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Irish Fire Safety Week – Fire Safety in our Homes

This is National safety week, the week in which fire safety in our homes is promoted. The place where we live with our beloved, the place we cherish so much and where, if asked, we are likely to say we feel the safest. The truth is; this place which we hold so dear, poses the greatest risk to us from a fire.

From a regulatory perspective, the fire safety magnifying glass focuses on all types of buildings including apartment blocks, but not houses. The typical terraced, semi-detached or detached residence does not require a Fire Safety Certificate; does not need to undergo a fire safety inspection regime under the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations[1] nor are they subject to inspection under the Fire Services Act[2].

Unfortunately the vast majority of fires which result in fatality occur in houses. The onus of responsibility is therefore with us as the occupants to ensure our own safety.

With the tragic event in London still fresh in our minds, and loss of life this very week in Co. Antrim and Dublin due to dwelling fires, I thought it appropriate to put pen to paper on measures that we can all take to reduce the risk of a fire starting in our homes and increase the likelihood of safe evacuation should a fire occur.

The Statistics

The Irish Government publishes fire statistics[3] each year showing relevant information in relation to deaths, attributed to fire, that have occurred. A review of these statistics from the last 10 years (2007 – 2016 inclusive) highlights the extent of loss of life from fires in houses. As illustrated in the chart, fires within houses accounted for 77% of all recorded fire deaths. Apartment or flat fires make up 8% of the total number while commercial buildings (shops, offices, etc.) only account for 2% of the overall deaths.

Increased Risk

There is an increased risk from fire in dwellings owing to the following reasons:

  • There are more dwellings than any other type of building,
  • It is where we sleep,
  • We are more likely to be under the influence of an intoxicant or medication,
  • We are not responsible for the safety of anyone else except ourselves,
  • Occupants of houses are more likely to be elderly vs. other building types,
  • We are not legally obliged to maintain minimum levels of safety,
  • A Fire Safety Certificate is not required for a dwelling house,
  • Dwellings are typically not subject to inspection by specialist fire safety professionals during or at the end of construction.

The remainder of this article concentrates on dwelling houses as opposed to any other type of dwelling because of the number of fatalities that occur therein.

Fire Safety in Dwelling Houses – Design

Dwelling houses are not exempt from the Functional Requirements of the Building Regulations[4] which outline high level fire safety requirements that buildings must comply with for both design and construction. Technical Guidance Document B 2006[5] (TGDB) provides advice on the design of dwelling houses in order to meet the Functional Requirements of the Regulations[4].

The means of escape provisions from a dwelling house are largely dictated by the height and number of upper floors (if any) above ground level. The higher in a house you are, the more difficult it will be for you to either escape yourself or be rescued by the emergency services. Table 1 summarises the different means of escape provisions that should be in place for a dwelling, depending on the height of the top storey above ground.

Table 1: Recommended fire safety provisions in houses

1 A habitable room is defined as “a room used for living or sleeping purposes but does not include a kitchen having a floor area less than 6.5 m2, a bathroom, toilet or shower room.”

2 Guidance is provided within Paragraph 1.5.6 of TGDB 2006 in relation to the design of windows suitable for escape.

Loft/Attic conversions

Attic conversions also pose a threat as the works can often be undertaken without adequate professional input. TGDB provides guidance in relation to fire safety provisions that should be put in place for the conversion of an existing loft/attic space.

Where it is proposed to convert the existing attic of a single storey dwelling, the same provisions should be put in place as if it were a full two storey house – see summary of provisions in first column of Table 1.

If it is proposed to convert the attic of an existing 2 storey house, relaxations are allowed as per Paragraph 1.5.7 of TGDB but only on the basis that:

  • The proposed works does not involve raising the existing roof line, and
  • The new second storey accommodation does not exceed 50 m², and
  • Not more than two habitable rooms are to be provided.Should these conditions be met, the following should be put in place:
  • The existing stairway at ground and first should be upgraded to be a protected escape stairway – this means fire resisting walls and fire doors. The stair should discharge direct to open air or have alternative escape routes from its base to separate final exits,
  • The new stairway should be formed by:
    • Either extending the existing stair to serve the upper level, or
    • The stair can raise from a room at first floor level, in which case the new stair should be separated from the existing room and the new 3rd storey by fire resisting walls and doors,
  • The new storey should be separated from the rest of the house with fire resisting construction,
  • Each room within the new habitable storey should have an openable window for escape or rescue,
  • An automatic smoke detection and alarm system should be installed in accordance with Table 1.

Fire Safety in Dwelling Houses – Management

Fire safety management is something that we regularly associate with commercial buildings; it is however also of utmost importance in our homes.

As can be seen from the previous section – there are a number of fire safety provisions in typical houses. They are there for a reason so should not be modified or tampered with. Table 2 provides a number of measures that will help to reduce the risk from fire in your home.

Table 2: Fire Safety Checklist

Conclusion

The recent events in London show how destructive and tragic the effects of fire can be.

While we are in other buildings we are relying on those that manage and maintain those buildings to ensure that we are not put at excessive risk from fire. Such emphasis is not placed on the buildings that we live in and ensuring fire safety in our homes is up to us.

We only drive our cars because we know that the breaks are working – because we tried them recently and they worked. If we thought our breaks weren’t working we wouldn’t drive the car. This is because the risk of collision and injury is more tangible to us – we can appreciate the danger.

We need to start thinking the same way about maintaining fire safety in our homes. Fires do happen but we can reduce the number of fatalities in homes if we maintain the safety design features of our homes and take reasonable precautions.

For more information on fire safety week please visit the Fire Safety Week webpage.

1 The statistics relate to the number of fatalities as a result of fire as recorded by the Irish Fire Services in the Republic of Ireland as published by the department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It is noted that there have been a number of apartment fires this year including incidents in Dublin, Sligo and Mayo resulting in multiple fatalities, however statistics for 2017 are not yet available and are therefore not included.

2 It should be noted that TGDB Vol 2 relating to Dwelling Houses was published earlier this year; however, this only came into effect in July.

3 Guidance is provided within Paragraph 1.5.6 of TGDB 2006 in relation to the design of windows suitable for escape.

References
[1] Government Publications, 2015, Building Control Regulations 1997 to 2015

[2] Government Publications, 1981, Fire Services Act 1981

[3] http://www.housing.gov.ie/community/fire-and-emergency-management/other/statistics

[4] Government Publications, 2017, The Building Regulations 1997 – 2017

[5] The Stationery Office, 2006, Technical Guidance Document B Fire Safety