The Grenfell tragedy raised awareness of the fact that owners of multi-occupancy buildings are legally responsible for fire safety. Here Adam Jurka, National Sales Manager at Ramtech, looks at how a wireless fire alarm system is an effective way of meeting this requirement, especially in those that have Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) and other unsafe forms of cladding.


The Grenfell Tower fire exposed several systematic failures on the current response to fire in high-rise (over 18 metres) residential buildings. Following the fire in June 2017, the advised ‘Stay put policy’ was changed to ‘Simultaneous evacuation’, a temporary change until the remedial work to replace the cladding has taken place. However, in the absence of a common fire alarm that is capable of alerting everyone in the building, many building owners, where ACM cladding and other unsafe types of high-pressure laminate (HPL), wood and other class C/D cladding are installed, have had to employ multiple guards. Some of these high-rise buildings require guards, or a ‘waking watch’, on every other storey - a major drain on resources to ensure 24/7 coverage.


And where building owners, landlords, property management companies, leaseholders and residents have had to employ guards to operate 24-hour ‘waking watch’ strategies there is always the potential for human error – everyone can make mistakes, especially when under pressure. For instance, how long does it take a waking watch guard to identify fire and raise the alarm especially if the flames spread undetected up through external ACM cladding? In terms of raising the alarm there are concerns, too - guards are usually required to do this using an airhorn, which is hardly an efficient way of alerting residents in a multi-occupancy building. Plus, whilst the fire is spreading, guards are required to hold their finger on an airhorn to alert and evacuate a building full of people. Do they put themselves at risk whilst carrying this out?


Cost is another factor and there are reports of waking watch schemes, which can have a guard on every other floor, costing 10, 20, 30, 40 and even £50,000 a month. Having people on duty 24/7 is a considerable investment.


Conversely, installing a common fire alarm negates the need for many of these guards and ensures effective building evacuation. Indeed, the installation of a common fire alarm is strongly supported in the NFCC guidance; Section 4.14, page 9 states in bold type: ‘NFCC strongly recommends that where a change to a simultaneous evacuation is deemed appropriate and will be required for medium to long periods of time, that a temporary common fire alarm system is installed. This is because a temporary common alarm when designed, installed and maintained appropriately is a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection. An appropriate communal fire alarm and detection system will generally provide more certainty that a fire will be detected and warned at the earliest opportunity rather than rely on using trained staff’.


Scope of the challenge
There are 313 high-rise residential and publicly-owned buildings with ACM cladding systems unlikely to meet Building Regulations yet to be remediated in England. Unfortunately, efforts to remove dangerous cladding has stalled on some of these projects due to ‘severe’ disruption to remediation work caused by the coronavirus outbreak.


However, Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has announced that work should continue on removal of ACM cladding and that contractors should implement appropriate measures to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff during the Covid-19 crisis: ‘Work must resume to ensure the safety of residents living in buildings with unsafe cladding or with insufficient fire safety measures, and it is entirely possible for this work to be done safely within health guidelines,’ he said.


At the same time, the government has promised a further £1bn on top of the £600m for the removal and replacement of dangerous ACM cladding. They are hoping to open registration for this scheme shortly after the publication of the prospectus in May. Anyone wishing to apply for funding should have an up-to-date fire risk assessment in place for their building. It is likely that this scheme will end up being oversubscribed, although the government has made it clear that £1.6bn will be their funding limit.


The government aims to publish the prospectus for the new fund in May, and open for registrations soon after. The emphasis is therefore very much on encouraging building owners to prepare before registration opens and this should involve determining the exact materials used in the external wall systems. Running alongside this, the government is supporting local authorities and Fire & Rescue Services to take enforcement action where building owners refuse to remediate high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding. In simple terms, doing nothing in the current climate isn’t an option.


Wireless ‘common’ fire alarms
There are justified concerns from residents about having a succession of ‘waking watch’ guards in the building at a time when they are required to maintain social distancing. We should also give a thought to residents in lockdown who are living in buildings with unsafe cladding. It certainly can’t be easy for them, aware that they are of the increased fire risk of being in the building virtually 24/7, whilst guards who have to self-isolate can make around-the-clock staffing difficult.


An effective way to address these issues, whilst significantly reducing costs, is to deploy a temporary wireless fire alarm system. The major benefit of these is that they can be rapidly installed whilst creating a ‘common’ fire alarm system. If just one of the heat / smoke detectors is activated, it sounds an alarm via the multiple interconnected call points throughout all areas of the building allowing ‘Simultaneous evacuation’ of residents. It does not rely on manual intervention, or a guard ‘spotting’ the fire. Systems such as our WES3 are fully wireless so no cabling or mains power is needed – and they have a three-year battery life, so little or no maintenance is required.


When specifying a wireless fire alarm system, it should be compliant to EN 54 and scalable to any size building utilising flooded mesh radio technology. There can be remote monitoring via mobile text alert, instantly alerting nominated personnel if an alarm is activated. They are tamper proof, available for hire or sale, and can be despatched on next day delivery.


Innovation in internet connectivity, apps and the ability to collect, analyse and interpret data in live stream have extended the functionality of wireless fire alarm systems, too. For instance, our fully customisable REACT cloud system can be to remotely communicate alerts raised by WES3 in real-time to relevant personnel via an app installed on their smart phone or tablet device. Alerts raised can be supported with site specific plans to highlight their precise location. Users can then record actions on their device, which are automatically uploaded to the REACT cloud and feedback to relevant group members.


The answer
Although the issue of fire safety in high-rise buildings has been obscured by the Covid-19 crisis, it does not mean that the problem has gone away. Indeed, with the UK in lock down, and with people working from home, it means that the risks from fire are exacerbated.


Multiple ‘fire watchers’ in these buildings is not only expensive but is prone to human error. With the coronovirus potentially causing longer delays before remediation work begins, building owners can address the issues they face with a technology-based solution, specifically, in the form of a wireless fire alarm system. This kind of approach not only eliminates human error and reduces costs but demonstrates that building owners are taking proactive steps to ensure the safety of residents.


Those that go on to apply for support from the government’s £1.6bn grant scheme, which opens in May, can demonstrate that they have already taken steps to protect occupants.


For more information on Ramtech Electronics’ WES3 Wireless Fire Safety Technology, click here or call 00 44 (0) 115 957 8282.

Wireless Automatic Fire Detection and Alarm System Supporting Simultaneous Evacuation for ACM Cladding