Alan Cox

Fire-safety consultant

Author Bio ▼

Alan started his fire and safety career with Warwick County Fire Service in 1963 and served as both an Operational and Fire Safety Inspecting Officer. In 1976 he transferred to the West Midlands Fire Service until 1978 when he moved to the NHS as the District Fire Safety Officer for West Birmingham Health Authority where he was also the West Midlands Regional Health Authority Fire Advisor. During his NHS career he worked and studied for six months in the USA looking at different approaches to fire safety. He was also responsible for developing a computerized hospital fire evacuation program that was used in many major hospitals. In 1994 Alan moved to HSBC as its Senior Fire and Safety Officer responsible for the 80 countries in which the bank had a presence. During his career with HSBC he established a global approach to fire safety, organized many international fire and safety conferences, and developed a standardized method of protecting computer areas from fire. In 2005 he set up his own Fire and Safety Consultancy. During his career he has published a number of books on fire safety and made many specialist technical videos on subjects such as hospital evacuation, fire protection of electronic data protection areas, fire doors, and mail room safety. He has been awarded a Brooking NHS Travel Fellowship, Rospa Safety Professional of the Year (twice), FPA Premier Fire Safety Award, and The Prime Minister's Quality Initiative. He also contributes to many fire and safety journals including Fire, IOSH, Fire Surveyor, and Health and Safety Journal. He is a fully qualified Fire Service Inspecting Officer, member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Managers (MIIRSM), Tech IOSH, and Qualified Fire Investigator. Alan has advised many large companies including the National Trust, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Kings College, Cambridge, Briton Hardware, BUPA, British Antarctic Survey Expedition, Chubb, Central Television, BBC, Radisson SAS, and the Falkland Islands Police.
September 19, 2013

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Fire Safety Defects in Brand-New

Alan Cox visits the flagship library that just opened in Birmingham, and he is surprised to find a range of fire safety defects.

I visited the new Library of Birmingham on the 6th September 2013 as a member of the public to have a look around the building, which I found to be very impressive.

Click the image below for a slideshow on the visit.

Click here to view Figure 1.

As a fire and safety consultant, I was also interested in what standard of fire safety protection had been installed in the new GB pound 189 million building. The library was opened on 3rd September amid excitement and scepticism over whether the building was worth the price tag. I was somewhat surprised then at some of the things that I observed, which included:

  1. Fire doors not closing effectively and some wedged open
  2. Fire extinguishers poorly sited and holding fire doors open
  3. Doors opening in the wrong direction
  4. Final fire exits not indicated
  5. Misleading and poorly sited fire exit signs
  6. Fire exits marked “staff only”
  7. No fire escape graphic plans
  8. Fire exits controlled by electronic locks without a local release
  9. Automatic fire doors not closing fully
  10. Fire Action Notices not completed

Obviously, I am not aware of the fire strategy that was adopted for the building. It is obvious that the building is sprinklered and has automatic fire detection and other measures, but I am a little surprised at these defects. The building has been open for only a few weeks.

Even though I appreciate that this was a major project for the City of Birmingham, I do feel that there has been very little attention given to some of the more fundamental aspects of the scheme. If staff members are having to wedge fire doors open now, and automatic fire doors are not closing correctly, this does not bode well for the future.

Click here to view Figure 2.

In a building like this, I think that understanding and knowing the action to take in the event of a fire or other emergency is critical. When I asked some of the staff about the fire procedure, all they could say was that there was three minutes allowed for the staff to investigate the fire and decide if they needed to evacuate. When I asked where the Fire Action Notices were, they did not know, and they pointed to the Fire Exit Directional signs. When I informed them that this was not what I meant, they gave me a comment card and stated, “Good suggestion.”

Whilst I appreciate that there will have been many authorities involved in this project, I am surprised that it was allowed to open to the public without these items being rectified.

Library of Birmingham Response

The Library of Birmingham have issued a response, as such:

Mr Cox acknowledges in his report that he is not aware of the fire strategy that was adopted for the building.

Both the fire strategy and works on site have been approved by Birmingham City Council’s Building Control team and by West Midlands Fire Service and are designed around a fire engineering approach.

This means that due to the high level of public supervision by library staff it has not been necessary to incorporate some of the fire safety solutions that Mr Cox refers to that might otherwise be required.

Our number one focus is always public safety – at no point have any member of the public been placed at risk, and many of the issues raised by Mr Cox were known and identified, with fire mitigation measures put in place in response.

During our opening week an average of 12,000 people a day visited to the Library. We accept that our implementation may not have been perfect during this exceptionally busy period as in their willingness to allow the public move around the building freely staff allowed a small number of fire doors to be propped open. We recognise that we need to be more diligent in the future, and a communication has been sent to staff reminding them to cease this practice.

We are in the process of applying detailed finishing touches to the signage in some areas and will be improving other signage to incorporate some of the suggestions made in Mr Cox’s report.

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21 Comments on "Fire Safety Defects in Brand-New"

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Rob Ratcliff
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Alan, you’ll notice I’ve added a response from the library to this article. I find the comments interesting, particularly the bit about the building being approved by West Midlands Fire Service. Are public buildings subject to approval from the fire service, or have I completely misunderstood the principles of the RRO and fire safety legislation in England & Wales?

holmesd
Guest

There’s a problem with doing any risk assessment at a new/ unoccupied site, things like doors will start misbehaving once they start to get used, and people start to wedge doors etc. signage and routes also need to take the human element into consideration, especially for public sites, things like fire escape routes going through staff only areas is really common. In my opinion no fire risk assessment should take place until the building is in use.

Rob Ratcliff
Guest

Hm, that’s an interesting idea. But you’d still need some kind of inspection before opening to be safe, followed up by one after the building’s begun being ‘lived in’.

holmesd
Guest

For any assessment I do on an unoccupied site, I always end with a kind of disclaimer saying the site was unoccupied and the recommendation for another visit to be scheduled in the next 6 months.

fireman999
Guest
In respect of the Fire Risk Assessment I would have expected one to have been carried out as soon as the library was occupied by library staff because they would have been working in the building for quite a long time before the building was open to the public. It is also likely that contractors were working there at the same time which would have been an added complication but this would also have been the time to train the staff in the actions to be taken in the event of fire or other emergency. In respect of the problems… Read more »
fireman999
Guest
An interesting response from the Library of Birmingham and one that I have not received yet. I also sent a copy of the report to the West Midlands Fire Service because I know that in my experience they would usually be involved both at the planning and completion stages but apart from an acknowledgement I have not received a reply from them either. I did have a quick look inside the building last week which was a week after I had sent the report and noted that they had provided an additional Fire Exit sign on the final exit but… Read more »
Rob Ratcliff
Guest
I got a bit more out of the Council’s PR machine yesterday as follows: “The doors were checked and fully functioning at the time of the inspection. However, as it’s a new building, the doors are being used for the first time and the environment changes, which does affect the doors. We have staff on site monitoring and adjusting on a daily basis.” I also quizzed them on the comment that the building had been ‘approved’ by the fire service. I questioned whether the fire service carry out such (pre-2006 style) inspections. They said: “You are right in what you… Read more »
Philclark
Guest

This feels like more than just teething problems here. I’ll be interested to hear the views of Alan on the council’s responses.
one question from a relative newbie to this field: is there a body with any teeth to force public or private bodies to sort out fundamental blunders such as these?

fireman999
Guest
Phil, Apart from acknowledgements I have not received any other information either from the Library of Birmingham or the West Midlands Fire Service so all I can comment on is what I have seen printed here. What you have to remember is that the fire service do have a close relationship with the local authority and because they have been involved from day 1 until completion they are unlikely to publicily support my comments and I would expect a response such as ” thank you for your report and we have now met with the relevant persons and agreed a… Read more »
Rob Ratcliff
Guest

That last point is very interesting, Alan. At the very least a local authority has incredible access to the expertise of a fire authority that they can use when working on a new project to ensure that ‘defects’ are never found in a newly-opened multi-million pound council building. Whether they get relaxed treatment with regards to prosecutions is impossible to say without doing any thorough research, you’re right.
I have always thought, however that a fire service fining a local authority is very much like robbing peter to pay paul, and is there a better solution?

fireman999
Guest
UPDATE _ REPLY FROM WEST MIDLANDS FIRE SERVICE   The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005  Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Birmingham  Thank you for your report received by this Authority on 8th September 2013 detailing your observations of fire safety provision at the new Library of Birmingham, based on your visit to the premises on 6th September 2013.  You will appreciate that this Authority is not an approving body under the Building Regulations. The Library of Birmingham project was, however, subject to regular statutory consultation between Acivico Building Control and this Authority between 2009 and its final design and… Read more »
Rob Ratcliff
Guest

Well, it’s up to the fire service to prosecute or issue an enforcement notice that requires them to make any repairs. Not sure but maybe the HSE can also issue a fine. Generally, it’s the fire service though.

ITs_Hazel
Guest

It seems to me that they placed greater focus on the aesthetics and design of the structure’s exterior rather than on its fire safety features.

fireman999
Guest
“I find this comment quite interesting “The doors were checked and fully functioning at the time of the inspection. However, as it’s a new building, the doors are being used for the first time and the environment changes, which does affect the doors. We have staff on site monitoring and adjusting on a daily basis.” and would now make the following comments: – I note that the date of this inspection has not been included and so is meaningless and it would be interesting to know when this was and who it was carried out by. – It is true… Read more »
Rob Ratcliff
Guest

It seems to me to be a case of stable door after the horse has bolted, Alan…

gerry_dunphy
Guest

I can’t believe fire doors were propped open?? Surely by now the perpetrators would stop and think this may be a bad thing? Signage, risk assessments design etc I can sort of understand as these things are a bit specialist but propping open doors suggests schoolboy errors that nobody is immune from.

Rob Ratcliff
Guest

Fire Door Safety Week has much to show people!

gerry_dunphy
Guest

…indeed it has Rob. Fire Door Safety Week was inspired- let’s hope it’s resonated through the relevant sectors- it’s too important to ignore.

SunitaT
Guest

Library of Birmingham’s response is partly acceptable. Their argument about high level of public supervision by library staff lessening the need of some other measures that may be needed otherwise may be right but it is always beneficial to put an extra measure in place when it comes to public safety. When they have put high level of human supervision in place, they had better augmented it with conventional safety solutions.

SunitaT
Guest

Again, they may be partly right in assuming that busy first days of opening compromised a few open doors, but how can one be sure that there will be no such frequent busy days in future as well? Building a library to attract public and expecting that there will not be much people coming in seems naïve to say the least.

SunitaT
Guest

I am more alarmed to read the 8th point of author’s observations than any other. If fire exits are controlled by electronic locks only, what would happen in case electronic locks system breaks down due to fire or any other reason? After all we can never overlook the possibility of such failures in case of fire at a large scale.

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