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Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
March 26, 2015


State of Physical Access Trend Report 2024

Learning from Lakanal: Improving Fire Safety in Multi-Storey Residential Blocks

Six years ago six people died and many more were injured in a fire at the Lakanal residential block in Camberwell, London.

IFSEC Global asked a number of fire-safety experts for their prescriptions on preventing another, similar tragedy.

Stronger regulation

Bob Docherty, MD, Flamerisk Safety Solutions and chairman, Institute of Fire Safety Managers: It’s OK to have all these inquiries, findings and calls to action – coroners writing letters, etc – but unless actions are converted into a legal framework – eg with building regulations altered accordingly – then nothing will happen.

It’s the threat of being outside the law that forces people to carry out their ‘duties’, but our experience since the late 1990s shows the government doesn’t want to regulate bob dochertyin any way.

The industry, in the form of organisations like the Fire Sector Federation (FSF), is expected to ‘heal itself’.  But the FSF has no clout at all; it advises and helps but it isn’t a statutory body.

Governments need to regulate where they feel a need and practical recommendations are put forward.

On-the-spot fines

simon ince 2Simon Ince, Head of Business Resilience, BB7 Fire:

If you’re a housing association and you’re not maintaining a fire alarm in a converted block of flats to give early warning to people to get out – why shouldn’t the fire service be able to impose an on-the-spot fine?

It’s going to hit them quite hard but it could prevent a tragedy; such as the Sophie Rosser case discussed in a Westminster Debate recently.

Fines could be used to improve enforcement and generate better targeting of offenders. By imposing an on the spot fine system there would be an effective deterrent which the fire service could use, the current system is too cumbersome, too slow and fire services don’t have the resources to go through the prosecution process unless they are certain of gaining a conviction.

I think sometimes you’ve got to start giving out a quick message: “You’ve got a duty of care to get something right – and you’re not doing it, here is a fine!”

If I drove down the street in a car with bald tyres, no brake lights, I would get an on the spot fine if stopped by the police. Something like that for building owners who put people at risk in their premises would send out a really sharp message.

If the FRS didn’t need such a high burden of proof to put a case together to go to court it could save thousands and generate thousands for the FRS to invest in enforcement. I know people will think it is a licence to print money but without too many difficulties safeguards could be imposed.

If a system of on the spot fines got used a few times, people would get wind of it, and if you’re a property owner you’d think: “Well I’ve got 20 properties and I’ve not had the alarms tested for two years that could add up to thousands in fines, best get them tested”

Fire-risk assessments within flats

claire rizosClaire Rizos, director, Clarity Safety Solutions, and qualified fire-risk assessor: As a fire-safety specialist and a landlord I think the major obstacle to fire safety in residential housing stock is the ability of individual householders to unwittingly destroy built-in passive fire protection and the fact that there is really no penalty for doing so. This is especially problematic in blocks of flats.

The fire-risk assessment obligation applies to common parts of blocks of flats in England and Wales, which means that breaches in fire protection within the flats can cause significant risk to other occupants, but there is no opportunity to identify and rectify the problems.

In Scotland there is no similar requirement for risk assessment of common parts so there is even less incentive to control the risk.

Because the problem lies primarily with private owners, there is a danger that any solutions are highly draconian – eg, the government could impose a requirement for fire-risk assessment and essential improvements for a flat if it is to be marketed for sale.

Knowledge shortfall

sceaux gardens estateBob Docherty: My biggest complaint is not just about fire standards in blocks of flats but how the FRS enforces.  I think there is a deteriorating fund of fire safety experience and knowledge in fire and rescue services.

I find a number of FRS fire safety personnel have scant knowledge of the behaviour of fire and even less knowledge of fire safety requirements and, most importantly, what evacuation strategies are and how they should be used.

On top of this – and this is my biggest ‘beef’ – there is no formal mechanism sitting between a Responsible Person and the F&RS when there is a ‘disagreement’ between going to a determination (and the FRS have control over that) and appealing to a Magistrates Court.

There needs to be some way in which RPs can have some kind of mediation that is not framed in legal formalities, andd at a more local level.

New builds and building control – the problem

Simon Ince: The standard of fire stopping in new builds can be quite poor and generally across the board there are issues. I think there’s several reasons.

People think that building control will make sure it’s delivered properly, and they don’t, they’re not paid to do that.  They’re paid to do certain inspections at certain times.  If they spot an issue they would flag it up but they’re just not paid to go on site and inspect fire stopping anymore.

We’ve got Approved Inspectors and Local Authority Building Control.  They’re competing against each other, so they’re offering a competitive service which can lead to minimal provision. Customers aren’t paying them to deliver full site inspections, to look at every stage of inspection, to sign off a building properly.

They’re paying them to sign off plans, and so building control can only really  offer limited assurance i.e. If it’s built like it says on the plans it should be OK.

The trouble is if no one is checking the building is being constructed as per the plans, resulting in errors built in to the property.

A very similar situation occurred in Ireland. Building control in Ireland effectively said “Show us what you are proposing to do?”

The developer gave them a set of plans and building control said “if you build it like that you’ll be fine”.  And that was it!

Interestingly enough after the Priory Hall case building control went through a major overhaul in Ireland and a more dynamic and accountable regime has been developed – polar opposite to the way English building control is going.

Bob Docherty: When major refurbishments happen both the F&RS and Building Control have a major role to play in the process, especially with the F&RS in the consultation stage.  Does this actually happen? And if so, is it effective?

I think anecdotal experience suggests that this doesn’t happen as regularly as it should!

New builds and building control – the solution

Simon InceIf you’ve got a purpose-built block of flats or a care home or a hospital – high risk buildings – there should be mandatory building control intervention: regular visits, checking the fire protection as it goes in.

There’s is a culture of sub-contracting building works  – sometimes three or four times.  So the main contractor will take their cut, the next contractor will take their cut, the next contractor will take their cut… etc So there’s no margin left on site for the people putting the fire protection in  How does the last one in the chain make a profit?

They use inferior materials, they don’t bother with the materials at all and leave holes unstopped, or they rush the work and don’t do it properly because ‘time is money’

If the work should take 10 days on site, but they get it done in seven by rushing the work or by using more unskilled labour then there is a margin for them in the job and if it is done wrong there is very little chance of being challenged on the work they do; it perpetuates poor standards of fire stopping.

Sprinklers: the “benefits are well established” – But are they Really Practical?

Claire Rizos: The increased use of sprinklers in apartment buildings would certainly reduce the risk. There are those who are very strongly against sprinklers on grounds of cost, but I believe there is justification for them in higher risk developments as the life protection benefits are well established.

Bob Docherty: Both Coroners on the Lakanal and also on the Southampton fire took advice/evidence from the fire and rescue service – and their biggest suggestion was for sprinklers.

Sprinklers seem to be the mantra of fire and rescue services these days.  They seem to mention these at all opportunities without any thought to problems of retro-fitting, lack of funds and follow-on maintenance issues.

So robust fire safety costs money – but fires cost lives and fire damage and lawyers are even more expensive…

Simon Ince: I know it all comes down to the fact that people aren’t being killed in fires in huge numbers here in the UK  – so what is the problem? It’s as simple as that!

However the potential for multi-fatality fires is definitely real. Once a major fire occurs and there are multi-fatalities there is normally an expensive inquiry costing hundreds of thousands and when failings are found; and they will be, there is normally new guidance released, case studies and seminars put together possibly even amendments to legislation.

But surely more can be done to make these cases even rarer than they are at the moment for a fraction of the cost of an inquiry.

I think the fire sector given a small amount of financial backing could develop new guidance, undertake research projects and implement new initiatives that could significantly reduce the potential for multi-fatality fires here in the UK.

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March 27, 2015 9:55 am

We have Alarms, and Fire and Smoke retention by way of Fire Doors and fire proof boarding. Lakanal House tower block just had £3.5M spent on a fire prevention upgrade of these things.  The simple and extremely inexpensive third step in stopping these fires is to turn the electricity off to appliances in response to an activation of the smoke alarm or fire alarm. This is the cause of 68% of fires. That would have stopped the TV going passed the smoking stage and catching fire. Once the alarm, whatever format that is, is detecting a potential fire, if after… Read more »

March 27, 2015 11:53 am

I would wish to offer comments on the statement that:   “Both Coroners on the Lakanal House and also on the Southampton fire took evidence from the fire and rescue service – and their biggest suggestion was for sprinklers.    Sprinklers seem to be the mantra of fire and rescue services these days. they seem to mention these at all opportunities without any thought to problems of retrofitting, lack of funds and follow-on maintenance issues” Having assisted the QC and legal team representing the families of the bereaved throughout most of the fifty day inquest at Lakanal House, I completely… Read more »

Keith MacGillivray
Keith MacGillivray
March 27, 2015 2:39 pm

I agree with Bob Docherty, there is no point in having very expensive Fatal Accident Inquiries or Coroners Inquiries if the recommendations have no legal standing or acceptance by Government. Fortunately the experience in Scotland with fire related inquiries does not reflect the experience in England. Following the Rosepark fire in which fourteen elderly people died needlessly, Scottish Government took very rapid action following the tragedy and introduced legislation to incorporate automatic fire sprinklers into all new built care homes and sheltered housing in Scotland. This is now been followed up by a motion to retro fit existing premises with… Read more »

Ben Ansell
Ben Ansell
March 27, 2015 6:51 pm

In the article above, Bob Docherty says: “Sprinklers seem to be the mantra of fire and rescue services these days.They seem to mention these at all opportunities without any thought to problems of retro-fitting, lack of funds and follow-on maintenance issues.” The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) would argue that a great deal of thought is given to these issues. Fire and rescue services around the country work with partners on a case-by-case basis, using their expertise to identify if sprinklers are an appropriate solution where lives and businesses are at risk. Recognising that cost may be perceived as an… Read more »

Arnold Tarling
Arnold Tarling
April 2, 2015 4:51 pm

1) Statutory site inspections under building regulations do NOT include checking fire protection! 2) If Secton 20 of the London Building Act was not repealed Lakanal  would not have happened. 3) walls to common parts and between flats 60 minutes rating, External wall ZERO minutes! 4) You can clad up to 18m of a tower block in 9mm thick timber as “it is difficult to set on fire”.  ER?? I find that timber is very easy to set on fire.  Diagram 40. 5)  Aluminium windows are NOT fire resistant.  The nylon thermal break melts and burns – The frames fall apart in minutes –… Read more »

Ali Brockett
April 3, 2015 12:00 pm

It isinteresting to note sprinklers and alarms being debated but only Simon Ince has really mentioned one of the real nubs of the problems-inadequate firestopping. New builds pay lipservice to this and refurbs just compound the initial problem. The lack of forethought in the whole installation chain gives us what we have, and that’s buildings with swiss cheese like compartmentation.” But its not a problem! Its out of sight, out of mind, its above fire rated suspended ceilings, its plugged with that fantastic pink foam, we have sprinklers, we have alarms!” Anyone ever see how much smoke is produced in a… Read more »

Jacky Sinclair
Jacky Sinclair
April 22, 2015 12:58 pm

I agree with much of what’s said in the article and by commentators.  We build on the cheap – lowest tender apparently = best value for money; contractors substitute ignorantly; RPs and the FRS don’t know how the building was put together; and users are blissfully unaware of how their actions can trash fire protection measures.
It would be 2 major steps forward if new-builds were more rigorously checked during construction, and the FRS were allowed to apply fixed penalty fines to transgressing RPs.