Grenfell Tower Fire – legislative framework and proposals for change
From the London Fire Brigade:
In the early hours of 14 June 2017, London Fire Brigade was called to a fire at a residential block of flats in Lancaster West Estate, W11. London Fire Brigade’s Control room took multiple calls to this incident, with the first received at 00.54am. First fire crews were on site in under six minutes. Based on the level of resource needed at this fire we declared it a major incident in the early hours of the morning.
The fire affected all floors of the 24-storey building, from the second floor up. Over 200 firefighters and officers attended the incident, with 40 appliances and a range of other specialist vehicles, including 14 fire rescue units. Crews wearing breathing apparatus worked in extremely difficult conditions to bring this major fire under control and rescued 65 people.
A thorough investigation into the fire is being conducted and that will include understanding exactly why it spread in the way that it did. However, the Metropolitan Police have confirmed that following thorough investigation by London Fire Brigade’s Fire Investigation team that the fire started in a fridge freezer.
This was a tragic and unprecedented fire and our thoughts remain with all those affected by it. This briefing provides background on the current legislative and regulatory framework governing fire safety in purpose-built blocks and details some of the key changes that London Fire Brigade has been calling for in relation to fire safety in domestic premises. The inclusion of an issue in this briefing should absolutely not be taken to be a suggestion that it was in any way a factor in the Grenfell Tower fire.
- Legislative and regulatory framework
- Housing Regulation
The principal regulations for residential premises, including purpose-built blocks of flats, are the Housing Acts 1985 and 2004, which set out the Housing Health and Safety Rating Scheme (HHSRS). These make housing authorities specifically responsible for keeping the condition of housing under review and checking all aspects of health and safety in homes, including fire safety. In London it is the borough councils that are the housing authorities.
- Fire Safety Regulation
Fire safety regulations are now covered by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (the RRO). This is enforced by fire authorities – in London this is the London Fire Brigade (as London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority). These regulations do not apply to residential premises themselves i.e. inside a flat, but do apply to common parts of blocks of flats. The regulations require those who control the premises to make a fire risk assessment and provide the various fire precautions indicated by the risk assessment. Fire authorities can enforce when these are inadequate or not done at all.
- Building Regulations
Almost all building work must meet standards for safety required by the Building Act 1984 and Building Regulations 2010. In particular, much building work requires specific approval from a building control body who will monitor and inspect the building process. This can be either the local authority or Approved Inspectors in the private sector – the person carrying out the work can decide who to approve the work. The local authority has power to enforce building standards – but only if a breach is discovered within tight time limits from the end of construction.
Responsibility for fire safety
The responsibility for ensuring a building is safe and meets fire safety regulations sits with the owners/managers of the building. The enforcement of fire safety in residential premises is split between the fire and rescue service (FRS) and the local housing authority (LHA). As above, in London the LHAs are the London borough councils and the common council of the City of London.
The Housing Acts 1985 and 2004 make housing authorities specifically responsible for keeping the condition of all housing in their area, including their own housing stock, under review and for checking all aspects of health and safety, including fire safety. The legal duty on local housing authorities applies in respect of the whole building including the private living accommodation.
Additionally, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) 2005 relates to fire safety in parts of blocks of flats which are used in common by more than one flat. Typically these are entrance halls, corridors, lobbies or landings, stairways, lifts and lift shafts, services shafts, bin chutes etc. It does not extend beyond the front doors of flats or maisonettes into people’s homes. Although it has not been tested in court, the view from government is that this does not extend to external facades.
The RRO places responsibility for fire safety in the hands of the ‘responsible person’ i.e. the person with actual control of the premises. It requires the responsible person to carry out a fire risk assessment, act on its findings and keep it under review for each of these premises. A fire risk assessment helps to identify all the fire hazards and risks in the property so that the responsible person can make a decisions on whether any risks identified are acceptable or where something needs to be done to reduce or control them.
Fire and rescue services deliver their enforcement duties through audits by their fire safety inspecting officers. These officers are trained to check a premises’ compliance with the RRO. They are not responsible for, trained, experienced or skilled to assess the compliance of building (including cladding systems) to building regulations. Fire authorities have to rely on the building regulations system having produced safe and compliant buildings.
Cladding – compliance with building regulations
Cladding systems for use on buildings need to comply with Part B4 of the building regulations which requires a limit to the speed at which fire can spread over the external face of the building or may contribute to a fire. In order to comply with the building regulations, the cladding system is tested on the substrate to which it is to be fixed and using the prescribed fixing method. If any of these elements are later changed during the installation to a building, the compliance with the standard required by the regulations might be compromised and the safety of the cladding system cannot be assured.
Local housing authorities can enforce across the whole building through the Housing Act, although the Act gives no guidance on how this relates to cladding. Local authority building control is responsible for ensuring installations comply with building regulations but in practice the ability to enforce this is time limited, believed to be up to 12 years after installation depending on the circumstances. If an Approved Inspector is used, the local authority’s building control may well not see what is actually being built.
The responsibility for the safety of a building and thereby any cladding system attached to it rests with the building owners/managers, who must ensure any cladding added is compliant with building regulations standards. The testing regime for cladding systems is rigorous and involves constructing a replica installation equal to three floors of a building, including substrate and fixing methodology as referenced above. It therefore follows that the compliance of a cladding system with building regulations cannot be guaranteed by a simple visual audit after construction. It requires a high level of technical competence to examine the cladding systems, interpret technical specifications for the fitting methodology and in some cases where the relevant technical specifications cannot be supplied or referenced (more likely in older installations) dismantle and test the cladding system to ensure compliance.
Safety checks following Prime Minister’s announcement on panels (on 22 June 2017)
The government asked for local authorities and other registered providers of social housing to identify whether any panels used on new or refurbished buildings were of a particular type of cladding made of Aluminium Composite Material (ACM). In London, the local authorities where these ACM panels have been identified are being contacted and asked to take action.
Alongside this work, London Fire Brigade crews are visiting the premises identified to check the fire safety of the building and make sure that in the event of a fire, firefighting facilities are all in place.
The Brigade’s fire safety inspecting officers are also carrying out more in-depth inspections jointly with representatives of housing providers as part of an on-going process to check the general fire precautions within buildings, for example that fire doors are correctly fitted and self closing, and that escape routes are clear. Inspecting officers will advise housing providers on any immediate actions that need to be taken, but all housing providers need to have looked at their own risk assessment before Brigade visits.
- Concerns and proposals for change
Safety of fridges and freezers
London Fire Brigade has long called for changes to improve product recalls and manufacturing standards and last year launched a new campaign called Total Recalls which calls for improvements in product recalls in the UK, which is underpinned by a drive to improve the manufacturing standards of white goods. A separate briefing on the campaign is available on request.
Figures from January 2009 onwards show that LFB has been attending, on average, one fire in London every day to tackle white goods fires. In 2010 a 36-year old man died from the effects of smoke inhalation after saving his wife and two young children from a fire in their Wealdstone home that was found to have been caused by a faulty Beko fridge freezer. The Coroner recommended a series of measures to improve product recalls through a Prevention of Future Deaths report, these changes have still not been made.
Building regulations – compartmentation and ‘stay put’ advice
London Fire Brigade has raised issues of concern over the quality of construction of some residential buildings and, in particular, blocks of flats.
Purpose-built blocks of flats or maisonettes are built to give people living in them protection from fire. Flats and maisonettes within purpose-built blocks have typically been created as individual compartments in which the walls, floors and doors should withstand fire for a minimum of 30 minutes, and up to 60 minutes. This is referred to as compartmentation. Over the lifetime of a building there may have been changes that could breach the compartmentation. Examples are the installation of new central heating systems, boiler extracts or cable television introducing new pipes and cables that breach walls. Where such breaches have occurred it can have a serious detrimental effect on the building in the event of fire.
Residential buildings are designed to have a ‘stay put’ policy whereby only the residents within the flat of fire origin evacuate in the event of fire. All other residents can safely remain within the building unless directly affected by heat or smoke or directed to leave by the attending firefighters. This reduces the risk of people entering a smoky corridor unnecessarily and potentially being overcome by smoke. It also allows firefighters clear, unblocked access to tackle the fire safely and quickly without being delayed by many residents evacuating down the stairways. The standard of compartmentation is therefore critical as it limits fire spread within the building to protect other residents from the effects of fire. It also assists in protecting firefighters by preventing unseen or unusual fire spread.
The responsible person needs to ensure they have a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment to check the adequacy of compartmentation. When compartmentation is missing, or incorrectly constructed, it can potentially place residents at significant risk. The Grenfell Tower fire is still under investigation but we know that with the Lakanal House fire in 2009 in which six people died, there were compartmentation breaches which allowed fire and smoke to spread through the building in direct conflict with the evacuation strategy for the building. We are concerned that compartmentation deficiencies usually only come to our attention after a fire, or by a person responsible for the property seeking our advice only after construction.
A key safeguard to ensure the quality of housing are building regulations which ensure that plans are approved by Local Authority Building Control (LABC) or private Approved Inspectors. We have expressed concerns that LABC power to take enforcement action effectively expires after 12 months of a building being completed, and power to prosecute expires after two years. These deadlines limit LABC powers and can leave a legacy of problems which can massively impact the safety of residents in a fire.
Approved Document B
The Department for Communities and Local Government produces an Approved Document B that sets down the functional requirements of fire safety and an exemplar way of achieving these requirements. This document has not been reviewed for some time which means that it has not kept up with British Standards and new and innovative methods of construction or allowed debate of the sprinklers and other suppression systems especially around specialised housing.
London Fire Brigade has long advocated the use of sprinklers as part of a core commitment to reducing the impact of fire on people, property and the environment. Sprinkler systems can significantly reduce the degree of damage caused by fire and can reduce the risk to life. They also assist firefighters in carrying out search and rescue operations, by limiting fire development and this also significantly reduces the risks to firefighters. Much of our focus has been directed at those properties where the most significant impact can be achieved – such as schools, residential care homes and domestic premises housing the most vulnerable. Our most recent representations to the government on sprinklers have focused on schools following the Department for Education’s consultation on whether the existing guidance that contains the expectation that all new schools and major refurbishments would have sprinklers installed. A separate briefing is available on this issue on request.
In a shared residential building, the front doors of individual flats are an important part of the fire protection for the building, as are the fire doors in communal areas of the blocks.
Often, the front doors of individual flats perform a function as part of the protection for the routes used for escape from corridors and staircases in blocks of flats. These doors need to be fit for purpose, fire-resisting and self-closing, close fitting with no gaps, with no warping and not damaged in any way.
In terms of fire doors in communal areas, the Housing Act 2004’s Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) assesses 29 housing hazards and the effect that each may have on the health and safety of current or future occupants of the property. If a hazard is a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety, this is known as a Category 1 hazard. If a hazard is less serious or less urgent, this is known as a Category 2 hazard. Section 4 of the Housing Act 2004 sets out the requirements for inspections by LHAs to see whether category 1 and 2 hazards exist.
Fitness for Human Habitation
Section 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 sets out matters in which a house is regarded as unfit for human habitation and states ‘if, and only if, it is so far defective in one or more of those matters that it is not reasonably suitable for occupation in that condition’. Matters listed under Section 10 of the Act include water supply, repair and freedom from damp. It does not, however, cover provision for fire safety.