Getting up to code: Bringing at-risk buildings into a safer environment
Commercial premises face numerous challenges and regulatory expectations regarding fire safety, from small enterprises such as offices, warehouses and factories to high-footfall business such as hotels, bars and restaurants. Yet hundreds of thousands of such premises are still falling short on Fire Risk Assessment. The role of standards in ensuring consistency and interoperability of fire safety equipment and control panels is critical to ensuring legal requirements are met.
There is no question that fire safety in modern buildings has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last 30+ years. This has been buoyed in no small part by changes in the materials used to construct commercial as well as residential premises, along with the equipment integrated at the time of construction to deal with fire safety aspects. The changing face of modern buildings and integrated safety equipment, coupled with the harmonisation and enforcement of stringent building regulations has resulted in safer, more predictable working and living environments.
Nonetheless, while the newest of buildings might be safer than ever, existing premises – particularly commercial premises – may not be maintaining, or able to easily meet, the same exacting standards. An indicator of this is that there are approximately 500,000 buildings in the UK where a Fire Risk Assessment has not been completed or is not ‘suitable and sufficient’. Many of these buildings fall into the category of small to medium enterprises, the bedrock of the UK economy. Why are these companies and their premises falling short? There are many reasons, but among them is the challenge posed by providing facilities to support and ensure the safety of employees or patrons with disabilities, be they mobility, vision or hearing.
There is also a notable challenge facing companies, particularly public-facing ones, in protecting vulnerable (disabled) people by linking fire safety to their needs. For example, some 80% of hotels still do not cater sufficiently for hard of hearing guests in terms of fire safety equipment. While the buildings themselves are physically up to code in terms of accessibility, and may have the right materials such as flame retardant soft furnishings etc., the lack of visual warning equipment and associated control technology can render an otherwise suitable venue as unsuitable. However, technology alone is not the solution to these, or other challenges to get such premises up to the modern fire safety standards expected by lawmakers, as well as customers and employees. New equipment and technical advancement has to go hand-in-hand with education, instructional and cultural change, as well as tougher regulation and enforcement.
Enhancing safety through standards
The law does not impose hard and fast prescriptive standards, although standards do exist. For SMEs, the Fire Risk Assessment is more about stating policy and quantifying the environment and its limitations, rather than necessarily enforcing specific industry standards. However, it is a useful tool for documenting, and identifying the scope of the building, what fire systems and equipment are currently in place, what individuals would be affected by a fire, training regimes, escape routes, as well as an action plan for conducting remedial work.
Tackling that remedial work with such a large number of buildings in need of fire safety improvements cannot be an overnight process. It will take time, and investment, as well as planning. If we look at some of the expected growth areas, such as the care home sector. With the number of over 85s becoming the fastest growing demographic group in the UK, we expect an extra 2.2 million care home beds and associated facilities by 2020. This will require on-going expansion of infrastructure such as fire safety, power, lighting, control, audio etc. as buildings expand, rather than complete rip and replace. This is why planning and standards-based interoperability is so important.
It starts with some of the technology improvements that existing premises can deploy in order to bring them closer to the ‘suitable and sufficient’ level required by the Fire Risk Assessment.
One of the first things to look at is the control infrastructure for any fire safety system, to ensure it meets the latest standards as well as offers the functionality and usability required in today’s commercial environments.
There is specific legislation and standards, in the form of the EN54 standard, for fire system control panels which has been in place for many years. These provide both guidance and a benchmark for what current and new infrastructure should be capable of.
The impact of EN54
The EN54 standard is in multiple parts. In particular, part two deals with control and indicating equipment linked to fire detection and fire alarm systems. Namely, the requirements of a control panel. Meanwhile, part four covers the power supply requirements, ensuring the energy infrastructure supporting any fire control system does not become a safety risk in itself, or become a particularly weak point that could be rendered ineffective by the very fire it is designed to detect and combat.
For manufacturers, this standard provides a benchmark for the systems we bring to market, and a level of consistency for buyers that they can rely on, and which they can use to benchmark and compare against. Furthermore, such a standards-based approach provides more opportunity for interoperability and compatibility of systems from mixed sources. One development on the back of this is EN54 part 13 – the compatibility assessment of system components – which tests installed solutions as a system and not just the component parts.
This approach ensures that the entire system functions effectively together, providing a proof point for standards adherence. However, such testing is not mandatory in the UK, but is in other parts of the European Union. Harmonisation of this part of the standard is unlikely to happen any time soon, particularly with Article 50 Brexit negotiations now in effect, which is disappointing as there is clearly value to be had in testing component-based solutions in the round, rather than as individual units. Nonetheless, while not mandatory legally, it remains a part of best practice that is worth adhering to. Having such a level of standards approval on a control panel proves that it will work optimally when installed and connected to everything else.
Another standard to consider adhering to and insisting on from suppliers is Safety Integrity Level (SIL) two. There are four levels to the SIL framework, with level four being the most stringent, with probable failure rates so low as to barely register.
SIL level four has a probable failure rate on demand of 0.0001–0.00001%. SIL level two comes in at 0.01–0.001%, but still low enough to constitute a highly acceptable level of risk. For a fire alarm control panel, such a level would be highly desirable.
The role of the industry
Customers have an important role to play in requiring such specifications from their installation, but as an industry it is important that we play our part in furthering best practice and over-performing on measures of safety and reliability for fire control products.
For manufacturers to support a move towards standards and interoperability that will make it easier for premises in the UK to meet the suitable and sufficient requirement, more need to follow this path:
- Manufacture equipment that meets the relevant EN54 directives
- Submit products for approvals testing (LPCB or VdS) and include EN54-13 so that customers can be confident of standards adherence
- Submit control panels for SIL2 testing and approval, again to ensure interoperability off-the-shelf
Such an approach delivers functional, reliable, quality products with the features needed to enhance safety and provide clear insight and warning of incidents and risks.
Coupled with this is the development of skills and knowledge. One fire industry observation is a lack of skills and also a lack of new blood coming through. We need to put greater investment and emphasis on apprenticeship schemes and make a career in fire safety engineering an attractive prospect. Doing so will ensure that sufficient skilled people are available in the marketplace to actually install these solutions, as well as understand and drive the adherence and development of industry standards.
Achieving a solid, standards-based approach for the industry requires education delivered from different sources – suppliers, F&RS, Insurers, Building Control Officers, Trade Associations. With that in place, customers as well as installers can then make better decisions and architect systems that meet and exceed legal requirements as well as best practice expectations.
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