In recent years, there has been positive change to standards and legislation in fire and carbon monoxide (CO) safety within the housing sector across the UK. The current requirements for fire detection and alarm systems vary throughout the UK depending on the tenure type of the property, age, type of housing as well as additional regional legislation.
With updates, revisions and amendments in response to issues raised in matters of fire protection, notably the Grenfell tragedy, the landscape is certainly changing and moving forwards. However, the new legislation and regulatory updates have also served to highlight the disparity within the sector, across the devolved nations and now it must be examined how the sector can progress to a more coherent and cohesive approach.
British Standards BS 5839-6 is a code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire-detection and fire-alarm systems in domestic premises. It is applicable to existing, new and materially altered dwellings across the whole of the UK, and places emphasis on fire-risk assessment. The 2019 revision laid out amendments to best practice in fire-alarm requirements across properties and revised gradings to alarms themselves, both mains powered, and battery powered. These new recommendations detail that in some circumstances, such as Houses of Multiple Occupancy and rented housing, properties should now be equipped with mains-powered fire alarms that have a long-life, tamper-proof battery backup as opposed to a user-replaceable battery backup that was previously sufficient. The revision also states that the level of protection in rented housing should be increased to cover kitchens and the principle habitable room, and it has increased the level of protection in sheltered housing, new-build properties and materially altered premises to LD1 – the maximum level of coverage. The testing and maintenance section has been amended with the addition of Table 3, which distinguishes between grades for testing and servicing requirements, for clarity and simplicity. Furthermore, the revision now includes provision for the interconnection of CO alarms with fire alarms, at the manufacturer’s recommendations and guidance. With this addition, BS 5839-6:2019 now references BS EN 50292:2013 for interconnection, which is a positive step towards the alignment of standards, regulations and legislation. This standard governs CO alarms, and gives information on selection, installation, use and maintenance. It is worth noting that currently, BS EN 50929:2013 is in the process of revision.
The best practice standard BS 5839-6:2019 is referenced by the Building Regulations along with the standard BS 9991:2015. British Standard BS 9991:2015 provides guidance on fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings, ensuring that adequate and reasonable standards of fire safety are attained. This standard also encompasses guidance for ongoing management of fire safety within a building, a crucial provision particularly in the wake of recent events. Following the tragic events of Grenfell in 2017, a new standard has been drafted, BS 8629. This standard focuses on evacuation alert systems and has since been adopted in Scotland for buildings over 18m high. It is not implied that there is a requirement in law for these systems to be installed in all blocks of flats. The British Standards are, however, best-practice guidelines, recommendations and are not legislative. However, as of November 2019, Scottish Government guidance on the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 recommends that these systems are installed in all new blocks of flats with a storey more than 18m above ground level.
Building Regulations, on the other hand, are enforceable under the Building Act 1984 but only apply to new and materially altered properties. In England and Wales, Approved Document B governs fire safety and states that the installation of fire alarms must meet the requirements laid out in BS 5839-6:2019; Grade D2, Category LD2. This reference to LD2 is important, as we know most fires start in the kitchen, but equally, the most fatal fires start in the living room. This is why the standards now recommend this as a minimum for most property types. However, Approved Document B, although promoting installation to the British Standard, still states a minimum requirement of only an LD3, causing confusion for installers as well as inconsistency. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own Building Regulations; the Technical Handbook (2019) and Technical Booklet E (2012) respectively. Both of these documents also echo British Standard requirements. Carbon monoxide has its own provision within Building Regulations; in England and Wales Approved Document J states that a CO alarm must be installed to BS EN 50292 requirements when any new or replacement solid-fuel appliance is fitted. The term ‘solid fuel’ has been challenged due to it being arguably more outdated now as it implies the exclusion of gas appliances. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland’s regulations, the Technical Handbook (2017) and Technical Booklet L, the terminology is more widely encompassing; a compliant CO alarm must be installed to BS EN 50292 when any new or replacement fuel-burning appliance is fitted. In relation to the terminology used throughout requirements in England, there has recently been a government consultation examining this. The consultation, which closed in January 2021, proposed that Approved Document J should be amended to cover all fuel-burning appliances, and had significant contribution from many individuals and organisations, including housing and fire. We fully endorse any progression in legislation, but the question still remains: is that enough?
Within the UK, there are multiple legislations that govern fire safety in residential premises, and these are not aligned nor cohesive. In England, the fire safety within the private rented sector is regulated by Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015, which require working smoke alarms on every level of the property and a CO alarm installed in any room with a solid-fuel-burning appliance. The above government consultation also examined this regulation, with the proposal being to extend the legislation to not only cover private landlords but to also include social landlords. This, along with the reference to change ‘solid fuel’ to ‘all fuel’, could prove a significant change to many organisations within the sector. The smoke-alarm requirements in the legislation are still very weak, however, only stipulating a working smoke alarm on each storey, with no mention of grades, category or interconnection. This leaves many landlords and contractors unclear and often confused as to what to fit. Essentially, a single battery-powered alarm would cover the requirements of the legislation but is far from best practice! Registered Social Landlords and Houses of Multiple Occupancy must adhere to the Housing Act 2004 (18), which specifies that smoke alarms must be installed and maintained to be kept in working order. Again, there is no reference to grades, category or interconnection. Before even mentioning the recently amended Scottish legislation, it is evident that standards, regulations and legislation in England are misaligned and at times lacking in clarity and specificity.
In contrast, the 2019 amendment to the Housing (Scotland) Act has extended the existing high standard of fire and CO protection required in the private rented sector to all homes in Scotland, regardless of tenure. This is significant as currently in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no requirement for homeowners to fit smoke alarms, although detailed guidance is found in the British Standard, and this could potentially leave vulnerable occupants at risk. To mitigate this somewhat, the Fire and Rescue Service attempt to prioritise those where possible and assist, but it still leaves many without adequate, if any, protection. The legislation clearly states requirements as reflecting those outlined in the British Standards; Category LD2, with all fire alarms being interconnected – either via traditional cabling methods or wirelessly. The legislation also encompasses CO, stating that a CO alarm should be fitted where there is a carbon-fuelled appliance or flue, another noteworthy addition in line with British Standard recommendations. This revision and coherence in legislation across the entire housing sector in Scotland provides a minimum standard for safe houses and promotes clarity in approach.
It is evident that there is defined disparity and complexity throughout the requirements for fire and CO safety within the housing sector across the UK, with requirements both through regulation and legislation that are not only very different but also cause confusion and leave some vulnerable occupants unprotected. There is a clear need for the extension of private rented legislation in England to include social rented to ensure a minimum standard for safe homes, as in Scotland. The terminology needs updating in both private rented legislation and Approved Document J in England, to reflect the more encompassing phrasing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to include all fuel-burning appliances and reduce the ambiguity, making it clear and overarching, as recent consultations have discussed and considered. At Aico, one of our top three most visited webpages is surrounding standards and requirements, with over a third of all incoming queries to our technical team being regarding what should be fitted to meet requirements. Our advice is always to follow the British Standards where possible, not only is this up-to-date and best-practice advice but it also covers all nations and tenure, whether they be new build or existing properties. As a sector across the devolved nations, we should be pushing towards greater and clearer legislation to make requirements consistent, as the current situation leaves many who are not experts in fire confused and unsure as to what to fit. Fire and CO alarms are life-safety devices and therefore it is of paramount importance to move towards standardisation.
Aico, an Ei Company, are the leader in home life safety, pioneering new technologies and offering high-quality alarms, developed and manufactured in Ireland. All Aico alarms meet UK standards and offer a variety of sensor types to guarantee protection for every home, the cornerstone of which is delivering education, quality, service and innovation. In 2020, Aico expanded their Connected Home offering with the acquisition of leading Internet of Things (IoT) solutions provider, HomeLINK. HomeLINK leverages cutting-edge smart home integration and analytics technologies, providing a complementary platform to present a synergistic approach to IoT.
For more information, go to www.aico.co.uk