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The mystery of missing Fire Strategies

Gary Marlow highlights the importance of fire safety information and asks where do fire strategies go?

However it is a complete mystery as to where fire strategies go, is it the same place odd socks go? Or is there a Bermuda Triangle for strategies? Or, perhaps they will turn up with Lord Lucan?

Our firm (BB7) assists architects and developers alike with independent fire engineering advice during the design and construction of new buildings, but we also undertake thousands of fire risk assessments. Rarely are we so fortuitous as to be furnished with a bespoke building fire strategy prior to undertaking an assessment, let alone an ‘as built’ fire strategy. A large proportion of the buildings we undertake fire risk assessments on, are complex buildings and many of these have been built in the last decade or two and more than likely have had strategy documents prepared as part of the design process.

It is a legal requirement of the Building Regulations 2010, Regulation 38, that “The person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the responsible person not later than the date of completion of the work, or the date of occupation of the building or extension, whichever is the earlier.” For those not familiar with the term ‘Responsible person’ the meaning of ‘Responsible Person’ is detailed in Article (3) of the Regulatory Reform (fire safety) Order 2005.

Searching for answers

When seeking answers to the question of the missing fire strategies we can draw two hypotheses:
1) Either, the ‘Responsible Person’ or duty holder has not been at all responsible and has either misplaced the information;
2) Or the current approach to enforcement of this legal requirement is at best haphazard and inconsistent or at worst simply not being enforced.

The first of these is entirely plausible and symptomatic of a management failing which may be taken into consideration when undertaking the fire risk assessment as required under Article (9) of the FSO.

However many fire engineers can provide a fair amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest the latter is a major part of the problem. This problem may stem from the building control process and it would appear that Building Control Bodies are simply not enforcing this aspect of the regulations consistently. There have been a few pointed articles in fire safety journals and industry publications that identify this problem, but in fairness to our friends within the Building Control Profession we should acknowledge that the requirement actually says “The person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the responsible person’ as opposed to “The person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the Building Control Body”.

But there is another issue to be resolved.

It has become apparent that there is a lack of clarity regarding exactly when a fire strategy is required and a lack of appreciation of the benefits that an ‘as built’ fire strategy can provide to the end user in years to come, when considering alterations to buildings in the form of refurbishment or even general maintenance, it is often invaluable to have access to the original design assumptions with regard to fire safety.

Invaluable Information

With the increase in performance based design, most new schemes now contain an element of fire engineering. Fire engineered buildings may require an increased level of management over and above a code compliant building, but it should be remembered that even code compliant buildings can require a high degree of management. Take for example a code compliant atrium building, hospital, or even a residential block of flats with smoke control via mechanical shafts.

The fire safety manager or some other duty-holder within the relevant organisation will be will be tasked with ensuring that the fire safety measures provided when the building is handed over are then managed and maintained, to ensure that they remain operating in the manner that were intended throughout the buildings lifecycle.

In most situations the fire safety manager is rarely a competent fire engineer with a crystal ball which enables them to look into the past and determine exactly what the original design principles were at the time of construction. In years to come the fire safety manager may find they are looking at the glazing in atria and trying to determine if it is fire resisting, or simply laminated. They may be asked whether the long throw sprinkler system that has been installed is essential to the strategy because the replacement or re-instatement of this system presents a five figure re-instatement cost, and without the original strategy how are they supposed to know?

It has become apparent that there is a lack of clarity regarding exactly when a fire strategy is required.

Now imagine a fire engineered building where the fire time of the building has been reduced from 120 minutes to 90 minutes, and there are extended travel distances on the floor plates which were agreed on the basis of a compensatory feature such as sprinklers. If the fire safety manager is faced with a refurbishment of two floors within such a building the manager needs to understand what risk is posed by the isolation of the sprinkler system. If the fire strategy has been lost in the mists of time, or simply does not exist then it could be a case of trying to look into that crystal ball.

So when is a fire strategy required?

Appendix G within the current national guidance offers a basic insight as to the level of detail required with regard to fire safety information and Regulation 38. The legal requirement clearly states the term “relevant building” and that is a building to which the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies, or will apply after the completion of building work. For clarity the appendix breaks this down into ‘simple buildings’ and ‘complex buildings’ both of which may fall within the scope of the FSO.

What exactly constitutes a simple building?

A simple building cannot be defined easily as it is not just the case that a simple building is a ‘code compliant’ building, for example, a shopping mall, hospital or airport terminal could be code compliant but would not necessarily result in a building that is simple in terms of fire safety design or the resultant management obligations.

Even a small residential block of flats may not be as simple as one first imagines. For example, imagine a residential building complying with the small single stair building criteria. It has two apartments per floor and an open plan common staircase, that is, there isn’t lobby protection between the apartment entrance door and the common stairs and therefore requires an internal protected hallway separating the accommodation from the stair. It may be compliant in terms of internal layout but we must remember that there is a legal obligation on the ‘Responsible Person’ or their nominated duty-holder in accordance with the FSO to undertake fire risk assessments periodically within the common parts.

Now in accordance with the guidance contained within the fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats guide, this fire risk assessment may be either a type 1,2,3 or 4 assessment and it would indeed be very useful for the fire risk assessor to understand the original design basis. They will need to sample the front entrance doors to the flats and gain access to a sample of flats. What if the resident has made alterations internally and removed fire safety measures that were necessary for compliance with the Building Regulations and essential for compliance with the FSO.

It would indeed be prudent to have a documented fire strategy in order to aid the responsible person or their duty holder in meeting their legal obligations. Commendably the national guidance suggests ‘as built’ fire strategy drawings for simple buildings, yet these rarely exist in practice and it would seem even this aspect is rarely complied with. Moreover there will be occasions when an ‘as built’ fire strategy would be a very useful document for a so called ‘simple building’.

If a building follows the ‘general approach’ to fire safety design and strictly conforms to Approved Document B it may be a simple building, but as mentioned above simply being ‘code compliant’ does not mean all ‘code compliant’ buildings are simple in terms of fire strategy. It follows that a building which adopts the ‘advanced approach’ or a ‘fire engineered’ approach will not be a simple building.

What is a complex building?

As suggested in trying to define a simple building, complex buildings can include both ‘code compliant’ buildings and non-code compliant buildings. The national guidance suggests these buildings require a detailed record of the fire safety strategy and procedures for operating and maintaining any fire protection measures in order to satisfy the requirements of Regulation 38. In fact relatively few building types can now be considered simple buildings with regard to fire safety design and best practice would suggest a fire strategy should be submitted as part of the Building Regulations approval process.

Fire Safety Information (Strategy) and Building Regulation Approval

Our friends in Scotland have already acknowledged this problem and made sensible amendments at government level to ensure that buildings are not issued completion certificates without the necessary fire safety information being handed over. It is our considered opinion that Building Control Bodies in England and Wales would do well to issue a standard guidance note for applicants on receipt of plans as part of a building regulation approval submission, informing them of the requirement of Regulation 38 and the benefits of ‘as built’ fire strategies and/or fire strategy drawings.

We also need to provide further guidance on what constitutes a ‘simple building’ and what constitutes a ‘complex building’. Furthermore it would be very helpful to those responsible for managing occupied buildings if appropriate fire safety information in the form of an ‘as built’ fire strategy and/or fire strategy drawings was submitted to the Building Control Body prior to issuance of a completion certificate. This way at least during the conveyancing process a new owner may be afforded an insight into the original design intent. Perhaps it is the legislation that needs amending?

It is intended that this subject will be raised with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Professional Group Board for Building Control. This issue presents an opportunity for both the Fire Engineering profession and the Building Control profession to work collaboratively for the betterment of fire safety in England and Wales.