Fire Risk Assessment? Yes, of course we can do that for you!
Since the introduction of the Fire Safety Order in 2006, which was intended simplify fire safety regulations in the UK, there continues to be some confusion regarding what is and what is not a satisfactory level of fire safety; how can a “level of safety” be identified and more importantly how can we confirm that the person doing the identifying is competent to do so?
It’s generally accepted by the safety industry that the means of identifying a level of safety is by risk assessment – the potential of an incident to occur x the potential outcome of that incident with an added factor for multiple persons affected. In most cases of personal safety this process does not present a significant challenge and often can be easily quantified. But how easy is this when considering fire safety?
There have been cases of very detailed fire risk assessments being conducted by safety professionals (not fire safety professionals) but the template they have used is very much based on the model used for personal safety. On the face of it, this would appear quite satisfactory – “What is the risk of a fire?” versus “If a fire was to start, what would the consequence be?”. These are two very simple questions, but questions which very often will have very complicated answers and answers which in most cases will not be obvious.
To be able to answer the first question, the answerer needs to have a good understanding of the potential causes of fire. These are many fold and will of course be specific to the risk environment but are likely to always include fixed and portable electrical items, cooking paraphernalia and the like; even in the UK where smoking inside is now illegal consideration should also be given to the possibility of persons being involved in such activities and of course one of the main causes of fire in the UK remains to be arson which should also not be ruled out or overlooked. Where premises are adjoining or linked in anyway, then consideration should also be given to the risks associate with fire spreading from neighbours. For this, it is clearly important that the person answering these questions has a good understanding and knowledge of how fire can spread, the distance it can travel and the likely time this would take. As demonstrated in the painfully distressing Grenfell Tower incident, even in recently refurbished buildings fitted out with modern materials fire can spread quickly and unexpectedly.
The second question requires a much more detailed consideration and study of the risk area. It is also important that a further question is asked – “consequence to which, property or persons?” If there is a risk to persons occupied within the premises, then there are some specific requirements which must be considered in much more detail. If the risk is to property only then it is for the property owner or owner of the contents to identify the consequence of this being destroyed and potentially those around it.
Morally and legally, life, however must be protected so as a basic principal, should a fire start anywhere in a building, all persons within it must have suitable and sufficient means of escape. This is usually much more difficult to confirm; as has been identified in the study of many incidents that have resulted in the loss of life, there are many un-quantifiable factors that can have a direct impact on the ability of a person to escape and these must be considered carefully when making a judgement on the suitability of the arrangements available. Even in the simplest of assessments a judgement on the travel distance alone is unlikely to be sufficient; how might a person react to the raising of the alarm? Will they hear the alarm should it be raised and do they know where their nearest exit route is and even more importantly, is the exit route clear of obstruction, well lit, signed and does the final exit door actually open?
In many cases emergency exit routes are exactly that – emergency use only – and consequently are rarely walked or used (thankfully, emergencies are a rarity!). However, this can mean that maintenance of these is a lower priority than the maintenance of the production critical equipment. A major consideration that should be made is how the occupants will react under pressure (such as when emergency alarms are sounding and the lights have gone out!). Under these conditions people generally revert to what they know and so will follow a route they are familiar with, not necessarily the one that is closest or shortest means of exit.
It is important then that regular emergency evacuation drills are practiced and that each time a different exit route (or routes in larger buildings) are blocked. This will ensure occupants are better aware of the alternative routes but also test the signage – if the occupants are not regular or permanent, how well can they find their way out and any alternatives. Frequency of any such drills may be dependent on the level of risk but should be at least annually, quarterly if buildings are occupied by different shifts or where the risk is higher.
If the travel distance is extended, or from a change in level, then it is likely that the exit route should be protected from any potential fire spread. Are doorways onto the route protected fire doors with intumescent seals to protect not just from fire but the spread of the much more dangerous spread of fire gases, smoke and highly toxic gases created by combustion; how might any such gases spread through the building? Are the boundaries of the route (floors, walls and ceilings) constructed from materials and robust enough to protect the route adequately? What is adequate, 30 min or 2-hour protection and how could the level of protection be confirmed? Are the ceilings suspended, are there voids inside which fire or its gases could spread?
Buildings change in use, are extended and processes within them change – this can have a considerable impact on its fire safety. What might have been acceptable previously may not be now, simply due to a change of process or occupation level.
Many of the words used throughout this article are subjective and descriptive. Given the nature of fire, its gases, the human reaction to it and how this will vary within different environments, it is impossible to be prescriptive and this makes identifying what is and what is not suitable a very difficult judgement. It is critical then that to achieve a realistic and effective judgement on the level of fire safety of a building the person making it is competent and experienced in the field of fire safety – a field which requires an understanding of many complex areas and engineering principals ranging from human nature (particularly in response to emergencies), construction practices (throughout the ages), chemistry and physics of fire and fire gases as well as the many ways in which this can be controlled and mitigated using both active and passive fire protection methods.
Fire Risk Assessment, are you willing to take the risk?
Fire Safe International Ltd