Viewpoint: Fire Safety Bill — a life or death situation

Martin Hunt | 6 October 2020

The Fire Safety Bill 2019-21, which is passing through the legislative process, intends to ensure that owners and managers of multi-occupancy residential buildings in England and Wales are reducing the risk of fire through unsafe cladding and entrance doors.

The Bill cleared the Commons this week, with controversy as an amendment which aimed to include recommendations made by the first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry was voted down. This new clause would have required owners or managers of flats to share information with their local fire service about the design and materials of the external walls. The local fire authority however already has powers to review fire risk assessments under current regulations.

The Bill is expected to become the Fire Safety Act 2020 at some point this year and then take effect within 2 months of becoming law and will hopefully correct the absurdity of the current regulations.

Intended changes and improvements

The discussion around the Bill clearly points to a watershed moment in fire risk assessments. No longer will these be a tick box exercise, completed on the assumption that everything was built correctly in the first place.

The Bill will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) to clarify requirements for the Responsible Person or Duty Holder for multi-occupied, residential buildings to manage and reduce the risk of fire for:

  • the structure, external walls (including cladding, balconies, windows, insulation and fixings)
  • common parts
  • doors between domestic premises and common parts (entrance doors to individual flats) in all multi-occupied residential buildings of all heights

The problem with the current situation

As a building surveyor who specialises in TDD (technical due diligence) it has perplexed me for years that a landlord or management company of a block of residential flats can arrange for a fire risk assessment to be carried out of the common area corridors and staircases, and not consider the entrance doors that connect the individual flats to the escape routes.

It is like the MOT testing centre checking all of the car except for the tyres that actually connect the car to the road, and saying “I’m not responsible for them as they are not part of the actual car”! That is however the system that has effectively evolved under the current Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Despite the flat entrance fire doors being a vital component in the overall fire compartmentation and fire escape provisions for the block of flats, they are not included in the landlord or management companies’ common area fire risk assessment.

In a recent TDD instruction I undertook, each of the 30 entrance doors in the block of flats had a standard domestic brass plated letter flap. Whilst fire resistant letterboxes are a seemingly small detail, they are a hugely important example of passive fire protection. The situation was even more unnecessary, as the letter boxes were rendered pointless due the installation of a bank of mail boxes in the ground floor lobby.

I’ve no wish to castigate the whole professional sector who carry out fire risk assessments, yet this provides a small illustration of where we are at presently. I would hope most objective people, myself included, would fully expect the assessor to at least glance at flat entrance doors when walking through the common areas and make a note in their assessment if these doors displayed features that may reduce the required level of fire resistance.

From Resi and beyond

Whilst the Fire Safety Bill only applies to residential blocks of flats, we can only hope that it cascades through other property types and leads to an alignment of what was intended all those years ago under the RRO and the fire risk assessments that are carried out in its name.

Any surveyors over the age of about 35, will remember the days of going to a building and reviewing a definitive fire document that actually reflected the building and had clear fire plans with it … that’s right, a Fire Certificate issued by the local Fire Authority!

Fire risk assessments of the near future MUST become authoritative fire documents that fully consider the fire risks for the as-built building against the best practice provisions for that building type and are not just produced at the lowest cost to meet a compliance necessity.

Until then, the TDD team at Powell Williams will keep ‘diligence’ front and centre when inspecting and advising clients on their commercial transactions, and will no doubt keep having to explain why our TDD reports flag fire related issues that are not covered in the seller’s fire risk assessments. Fire regulations are changing and purchasers will need to consider the impact of these changes that will affect their assets, even though all may be “OK” under the current regulations.

Martin Hunt

Martin Hunt

+44 (0) 7974 186 368

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