Fire Risk Assessment

Hidden Dangers

In Fire Risk Assessment Basics it was established that making sure that guests can escape quickly in the event of a fire is an important objective of any Fire Risk Assessment. This was followed up with a lot of practical information in Door Locks in Holiday Cottages because making sure doors can be opened quickly in an emergency is fundamental to achieving this objective.

However, Fire Risk Assessors also need to look very carefully at the building and its contents to see if anything exists which could cause a sudden or rapid increase in the fire or prevent people from escaping.

This is a complex area and requires a good practical understanding of Building Regulations, materials, fuels and other regulations. The following is intended to give a basic overview of this subject to help property owners understand the sort of risks which could exist and to seek further information and advice where appropriate.

Are Fire Exits blocked?

This may seem obvious, but it is important to ensure any route that may need to be used in an emergency is not blocked or obstructed by furniture or other storage. We once visited a holiday property where the owners had commissioned a professional Fire Risk Assessment. This had established the back door (opening from the utility room to outside) as an escape route. The owners had carefully put a Fire Exit sign on the door. However, in front of the door and completely blocking it were a Henry Hoover, clothes airer, ironing board, buckets and a whole collection of other things usually found in a holiday cottage. In a fire emergency seconds count, so all exits must be ready to use without moving anything.

Here's another good example, a door with confusing signage, blocked by an airer and also fitted with a lock with a removable key.

Blocked emergency exit

Are the Escape Routes Made of Fire Resisting Materials?

In a holiday cottage which is similar to a modern family home, the escape routes are likely to be the landing, stairs and hallway. In such a simple property, it is fairly easy to check that all the walls and ceilings are made of plasterboard and hopefully they are just painted with emulsion paint with the odd picture dotted about. If this is the case then during a fire, there would be no reason to assume that the escape routes will quickly become full of smoke and flames.

However, in older properties there could be other materials present that will burn readily and cause the escape routes to become unusable. This is a highly dangerous situation. During a Fire Risk Assessment, careful consideration should be given to the construction of the escape routes to establish if there are flammable materials present. What sort of materials are we talking about? Wooden walls, gloss painted tongue and groove boards or perhaps some dreaded polystyrene ceiling tiles (believe it or not they are still about) would be typical examples.

If inappropriate materials are found, then they may need to be removed and replaced with fire rated ones instead.

Polystyrene Ceiling Tiles

Wooden panelling

Is the Compartmentation good?

Compartmentation is the name given by Fire Engineers to the resistance of a building to the spread of fire. It makes sense that a fire in one room should not be able to spread quickly to all the other rooms. Ideally it should be contained for a period of time to allows people to escape. If you walk around a school or hospital or other large building you will see that great efforts have been made using fire doors and fire resistant partitions to confine a fire to the area in which it starts, at least for a reasonable period of time. In very large buildings with lots of occupants the risk to life from rapid fire spread is immense.

A simple way to think about compartmentation in a holiday cottage (a much smaller building than a school or hospital) is to consider each room as a fire resistant box. How long the box will resist a fire will depend on a number of factors: what materials the room is made of, what sort of door does it has, whether the door is closed and how intense the fire is inside the room.

In Building Regulations, half an hour resistance is common for a domestic room. This is achieved because a normal sheet of grey plasterboard has fifteen minutes fire resistance. Since stud-partitions have two layers of plasterboard one on each side, this broadly gives half an hour fire resistance. In other areas of buildings such as the ceiling below a loft conversion one hour resistance is required and this is achieved by using special plasterboards that can withstand fire for longer.

Good compartmentation and modern inter-linked smoke alarms work in conjunction with each other in Fire Safety. In properties that are open-plan, it is particularly important to have the right smoke alarms because smoke will be able to spread more quickly than in a traditional property split up into individual rooms.

If your property has been built to current Building Regulations using modern fire resistant materials then the likelihood of fire spreading very quickly should be low. However, in old properties built before Building Regulations were enforced fire is likely to spread more quickly. These things need to be taken into account when carrying out a Fire Risk Assessment and expert advice sought where necessary.

Particular attention is required in properties where the walls and ceilings are not made of plasterboard, stone, bricks or blocks. Timber partitions, hardboard and Selotex board are all commonly found in older properties. It may be that these materials need to be replaced or uprated with fire resistant alternatives. If a property is found to have a low resistance to the spread of fire (for example a timber building) then additional fire protection measures may need to be put into place, such as a sprinkler system.

Borrowed Light

Sometimes properties have windows from one room to another to "borrow light". Where there is a glass partition between two rooms, this should be made of a fire retardant glass to preserve the fire resistance of the wall.

fire resistant glass

Loft Conversions

Loft conversions are an area of concern as it is much harder for people to escape from them in the event of a fire. When lofts are converted, builders are required to upgrade the fireproofing on ceilings below the new rooms and on the walls of the stairwell down to the ground floor. Existing bedroom doors also have to be upgraded to half-hour fire doors. In properties with loft conversions, fire risk assessors should ensure that Building Regulation approval has been given and that all work has been done to a satisfactory standard.

When is a compartment not a compartment?

Unfortunately, although Architects carefully design modern buildings to be a series of fire resistant compartments, in practice these compartments often have gaps or holes through them that can allow fire to spread more quickly than intended. These are generally created by the installation of cables and pipes through the fire resistant partition. They can also be created by the failure of builders to seal up the partitions effectively during construction.  On a number of Fire Risk Assessments we have seen, the assessor has identified weaknesses in the Compartmentation where pipes or other services cross through partitions. These have needed to be rectified by filling up gaps with fire resistant foam, intumescent mastic or fire resistant cement-based boards.

Fire resistant foam

Where to look for Compartmentation Issues

Gaps are often found where cables and pipes pass through walls. So check carefully around and above fuse boxes, boiler installations and immersion cupboards as these are likely places to find a problem.

The picture below shows a wide gap between the ceiling and wall above a fuse box which would allow a fire to spread quickly up into the floorboards above.

Gap at ceiling

Compartmentation

Compartmentation

Compartmentation

The picture below from America sums it up very nicely. Whenever something goes through a fire resistant partition (firewall) every effort must be made to preserve the resistance of the partition.

Firewall

Recessed Downlights

This type of light is very popular. Unfortunately, non fire-rated downlights can reduce the fire resistance of a typical ceiling from thirty minutes to less than ten. When fitting downlights, it is important to preserve the fire resistance of the ceiling by fitting fire-rated versions. Sadly non fire-rated lights are still on sale in many DIY stores.

Fire Doors

Fire doors are not routinely fitted to rooms in domestic premises in the same way that they are in hotels, office buildings and blocks of purpose built flats. There are however some important exceptions:

  • The door between an integral garage and a house should be a fire door.
  • If you have a communicating door between your own home and an adjacent holiday letting property or annex this should be a fire door.
  • If you have a loft conversion which has been done to modern building regulations there should be a fire door protecting it.

Where Fire Doors are in use, you should check that they shut properly, that self closers work and that smoke seals are in good order. A basic check of workmanship is also advisable as a badly fitted Fire Door will offer a much lower level of protection than a well fitted one.

Further Reading

For full details of the requirements for fire resistance in dwellings and other fire safety matters see: Part B of the Building Regulations