, along with similar moves across the world, still puts focus on the structure and fabric of the building rather than the risk profile of the occupier. The focus also remains on new buildings. We believe that in addition to focusing on the fabric of the building, more focus must be placed on protecting those most at risk, which have consistently been shown to be the vulnerable and elderly.


READ: BRE summary of the Reducing Fire Fatalities in the Home Phase 1 report


The BRE report highlights the characteristics of those who are most vulnerable to fire. It states: “Factors such as living alone, being vulnerable or elderly, falling asleep or being asleep, having medical conditions, illnesses or temporary lack of physical mobility, or not hearing the alarm all contribute.”

It emphasises that the elderly and those suffering from conditions such as dementia, will need a more sophisticated solution than alarms. The combination of frailty caused by age, and mental and physical disability lead to a slower response time to fire and challenges leaving a property. For this population it is unrealistic to expect that the installation of a traditional fire alarm system is enough to save lives.

Protecting those most at risk

This is of clear interest to social landlords, who have responsibility for housing a highly vulnerable population. Scottish government figures show that 27% of social housing tenants are classed as single pensioners or in households with at least one pensioner. It also shows that 45% of adults in both local authority properties and housing association properties report a disability, a much higher figure than the owner occupier population.

In addition to this, research in the USA found fire deaths seem to be strongly associated with frailty, at least among adults, which suggests that measures to reduce fire deaths among adults should be focused on the disabled and those who suffer from the infirmities of age. Similarly, a Norwegian study found that approximately one third of the victims in Norwegian fatal fires were aged 70 years or older, which was disproportionate to the population; only about 10% of the population is actually aged 70 or more.

With these findings in mind, the increasing prevalence of dementia is also of concern. In 2015, it was reported that there were around 901 million people aged 60 years and over across the world representing 12.3% of the total population. By 2050, this figure will have increased to 2.1 billion or 21.3% of the global population.

There are currently over 800,000 people in the UK currently living with dementia, with numbers estimated to reach over 1 million in the next decade. Dementia impacts the brain and body in several ways, including judgement, sense of time and place, behaviour, physicality ability and the senses, presenting an even wider range of challenges and disparate needs for housing providers to address.

This challenge, alongside the occupier risks identified by the BRE, demonstrate that we need to find new ways to protect vulnerable residents. Fire safety technology needs to be a key part of a combined solution.

Innovative fire strategies

The BRE report was optimistic about the impact of new technologies in fire prevention and the protection of residents. The 14 recommendations are much needed and should be widely welcomed in order to ensure adequate fire protection is provided to all. They outline a number of effective technical solutions which are currently available, including the extension of detection and water mist suppression systems.

This data shows that we should not rely on traditional fire strategies or technologies as a guarantee of safety for vulnerable residents. It is my belief that as a society we must go beyond the minimum standard. This often means employing a range of technology-based solutions to match the individual needs of tenants and to cater for varying property types. The challenge for providers is meeting the very disparate needs of a wide range of people and being able to adequately adapt provision to protect the most vulnerable residents, especially when facing tight budget constraints.

Recommendation five of the BRE report describes the effectiveness of personal protection water mist systems and suggests the extension of these to cover multiple zones by “utilising multiple fire alarms (including heat alarms in the kitchen) and implementing pipework with appropriate heads”. Personal protection systems (PPS) can provide early fire detection and activation as they are often triggered by a smoke detector connected to a control unit that triggers local water mist suppression.

Plumis-Automist-21

The system’s effectiveness has been proven in domestic situations involving vulnerable residents who are unable to move away from the fire or leave the room of fire origin. It is for this reason we have been working to enhance our own Automist PPS to support social landlords with providing immediate protection to those most at risk. This flexible and portable option can be used to facilitate independent living and can be moved as the occupiers needs change.

Alongside this, our team have already taken the steps to develop a system that provides early detection and operation by using electronic activation. The system features multiple detectors and spray heads to protect each area and connects to the normal domestic water supply making it easy to retrofit, as it does not require a large tank or water supply upgrade.

Preparing for future changes

We’ve also been awarded a Smart Grant of £349,526 from Innovate UK to further develop Automist so that if offers even more value for housing providers. In this next phase of research and development, we’ll be using our systems infrared temperature sensors to provide environmental monitoring that can link to smart thermostat functionality. Our aim is to offer housing providers a better understanding of any potential risk in the home, particularly for those whose vulnerability may have changed, enabling them to intervene and mitigate any risks. It will also help landlords to identify potential cases of fuel poverty and provide information on occupancy that can be used by the fire brigade in an emergency situation.

Social landlords are already retrofitting water mist systems to protect their vulnerable tenants. In February 2020, work started to retrofit Automist Smartscan in 11 sheltered housing schemes in London. The aim of the project was to increase fire protection for some of the council’s most vulnerable residents, with minimal disruption. Installation took approximately two days per dwelling because the system uses the existing water main, as opposed to requiring a tank like traditional systems.

Since the installation, there have been two activations reported. One incident involved someone falling asleep with a lit cigarette left in an ashtray and the other was a kitchen hob fire. On both occasions, the residents were made aware of a fire by the systems alarms, which are automatically triggered when activated, while the Automist spray heads began scanning for heat changes to assess the danger.

In both cases, upon hearing the alarm the residents extinguished the fires themselves. Heat changes were observed indicating that there was no significant fire present, so the system automatically returned to standby as there was no need to deploy the water mist and therefore there was no unnecessary damage. If, however, the system had identified any heat changes resembling a growing fire the system would have targeted the fire with a dense fog of water mist.

Following both incidents – and in any situation where the scanning is triggered – a log is recorded on the internal memory, providing a timeline of events and recording the temperatures in the room. This report was then supplied to the social landlord enabling them to make an informed assessment of what happened and identify whether any additional precautions or interventions are needed to mitigate any further risk.

Taking action now

We welcome the new regulations in Scotland and hope similar regulations will be implemented in other countries. Whilst the types of properties covered include those that are likely to house larger numbers of vulnerable residents, more needs to be done to protect those most at risk in existing homes. Especially given that the final phase of the BRE report suggests that more lives could be saved if existing technologies are applied immediately.

While implementing measures to improve protection for vulnerable residents may not be straightforward, it would have a significant impact on reducing fire related injuries and fatalities.

Download: Fire Strategy – A Director’s Briefing

Access new fire safety expertise by downloading the free Barbour Director's Briefing, and learn how to create a 'carefully devised plan of action' to make your fire strategy more comprehensive than ever. In this free Director’s Briefing, Barbour EHS provides key information relating to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in England and Wales, including what is required from the responsible person of a property.

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