Strategy Director, Security & Fire, Informa Markets EMEA

June 21, 2021

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Fire safety in buildings

Four years on from Grenfell: Where next for fire safety in tall buildings?

June 14th 2021 marked the four-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy when 72 people lost their lives in a fire that engulfed a 24-storey social housing block in west London. Gerry Dunphy, Event Director at FIREX International, offers a perspective on the impact the disaster has had on the fire safety sector since.

The scale of the tragedy and human cost involved was so significant Grenfell became the catalyst for government to re-evaluate existing fire safety legislation, a move that – given a further six people had previously died in the Lakanal House fire in London in 2013 – was long overdue.

I’m clearly not a professional fire safety expert, but I have worked alongside the fire safety industry for over 20 years and spoken to many experts since Grenfell who were equally crestfallen by what happened. I clearly remember the conversations at the time about a sense of frustration and resignation over what had occurred because the signs had been there but largely ignored by the authorities.

Millions – including survivors and families of the victims – have since demanded to know why Grenfell happened and who’s to blame. With the inquiry ongoing, it would be wrong to assume we know all the answers or, at the present time, who to look to for an explanation.

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The fire allegedly started with an electrical fault in a fridge, exited the flat through a window and ignited the cladding (which has since been proven as unfit for purpose) igniting the exterior of the building and compromising the fire safety engineering. Its behaviour was exceptional. We’re often told by industry professionals that high rise buildings are designed for individual apartments to operate as fire-safe boxes – the term we often hear used is compartmentation. These apartments are designed to contain a fire, ensuring other residents are safe from harm. This is why the standard procedure for fire officers is to issue a ‘stay put’ command, because in practice they can deal with individual fires on an individual basis. But, at Grenfell, as the events unfolded, this wasn’t the case.

Secondly, Grenfell highlighted a range of building management failures and compliance issues which you could argue stretch back to the implementation of Fire Safety Order in 2005, when prescribed fire authority inspection and enforcement was replaced with a much looser risk-based assessment with the key duty placed on the ‘responsible person’. Pre-2005, fire and rescue services, under guidance of the local fire authority, would inspect buildings before issuing a mandatory certificate. That was reduced to random spot checks, which – in my opinion – has resulted in a general erosion of accountability.

The Fire Safety Bill, introduced in March 2020, will seek to rectify this by holding MDU (multi dwelling unit) building owners to account if they are not compliant. This is still a risk-based approach, however, which was part of the original problem in 2005. Speaking as a civilian onlooker, this does not seem to adequately address what is a life-or-death situation.

The Fire Safety Act – given royal consent in April – amends the Fire Safety Order to “require all responsible persons to assess, manage and reduce the fire risks posed by the structure, external walls (including cladding, balconies and windows), and any common parts of buildings. The latter includes all doors between domestic premises.”

It is an improvement on past legislation because there is a recognition that MDUs are not safe and hundreds of buildings – just like Grenfell Tower – have been identified as potential death traps. It also allows fire services to take enforcement action against responsible people who fail to comply with the act and enables government to issue risk-based guidance.

When it was first introduced, however, it caused a flurry of protest from private leaseholders who were suddenly being presented with huge bills to pay for upgrades especially around cladding because it counts them as ‘building owners’.

The big question now is, do these changes in legislation go far enough? If not, what really needs to happen? The recommendations were based on the Hackitt Report, which undertook a great deal of scrutiny into Grenfell and the subsequent state of high-rise housing stock in England and Wales. But I am still uneasy about many aspects of a risk-based approach.

What is good news, however, is the appointment of Peter Baker in February as Chief Inspector of Buildings at the Health and Safety Executive. His role is to monitor design and occupation, give advice to local regulators, landlords and building owners, and this is a huge step change and I’m hopeful he will start to have an effect on the implementation of fire safety acts.


READ: IFSEC Global’s exclusive interview with Peter Baker, Chief Inspector of Buildings, HSE


Evacuation of tall buildings also – rightly – came under the spotlight following Grenfell and there was the introduction in November 2019 of a new code of practice – BS 8629:2019 – which calls for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems for use by fire and rescue services in buildings containing flats.

This code is now mandatory in Scotland but not in England and Wales. However, we have been hearing that it is being adopted regardless by housing authorities and local authorities, which is good news. It’s an interesting addition to the toolkit because it means all tall buildings over 18 metres (i.e., above regulation fire service ladder/platform height) that already exist or will be built in the future will have evacuation systems installed into lobbies that will allow only the fire service to send an evacuation signal to the whole or part of a building.

These are distinct to existing alarms and are a quick and easy way for an emergency service to evacuate everybody. This may provide a little comfort to some, like the residents of New Providence Wharf in east London who were left terrified by a fire that ripped through the building last month. There was reportedly no central alarm system, and they claimed not to hear the ‘waking watch’ warnings, which – in my opinion – are simply not a good enough safety measure when we have technology, equipment and expertise that could help and is not being used.

It would seem that one major development to come from the Grenfell Tower tragedy was the recognition that fire safety legislation was ripe for a massive overhaul. What that actually means, and how it affects fire safety and health and safety professionals, and building managers, is complicated.

What next? Find out at FIREX Connect

At FIREX International Connect (23-24 June), we are bringing together the star chamber of the fire safety world for two free webinars to help ease the confusion. On day one, we have a strategy talk on the evacuation of tall buildings. I’ll be joined by Russ Timpson (Managing Director, Crisisboardroom & Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network), Richard Clark (Senior Fire Engineer, National Fire Chiefs Council) and Andy Scott, Chair of BSI FSH/12/5 fire alarm devices and Director, C-TEC who also sat on the British Standards committee to create BS 8629:2019. We’ll be discussing the current situation, the impact of Grenfell, how to evacuate a tall building safely, and the inadequacies of ‘waking watch’.

On Thursday 24th, IFSEC Global Editor James Moore will host a session on making buildings safer, with Ian Moore (CEO, FIA), Dennis Davis (Executive Officer, Fire Sector Federation), Niall Rowan (Technical & Regulatory Affairs Officer, ASFP) and Jonathan O’Neill OBE (Managing Director, FPA). They will dissect – as much as they can – what’s going on at the moment, because it’s a huge issue in this country that – quite clearly – is still not being addressed properly.

For the next in-person edition of FIREX International in May 2022, we’ve made a commitment that exhibitors must have third party approved products – a move that means we will be able to guarantee our visitors are in a third-party compliant environment. Participating exhibitors will need to meet current standards because we believe it’s important that everyone in this country takes accountability for their actions when it comes to fire safety. The industry has welcomed this move because it means FIREX International will be a platform for them to showcase their products and more importantly demonstrate why this is such a vital part of their offering. FIREX’s commitment to third party approvals has been welcomed by the Fire Industry Association, our chief sponsor, as well as our industry partners at LPCB, ASFP, UL and the FPA. It is a demonstrable example of the UK fire sector working together to substantially improve life safety in buildings.

All of the FIREX International Connect 2021 content is now available on-demand on the platform to watch for free. Registration is still open, with the agenda featuring several product demos and two panel debate sessions on the evacuation of tall buildings and how we make buildings safer for the future. 

Connect with the fire safety community online 1-30 June

Connect 2021 is your first major opportunity to come together with the fire safety community online from 1-30 June!

FIREX Connect, the month-long online event, will give attendees the opportunity to make up for lost time by browsing fire safety solutions, connecting with suppliers and getting up-to-date on the latest legislation from the comfort of your home.

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John Philip Clinch
John Philip Clinch
June 25, 2021 7:25 am

Generally a very good summary but Grenfell tower is not wholly “social housing”… a number of apartments were/are? “Owned” by leaseholders? [ presumably purchased under what I term the right to “sell” scheme

The disaster at Grenfell Tower was, in my opinion, the result of the lobbying of government by powerful cladding materials manufacturers to not change Building Regulations to be more prescriptive

What has also come to light over this past two weeks of the enquiry is a catastrophic and systemic failure to maintain the passive and active fire containment and rescue aid systems

John Clinch mciat