Fire Brigade

fire alarm design often undervalued

When it comes to fire alarm design it is amazing how many trades, professions and professionals just don’t get it. Firstly there is the misconception that the designer will choose the category of the system – Wrong! It’s not their job. The choice of system category is ultimately that of ‘the responsible person’. They may have help and guidance from other stakeholders e.g. fire risk assessor or insurer. Occasionally they will be given a category by an enforcing authority such as the Fire Brigade or Building Control. Once the category has been chosen it is the job of the designer to ensure the specification meets the category entirely.
Being the official designer brings a lot of legal responsibility. A person remains ‘the designer’ in perpetuity (unless wholesale changes or re-design takes place) even if a different maintaining company takes over the system in the future. Therefore a designer will not cut corners. In a commercial, competitive environment ultimately they will provide a design to your specification but the category on the certificate will reflect that. Indeed if the design meets no specific category this too will be noted on the design certificate.
Many building contractors give designers a schematic with devices already in position. However they often don’t quite realise this means legally they are now the official designer. A fire-alarm designer will be completely unwilling to certificate somebody else’s poor design, and why should they? Many architects, consultants, builders and electrical contractors completely misunderstand and underestimate the design process. It involves understanding detectors, coverage patterns and spacing. They need to know how different structures, particularly ceilings, affect detector coverage and spacing. They have to understand how to incorporate loop calculations, battery calculations control-panel design software etc. etc.
Often it is at the end of a contract when the trouble starts. This when the Fire Authority, or more likely building control, will require all the correct certification before they sign the building off. Often because nobody understood or perhaps were unwilling to pay for the design element problems now ensue. A finished building, a Building Control official who won’t sign it off and a designer who won’t certificate someone else’s poor design.
The design process can take days and cost hundreds of pounds and all too often this is not factored in. However skimping on design can be very costly in the long run.

employees responsible for fire safetyDecember 2010 saw the first prosecution of a fire-protection service provider – Christopher Morris who was responsible for the fire-alarm system at Oldfield Bank Residential Care Home - Altringham, was convicted for fire-safety breaches. Mr Morris was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £6,000 costs. He pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to maintain a fire-alarm system.

The fire at the Care Home resulted in a fatality and as the fallout unfolds an employee of the home has been prosecuted. This is now the first employee to be prosecuted under ‘The Fire Safety Order’ and this one case alone shows the Fire Authorities’ intention to bring all persons involved to justice not just the owner.

Karen Sykes, 41, from Sale, on the 18th of March pleaded guilty to breach of article 23 of the Fire Safety Order - a failure to take care of herself and other relevant persons.  The fire alarm sounded around 6pm but was quickly silenced by Ms Sykes who had not carried out search of the site to investigate the reason for the activation.

A fire was later discovered in a resident’s room and an hour and fifteen minutes after the alarm activation a call was finally made to the fire and emergency services. When fire crews arrived they found the fire-alarm to be muted.

Elderly resident Enid West died following the fire and an inquest into her death is scheduled to be heard by the Stockport Coroner this month.

Assistant county fire officer, Peter O'Reilly, said: "This case clearly highlights and enforces the message that employees have a duty to ensure the safety of the people they are looking after. This type of behaviour simply isn't acceptable and we should not forget that an elderly resident in Sykes’ care died that night. "This is the first time an employee has been prosecuted under this legislation, as opposed to the employer, and I am proud of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue for bringing this about."

The fallout continues and the message surely is the ‘responsible person’ carries the ultimate can but responsibility is devolved along the way. If you think 'I’m just an employee it’s not my responsibility' - then you’re wrong!

fire service may not attend false-alarm calls

The Fire and Emergency Service are considering a non-attendance policy to automated fire alarms and with false-alarm rates running as high as 40% then who can blame them?
The London Fire Brigade is driving these dramatic proposals as they look for ways to cut the 1,000 false calls they deal with in a typical week.
Most of the calls are from poorly or non-maintained fire alarms. Currently we have reached the position where the Fire Service can be used as free back-up instead of businesses properly meeting their requirements under the fire safety order.
The proposal suggests that fire crews would only respond if they could be sure a fire had started and specifically that alarm activation would not be actioned unless a phone call was also received.
We are all for sorting out the poor standard of fire alarms and indeed cowboy maintainers but insisting on a human confirmation really just negates totally the use of remotely monitored systems; if someone has to be present to ring through a call then an automated response is useless.
The move to tackling the false-alarm rate is both sensible and long overdue and has been on the cards for years.  However, original studies were based around copying the police model to dealing with automated burglar-alarms. ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) policy on intruder alarms massively reduced the number of false calls but by the introduction of technology. ‘Confirmed Signalling’ ensures that police can only be called when more than one method of activation is employed (e.g. two detectors operate independently within a certain time frame or a detector activation is confirmed via CCTV images or audio).
Surely something similar can be employed with Fire Alarms.
A further requirement of ACPO is that the maintenance company must have third-party certification, ensuring levels of quality and regular auditing to weedle out the cowboys.
In the intruder industry a company must be NACOSS or SSAIB approved. Such a scheme is already in place for the fire industry - BAFE approval. Merely insisting that fire alarm maintenance companies were BAFE would dramatically reduce false alarms in a short period of time.
Surely it would be better to have well behaved fire-alarms with good automatic confirmation procedures rather than only responding to human intervention. How many fires start when there are no humans around to intervene?