Stay put is a policy used for certain types of buildings such as large high rise blocks of flats, where the means of escape is limited – usually because there is only one stairway. Such buildings are ‘compartmented’ so that individual flats and corridors have usually one hour of fire resistance between them. The aim is that any fire will be contained in the flat or floor for a given period (not necessarily exactly one hour, but in that ballpark).
Hospitals also use compartmentation to provide for phased horizontal evacuation, a kind of rolling ‘stay put’ policy where immediate evacuation of patients is almost impossible. There are also other examples of buildings such as large offices, where passive fire protection is relied on while evacuation is undertaken in phases.
The idea of a stay put policy in a high rise block of flats is that it is safe to stay in your flat because you are protected by fire resisting construction. As a result, the stairs and other escape routes will be left free for the fire service to gain access to fight the fire and to rescue people who are being affected directly by the fire.
In the absence of a stay put policy in a large block of flats, everyone would evacuate simultaneously, at the same time as firefighters are entering the building. Both the escapees and the fire service would be hampered by clogged escape routes and encountering people travelling in the opposite direction.
To provide compartmentation, the walls, floors and ceilings of each flat are designed to resist the passage of fire by the use of special materials and products. Any services passing through walls and floors are ‘fire-stopped’ and the doors from the flat to the corridors outside are also fire resisting. The use of fire resisting walls/floors, doors and the sealing of service penetrations is collectively known as passive fire protection. This is because it is part of the structure of the building; it is always there, always working and needs no signal or power source to be activated.
Of course, the compartmentation and thus the stay put policy can only work if the passive fire protection has been properly installed and has not been compromised, for instance by follow on trades or occupants breaching it by installing new services; or even removing walls, as has happened in some cases.
A number of recent high profile fires with significant loss of life have called into question the stay put policy. The two most recent ones are the Lakanal House fire in 2009 where six people were killed and of course the Grenfell tower fire last year where 72 persons died. In both cases residents were told to stay in their flats to await rescue. With the benefit of hindsight and notwithstanding the Public Inquiry still ongoing for the Grenfell fire it is clear that in both fires, elements of the stay put policy were not working or had been overtaken by events. In both cases tragic and significant loss of life resulted.
So, it’s no good then?
Not quite. In fact, not at all. Some digging in the England fire statistics provides evidence that compartmentation and consequently stay put works remarkably well almost all of the time.
In 2017/18, 93% of fires in purpose-built high rise blocks of flats (744 out of 801 fires) resulted in no damage or remained in the room of origin. For houses, this figure is 85%. For other buildings, the figures vary between hostels and hotels (78%); through hospitals (93%); and communal living, such as military barracks, boarding schools at 94%.
Furthermore, according to Fire & Rescue Incident Reporting System Data in 2009/10, evacuation of more than 5 flats was required in only 22 incidents out of 8,000 fires in purpose-built blocks of flats.
So, for the vast majority of fires in the vast majority of dwellings and hospitals where compartmentation is used to delay evacuation by stay put or phased horizontal evacuation, the fire is limited or contained. Of course, not all of this is down to passive fire protection alone; some fires just go out for instance due to lack of oxygen; some buildings (but not that many) have sprinklers which control or may even extinguish the fire; and of course many are put out by the fire service.
But the idea that there is significant spread of fire in a large proportion of incidents is simply not supported by the data. In the normal run of things, few people die as a result of a fire in a neighbour’s flat or the common parts of a block of flats. Nearly all fire deaths occur in the flat in which the fire starts.
So, what should we do?
Those responsible for the management of buildings are required to undertake fire risk assessments under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order and its equivalents in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. An audit of the fire compartmentation is an important part of this process in any building, but particularly in one that relies on it to delay evacuation. Such buildings must have a regular (at least annual) thorough and, if needed, invasive audit to ensure everything is as it should be.
Lakanal and Grenfell were landmark fires with unique and far reaching building defects in a number of areas, but both were significantly affected by remedial works and the installation of new materials on the outside of the buildings. The exceptions in the case of Lakanal and Grenfell should result in revised procedures instigating a constant and intense review of the stay put policy during fires, but not its abandonment.
In the future, while compartmentation will still have a vital role to play in containing fires and ensuring that means of escape remain clear, buildings will probably be designed and constructed with more stairways, sprinklers and other fire protection provision. This may mean that stay put will not need to be relied upon as much as it is now. However, there will remain hundreds of existing buildings which cannot be redesigned or rebuilt immediately. We will still need to rely on stay put for some time to come and we should not forget that it usually serves us well.