Evacuation in social housing
Social housing is let at low rents on a secure basis to those who are most in need or struggling with their housing costs. Normally councils and not-for-profit organisations (such as housing associations) are the ones to provide social housing. Social housing is allocated on the basis of need and is usually a block of flats, unlike in the private rented sector, where tenancies are offered by the landlord and letting agent to whomever they choose, social housing is distributed according to the local council’s allocation scheme. Since the Localism Act 2011, councils can decide who is or isn’t eligible to go on the waiting list for social housing. Social housing is regulated and funded by the government through the Homes and Communities Agency, which is responsible for the construction of new social homes. The government department currently responsible for overseeing the social housing sector is the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG). Because of this an evacuation strategy must also be regulated and set in place, and shall be discussed in the article.
Compartmentation is set up between flats, meaning there is wall separation between adjoining accommodations, which prevents fire-spread from one flat to another. It also enshrines the principle that a person’s actions, while they may affect their own safety, should not endanger their neighbours. Compartmentation requires a higher standard of fire resistance than that normally considered necessary simply to protect the escape routes. This is to ensure that a fire should be contained within the flat of fire origin. Accordingly, those in flats remote from the fire are safe to stay where they are. Indeed, in the majority of fires in blocks of flats, residents of other flats never need to leave their flats. This is the essence of the ‘stay put’ principle. It has underpinned fire safety design standards from even before the 1960s, when national standards were first drafted. It’s still the basis upon which blocks of flats are designed today. Inevitably, fires do occur in which, for operational reasons, the fire and rescue service decides to evacuate others in the building. Fires have been known to spread beyond the flat of origin to involve other flats or to spread across the top of blocks through the roof voids. In these cases, total evacuation of the block is sometime necessary. Fortunately, these fires are rare.
‘Stay put’ policy
A ‘stay put’ policy involves the following approach. When a fire occurs within a flat, the occupants alert others in the flat, make their way out of the building and summon the fire and rescue service. If a fire starts in the common parts, anyone in these areas makes their way out of the building and summons the fire and rescue service. All other residents not directly affected by the fire would be expected to ‘stay put’ and remain in their flat unless directed to leave by the fire and rescue service.
It is not implied that those not directly involved who wish to leave the building should be prevented from doing so. Nor does this preclude those evacuating a flat that is on fire from alerting their neighbours so that they can also escape if they feel threatened. The alternative to a ‘stay put’ policy is one involving simultaneous evacuation.
Simultaneous evacuation involves evacuating the residents of a number of flats together. It requires a means to alert all of these residents to the need to evacuate, ie a fire detection and alarm system. Purpose-built blocks of flats are not normally provided with such systems. Simultaneous evacuation is sometimes applied to buildings converted into blocks of flats, but usually only where it has not been possible to achieve the level of compartmentation required for a ‘stay put’ policy. In purpose-built blocks of flats, experience has shown that most residents do not need to leave their flats when there is a fire elsewhere. Indeed, in some circumstances, they might place themselves at greater risk when they do so. Some enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors have been adopting a precautionary approach whereby, unless it can be proven that the standard of construction is adequate for ‘stay put’, the assumption should be that it is not. As a consequence, simultaneous evacuation has sometimes been adopted, and fire alarm systems fitted retrospectively, in blocks of flats designed to support a ‘stay put’ strategy.
Stairways need to be enclosed in fire-resisting construction to minimise the risk of flames and smoke entering the stairways while they are being used for escape. Again, the current benchmark for doors is that they be capable of providing 30-minute fire resistance and be self-closing. Stairways should lead directly to a final exit, or to a protected route leading to a final exit. The stairways should not contain any significant fire hazards and should, ideally, not contain anything other than lifts or protected electrical meter cupboards. Ideally, gas installations should not be located within protected stairways. Except in small blocks of flats, a single stairway should, ideally, not serve any boiler room, fuel storage room or other similar high-risk ancillary rooms. In multiple stairway blocks of flats, the ancillary rooms should, normally, be separated from the stairways by a protected lobby or corridor. Protected stairways also need means to ventilate any smoke that may enter the stairway during evacuation or firefighting and allow a route for air to reach ventilated lobbies and corridors. A vent of at least 1m2 needs to be provided at the head of the stairway for this. Current guidance states that, in blocks of flats with more than one escape stairway, this vent can be opened manually. But, in blocks of flats with a single stairway, it is recommended that the vent is operated automatically (an AOV).
Many older and disabled residents will find it difficult to use stairs in the event of a fire, and additional measures may need to be considered. These could include temporary safe refuge areas or spaces within existing protected lobbies and stairs, or products to help them down the stairs such as evacuation chairs, which can be used by one resident taking the elderly or disabled person down the stairs safely. If lifts are provided, where reasonably practicable, consideration should be given to the provision of evacuation lifts that residents may use in the event of a fire.
It is generally accepted that a competent fire risk assessor appointed by the council or governing body for a block of flats will require an understanding of:
• The intent, objectives and requirements of the FSO, as it relates to a purpose-built block of flats
• The design principles of blocks of flats, including blocks constructed in accordance with previous standards and legislation
• The causes of fire and means for their prevention
• Relevant fire protection measures, particularly means of escape and compartmentation in purpose-built blocks of flats
• The appropriateness of fire alarm systems in purpose-built blocks of flats
• The appropriateness of fire extinguishing appliances in purpose-built blocks of flats
• The appropriate evacuation strategies for purpose-built blocks of flats, including ‘stay put’ policies
• Fire safety management, as it relates to purpose-built blocks of flats
• The effect of social and lifestyle factors on the risk to residents of purpose-built blocks of flats, and of the special needs for disabled people in the event of fire.
Fire Safety measures within social housing
There should be adequate illumination of escape routes to be able to see the way out in an emergency. With the possible exception of small two-storey blocks of flats, with good borrowed light from, for example, street lighting, blocks of flats should be provided with emergency escape lighting. Similarly, fire exit signs might need to be displayed to assist in the use of an escape route with which people are unfamiliar. In a single stairway building, there is rarely a need for such signs. It is not usually considered necessary to signpost the route that residents normally use to gain access to their flats. It is rare for there to be a need for fire-fighting equipment to be used by people present in the common parts of blocks of flats. It is, nevertheless, usually provided in plant rooms and other such rooms. The provision of fire extinguishers and other forms of fire-fighting equipment in common parts for use by residents is problematic. It is not expected that residents should need to tackle a fire in their flats to make their escape. Indeed, to obtain a fire extinguisher located in the common parts for this purpose would involve the person leaving their flat in the first place. This does not preclude residents from providing their own fire extinguishers and fire blankets.
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