Fire Alarms UK News March 2020 Compiled By Elite Fire Security of Bristol and Bath
Fire alarms always a very newsworthy topic, unfortunately, often for the wrong reasons. Here is a roundup of the latest news (March 2020) concerning commercial fire alarms in the UK, including the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) updated advice for building owners and landlords on how to operate the waking watch fire safety measure during the coronavirus outbreak.
Large Milton Keynes hotel had no working fire alarms and smoke detectors, court hears
A large Milton Keynes hotel is facing a huge fine today after a judge heard how guests had to be evacuated in the middle of the night because the fire alarms were broken and smoke detectors were deliberately disabled, reports the MKCitizen.
The drama happened when one of the regular guests at the 80-bedroom Campanile in Fenny Stratford noticed all of the smoke detectors were covered with a red plastic cover.
He called the fire brigade and the place had to be evacuated and then closed for urgent repairs to the alarm system.
The Campanile, opposite Pink Punters in Watling Street, is owned by international hotel chain Milcardar Limited, which had a turnover of almost £8 million in both 2017 and 2018.
Staff at the hotel had claimed to be unaware of any problems with the fire alarms when firefighters arrived, prosecutors for the London Fire Brigade told Aylesbury Crown Court today.
All of the rooms at the hotel were occupied when it was evacuated in the early hours of August 7 2018, the judge heard.
Further investigation found that after the hotel’s fire detection alarm system was condemned, there were no working smoke detectors between June 26 to August 7 2018, a period of six weeks.
Prosecuting, Edmund Gritt said: “It would have been necessary to replace the alarm immediately and most likely, given the state of the old system, close the hotel until that work was done. Instead, the danger drifted on.
“An investigation audit of the premises established a history of failures. It identified the alarm system at the premises had a history of frequent malfunctions.
“On the evidence, we would say there is a lackadaisical culture affecting the management of fire safety issues and something of a systemic failure.”
Milcardar Ltd was a mutual company with the world’s 5th largest hotel group, Louvre Hotels Group, which operated the CampaNile brand, as well as the five-star Royal Tulip brand.
Judge Francis Sheridan, hearing how the company had failed to comply with health and safety laws, told the court: “It is quite a fall from grace.
“I do not think it was financially motivated, I think the hotel was just appallingly run. It appears to me that is what this case is about.
“After the disaster in London, I should hope every hotel would have reviewed their fire safety procedures.”
Mark Aldridge, a director of Milcardar Ltd, admitted three counts of failing to comply with health and safety regulations, and Milcardar Ltd admitted six counts of the same charge.
The court heard the Campanile had lost around £30,000 in revenue after closing to repair the fire alarm system.
Defending both Mr Aldridge and the company, Adrian Darbishire QC said: “There are quite a lot of lessons to be learned for the company I represent and indeed for the individuals. There has been a programme of rolling out of the guides to the fire alarm systems across not just the CampaNile but other Louvre hotels in the UK.”
He added: “There was a lack of training for the manager who worked under Mr Aldridge, but also Mr Aldridge himself had not had appropriate training.
“Mr Aldridge, whilst he failed in some of his responsibilities, was placed in quite a difficult position. He was not well supported.”
Mr Darbishire added that NSF International, an American testing company which had been contracted to test the fire safety systems, created a policy to carry out a fire risk assessment and to prescribe staff training in the Campanile hotel, had not carried out its duties properly.
Judge Sheridan, agreeing, said: “The contractors they [the hotel] were relying on, let them down totally.”
Indicating to Aldridge that he would not receive a jail term but a fine, Judge Sheridan said his leniency to would likely lead to a harsher penalty for Milcardar Ltd.
The sentencing hearing was adjourned for a later date as the court has yet to decide whether to launch a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing against Milcardar Ltd.
Fire chiefs publish coronavirus waking watch guidance for landlords
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has updated its advice to building owners and landlords on how to operate the waking watch fire safety measure during the coronavirus outbreak, reports “Inside Housing” website.
The NFCC, the body which represents all the fire services in the UK, published an update to its waking watch guidance today, which outlines steps building owners and landlords should take to ensure that buildings are kept safe in the coming months.
The advice called on landlords to ensure that waking watch operatives adhere to Public Health England’s social distancing rules and urged landlords to consider installing communal fire alarms in blocks if waking watch staff numbers are reduced as a result of coronavirus.
The NFCC said the coronavirus situation would result in higher occupancy and vulnerability due to people, including some who are potentially unwell, staying at home for longer periods of time – meaning the maintenance of a waking watch in a building would be more essential than ever.
It added: “If due to coronavirus, there are challenges maintaining waking watch coverage, those responsible will need to implement suitable alternative interim arrangements.
“Dependency on numbers of staff can be reduced through the installation of a common fire alarm.”
Waking watches were first introduced following the Grenfell Tower tragedy as an interim fire safety measure since blocks with dangerous cladding had their evacuation guidance changed from ‘stay-put’ to ‘simultaneous evacuation’. The measure involves watchers carrying out 24/7 patrols and raising the alarm for residents to evacuate if a fire is spotted.
The NFCC’s advice has always said a waking watch should be a temporary measure until dangerous materials are removed from a building, but the slow pace of cladding removal on blocks has resulted in waking watches being in place for years in some cases. This has cost leaseholders tens of thousands of pounds.
In the advice note, the NFCC said: “Competent persons, RPs [registered providers] and fire safety officers should familiarise themselves with the social distancing guidance from Public Health England, to ascertain how this might be applied to enable waking watches to remain in place.”
The note also advised fire services to take a “balanced approach” to fire safety for each property and support building owners by recognising potentially higher public health risks in buildings from the threat of coronavirus.
Nevertheless, it did say that it is still fire services’ duty to enforce Fire Safety Orders even in these difficult times.
Last week, cladding campaign groups across the country came together to urge housing secretary Robert Jenrick to support leaseholders with waking watch costs during the coronavirus outbreak.
In a joint statement, the Birmingham Leasehold Action Group, Leeds Cladding Scandal, the Manchester Cladiators and the UK Cladding Action Group said: “The COVID-19 outbreak is the biggest public health challenge for a generation. We acknowledge the huge strain this rapidly changing crisis will place on government and the number of people who will require support as a result of it.
“Nonetheless, the situation is particularly critical for many leaseholders in buildings with dangerous cladding.
“The huge additional and ongoing costs that many leaseholders have to pay as a result of living in dangerous cladding blocks mean they face an impossible decision about work and self-isolation.
“No income means no ability to pay for the waking watch the building needs for them to stay in that building.”
What does the coronavirus mean for the fire safety sector?
For risk management professionals the Coronavirus Emergency has prompted myriad concerns to seek out practical solutions on the hoof in a fast-moving national crisis, both on a micro-level and a macro level. Informed grassroots pragmatism aside, however, we should be reminded that for more than a decade the NFCC (National Fire Chiefs Council) has been developing their strategic intentions for the fire and rescue services in the event of a flu pandemic.
Hunter Seymour (IFSEC Global) explores how the fire safety sector, from firefighters to facility management, is reacting to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Emergency preparedness for such a crisis as this, of course, has been a dominant responsibility of the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat from which stems the framework for National Resilience to advise community planners, local emergency responders and local business continuity plans. So, too, the British armed services have its own dedicated DFR (Defence, Fire and Rescue) – a single, integrated, regionally-based fire risk management organisation.
These are the national strategists. At the micro-level of community safety, which concerns all hands-on risk management practitioners at the workface, the following topical viewpoints will be found, we trust, instructive.
PPE effectiveness against coronavirus
The NFCC restates the Government’s objective to deploy phased actions to ‘Contain’, ‘Delay’ and ‘Mitigate’ any COVID-19 outbreak. Specifically, referring to Coronavirus-related duties for Fire and Rescue Services, the NFCC emphasises that: “To prevent the impact of fire and other emergencies on our communities, we will adopt a risk-based approach to prevention. Very high-risk interventions (Home Safety Checks/Safe and Well Visits) will continue based on a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.”
Such risk assessments raise the pressing question of the provision of suitable PPE to meet the demands of the virus outbreaks, particularly those impermeable Hazmat protective suits designed to defeat Hazardous Materials (Hazmat), such as harmful airborne microorganisms (aerosols).
Commenting on the current COVID-19 crisis, a leading specialist adviser on Hazardous Materials and National Incident Liaison, Bob Hark, a Director of Hazmat Training Ltd, says: “Fire Services have a number of PPE ensembles available to them. For example, gas-tight chemical protection suits, liquid-tight suits, breathing apparatus, particulate respirators, etc.”
The wearing of full firefighting fire kit and breathing apparatus is one such ensemble. He continues: “It is suitable for a wide range of hazardous materials incidents. It provides a much higher level of protection against respiratory hazards such as viruses than surgical masks or particulate filter respirators. Structural firefighting kit is designed to be resistant to chemical liquids and aerosols and therefore offers very good protection when dealing with people infected with COVID-19. The fact that NHS-style PPE cannot be worn whilst using this ensemble is not a safety issue.”
Risk Assessments in Contagion Zones
The gravity of contagion for frontline professionals – whether representatives of public services or the private sector – may be gauged by Bob’s additional remarks: “Firefighters still need to use the social distancing (2m separation) and hand-washing protocols as a minimum. Obviously, in an emergency to save life these would have to be risk assessed, but this is a complicated issue. The main point to raise is that even if the NHS tells us there is only a small/unknown risk of human transmission of the virus between infection and people showing symptoms (incubation period), firefighters still need to take extra care, especially with vulnerable people.
“The UK Fire and Rescue Services are well trained and equipped to deal with a wide range of hazardous environments – not just fires. All firefighters are trained to deal with emergencies involving hazardous materials. Coronavirus is simply one form of hazardous materials which is categorised generically under the term Biohazards/Infectious Substances. The additional work that Local Resilience Forums have done in preparing for a flu pandemic only further strengthens my opinion that generally, the UK Fire Services are well prepared for the current COVID-19 emergency.”
Measures to mitigate risk
Until such a virus outbreak as COVID-19 only specialist civil contingency professionals have examined matters that now demand the attention of more general risk management. In an epidemic of this scale, the risks of contamination from respiratory secretions are many. Operational protective routines must be disciplined with due regard for hazards, such as the multiple uses of oxygen masks; one-way mouth-to-mouth resuscitation devices; the use an Ambubag or a similar device to transport the deceased; additional hygiene precautions for the removal of disposable PPE, and more.
Above all else, service providers must observe strict hand hygiene and respiratory protocols. These considerations, together with guidelines under the RRFSO (Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order), must be part of your Contingency Action Plan, with additional vigilance in accordance with the UK Government’s current emergency measures.
Fire associations seek safeguards
The Fire Industry Association (FIA) has practical advice to risk management contractors as to their maintaining compliance with RRFSO directives. It commented: “A fire industry professional will know when service and maintenance work should be performed over a set period of time to comply with fire safety regulations, yet problems can emerge when contractors are not permitted access on-site due to coronavirus safeguards.
“Our advice is to explain clearly to the client that this is their decision not to allow you to complete the scheduled work, and it is the role of the premises’ management (Responsible Person or Duty Holder dependant on location) to ensure they fulfil their fire safety obligations. If access permission is still not granted, you should document timings and communications to use later as evidence (should it be needed) that you have acted responsibly for your clients.”
Clearly the documenting of reasons for involuntary non-compliance to Fire Regs is an essential safeguard against the litigious and reputational damage. Similarly, in these exceptional times, scrupulous regard should be paid to the paper trail of traceability for RRFSO compliance when reliant on remote monitoring.
In addition, those working in the fire sector have been identified as key workers, as reported by the FIA, which extends to all individuals actively working to improve public fire safety.
Cities under lockdown – risk upgraded
That London has been singled out to be ahead of the curve as a contagion hotspot highlights the risks of the pandemic escalating due to widespread defiance of social distancing. The London Fire Brigade has responded to these fears by stating: “The risk [of an epidemic] was re-rated in January and is now at level 6. It is likely to be re-rated again soon. Our business continuity arrangements were stood up in January and have been scaled up as the pandemic has developed. The Brigade has contingency plans in place which are constantly being monitored and we’re confident that we can maintain a good level of service to London despite the challenges COVID-19 may present.”
From the Facilities Management sector also comes sound survivalist advice to prepare for the unthinkable: appoint gatekeepers to guard your business interests by assigning an action group empowered to be key decision-makers as a cadre of successors in response to crisis developments.
It goes without saying that responsible management demands the closest scrutiny of your business continuity insurance for those small-print clauses relating to phenomena such as Coronavirus for absolute certainty as to your obligations and liabilities under employment law. For example, as risk management professionals, if you are permitted access to a potential contagion site, the Government’s appropriate Coronavirus guidance must be closely followed to ensure you are not unnecessarily increasing risk to anyone in the premises or yourselves.
Boot strength to boost first responders
With the news that the Ministry of Defence is to double the size of the military’s civil contingency unit with the ‘boot strength’ to create a 20,000-strong COVID-19 support force engaging with a network of community hubs, it is hoped that support for our Fire and Rescue services is not ignored.
Currently, DFR (the Defence Fire and Rescue Service) has a capability consistent with local authority FRS standards. DFR is a regionally based fire risk management organisation that claims functional control over 80 fire stations, three service delivery offices and four fire training centres, with over 2,000 personnel. In addition, DFR military personnel are required to provide fire and rescue capabilities under active service conditions as a continually evolving capability. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Coronavirus Crisis becomes so acute as to divert these specialists from their primary aim, which is the state of readiness to protect MoD personnel and assets and to deploy to operational theatres of defence.
A unique reality
As this brief overview of the crisis indicates, the conflicts inherent in any national Emergency Action Plans are best demonstrated by the sombre conclusions following the Manchester Arena tragedy in 2017:
“As this report repeatedly makes clear, there is a danger of inflexibility in applying a theoretical response rather than responding to the unique reality every incident poses. This can lead frontline responders to make judgements that might be right on paper but wrong in practice . . .”
Let us hope that joined-up thinking between all public safety professionals will prevail.
Derbyshire restaurant manager’s suspended jail sentence for fire safety order breaches
A restaurant boss who admitted four fire safety order breaches has been given a suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay £5,000 costs, reports Derbyshire Times.
Syed Hussain, manager of an Indian restaurant at 129 Dale Road, Matlock, was sentenced to 12 months custody suspended for two years and ordered to carry out 200 hours community service at Derby Crown Court.
Firefighters carrying out risk assessments in the area in August 2018 identified faults on the fire alarm system at the property.
A subsequent safety audit identified the fire alarm was not functioning, and that sleeping accommodation was provided on the upper floors. This discovery led to enforcement notices being served on both Hussain and the owners of the building, all from Normanton, Derby.
The fire and rescue service made numerous attempts to contact all involved parties but letters were ignored, or unanswered.
A further site visit by fire inspectors found people still sleeping on the premises with the items identified within the enforcement notice still outstanding. A prohibition notice was served on Hussain in April 2019 – which was subsequently contravened as workers continued to sleep on the premises.
The fire authority took the decision to formally prosecute Hussain for the deficiencies and he was charged with four breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service group manager Steve Wells said: “Had a fire occurred in this building, the lack of a fire alarm meant the people sleeping upstairs would have had insufficient warning to get out.
“Providers of any form of sleeping accommodation, including flats, bedsits and houses of multiple occupation, must accept that they have a responsibility to ensure that the accommodation they provide has a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment in place. They have a responsibility to ensure the measures provided for safety, including fire doors, fire alarms and smoke detectors are maintained to a suitable standard. Escape routes must not be allowed to be used as storage, or places for waste disposal.”
Premises known to provide sleeping accommodation are regularly inspected for fire safety compliance by Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service, the majority of which are well managed, maintained and compliant with current fire safety regulations.
About Elite Fire & Security
Elite Fire and Security test, service, maintain and install commercial fire alarms. From our Head Office in Bristol, we work in businesses premises, educational facilities and commercial properties, in Bristol, Bath, London, the South West and the M4 corridor.