Fire safety in health and care buildings must remain a priority, experts warn

We ask if recent investment in healthcare infrastructure and new NHS carbon pledge are overshadowing fire safety and putting patients and staff at risk?

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities account for nearly 4% of all accidental fires so must consider fire safety as a top priority

As part of the Government’s COVID-19 recovery plan, Chancellor, Rishi Sinak recently unveiled a £1billion grant scheme to improve energy efficiency and boost low-carbon heating in public buildings, including hospitals.

In recent weeks, the NHS has also committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than previously planned.

But as estates and facilities chief find themselves charged with making sure buildings meet this green agenda, are we at risk of failing to prioritise another key issue facing the healthcare estate – namely fire safety?

Hospitals and other medical care buildings accounted for 3.8% – 437 – primary accidental fires in the year ending March 2019, according to London Fire Brigade and ONS figures.

The UK government’s tunnel vision around carbon and cladding in high-rise residential buildings is putting some of our most-vulnerable at risk

For residential dwellings in London alone, 20% of fires in dwellings other than houses or flats in 2019 occurred in nursing and care homes or hospices.

And the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017 further highlighted the risks, particularly around the use of cheap aluminium cladding on high-rise buildings, which could have enabled the blaze to spread more quickly through the building.

Avoiding another tragedy

Similar cladding has been used on several hospitals across the country, with at least seven still having not undergone remedial work.

Marc Gaunt, segment lead for commercial buildings at Eaton, explains: “The UK government’s tunnel vision around carbon and cladding in high-rise residential buildings is putting some of our most-vulnerable at risk.

“While hazardous cladding and carbon reduction are very-real challenges which must be addressed, the Government cannot risk focusing on these to the detriment of wider building safety.

“Instead, they must be addressed together with other existing building safety risks, including those which can be easily solved through existing technologies.”

And the technology already exists to help estates managers tackle this challenge, he said.

According to the ONS and fire brigade data, 10% of all fires in the UK in the year ending March 2019 were due to electrical distribution faults, despite the existence of technology which can predict when an electrically-ignited fire is likely to occur and shut down the circuit to prevent it starting.

Gaunt said: “Improving fire safety standards in public buildings needs to be a priority for the Government and those responsible for building safety. And this can only happen with a holistic approach that takes into consideration investments to meet safety needs across the spectrum of risk, for both today and tomorrow.

“As facilities managers and building owners navigate this complicated threat landscape, it’s vital they explore the technology that can reduce risks.

“For instance, many electrically-ignited fires can be prevented before they even start through Arc Fault Detection Devices (AFDDs), while new, adaptive emergency lighting can avoid congestion and get people to safety faster.

Eaton's Marc Gaunt is warning that the government, and healthcare providers, cannot risk losing focus as they strive to hit carbon reduction targets and deal with the Coronavirus pandemic

Taking stock of technology

“As threats continue to evolve, it’s important the Government is taking stock of existing technologies and investing in the right areas today, to improve the overall safety standards of some of our most-critical public buildings.”

Improving fire safety standards in public buildings needs to be a priority for the Government and those responsible for building safety. And this can only happen with a holistic approach that takes into consideration investments to meet safety needs across the spectrum of risk

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Hackitt Review suggested the Government takes a more-sophisticated approach to defining new building safety standards, which currently only apply to a small set of commercial buildings considered at ‘high risk’ for tragic events, specifically multi-occupancy high-rise residential buildings.

However, there is a growing consensus that the height of a building alone is not sufficient to characterise risk.

Gaunt said: “Alarmingly, the Hackitt Review cites statistics indicating that for buildings of any height, excluding prisons and agriculture where incidents are significantly higher, hospitals and education buildings present some of the highest fire risks.

“Considering the existing levels of risk, coupled with the complexity of the buildings in question and the potential vulnerability of occupants; I believe the Government should look to close the scope gap as soon as possible and bring in specific measures to build in additional protection for occupants of these building types.

“Ultimately, there is no one-size –fits-all approach when it comes to building safety.

“There will also be a likely strengthening of the oversight and regulation of construction products.

“While no one wishes to see unnecessary constraints, additional costs, or bureaucracy; the Hackitt Review made it clear that a significant change in UK construction culture needs to take place.

“We must evolve our ‘fit and forget’ culture, and revisit building safety measurements more regularly.

“And, while cost is a factor; safety cannot be sacrificed to meet budgets.

“Sadly, all too often we see specification reduction and a bypassing of innovative technologies, without full consideration of the consequences.”

So, how do we avoid the cost cutting?

A change of culture

Gaunt said: “The Government needs to put in place a viable enforcement regime from a product perspective.

“From evidence already provided in the case of Grenfell, it would appear that ultimately the disaster was as a result of multiple product failings, poor installation practice/process, and culture. Ultimately, this led to a large-scale tragedy which we want to avoid again at all costs.”

While no one wishes to see unnecessary constraints, additional costs, or bureaucracy; the Hackitt Review made it clear that a significant change in UK construction culture needs to take place

Another key focus area for estates and facilities managers within the health sector must be fire door and associated hardware.

Karen Trigg of Allegion UK told BBH: “Door hardware is more than just a cosmetic consideration. In fact, it plays a role in the operational integrity of a building and, more crucially, is a key element of a facility’s fire safety and security.

“Install equipment that’s inefficient and suddenly you could put a whole building’s network of fire safety measures at risk.”

And the expanding role of door hardware is giving specifiers extra food for thought when choosing products.

“From ease of integration, to the flow of movement – various factors can dictate a decision, potentially overwhelming some, said Trigg.

“Yet, decision-makers must remember that they have a responsibility to ensure both a door, and its hardware, operate effectively – even after installation.”

Fire doors are designed to protect occupants from the spread of fire, smoke and toxic fumes.

Because of this, hardware – including handles, closers and hinges – must meet certain standards and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements.

However, phase one of the Grenfell Inquiry has once again reminded estates teams that not all buildings are meeting these requirements.

In fact, detailed reports have raised questions over the integrity of the fire doors, focusing on the failure of compartmentalisation and broken self-closing mechanisms.

Sadly, all too often we see specification reduction and a bypassing of innovative technologies, without full consideration of the consequences

“With incorrect hardware selection, or failed maintenance to blame, this case, like many others, should become the catalyst for change – before the safety of others is jeopardised,” warns Trigg.

“Today, hardware is designed to adapt and tackle almost all fire safety, security and operational challenges that a building can throw its way.

“From access and emergency egress elements, to the more-unique and defined details such as flow of movement; its importance simply can’t be understated.

“But too often, as with other purchasing decisions, cost can sometimes triumph over quality.

With this in mind, industry experts are calling for a change in fire safety culture.

“Although there are various elements and touchpoints to consider, one area that must change quickly is how we choose our door hardware,” said Trigg.

“It never has been acceptable to install substandard equipment and we must build on industry education and move away from reactive decisions because fire safety requires extra consideration – even after a decision on hardware has been made.

Allegion is urging estates managers to ensure fire doors are properly installed and maintained, paying particularly close attention to the specification of door hardware

Routine checks

Even with the correct door hardware in place, operational life can be significantly reduced if basic maintenance is neglected.

Trigg says: “From door furniture to panic and emergency exit hardware, building owners must ensure all doors are well kept and operational to meet health and safety requirements.

“Most entrances endure repeated use, especially in buildings with a high footfall, like hospitals, which means durability can sometimes become an issue.

“However, both occupants and qualified teams can undertake a number of hardware checks as part of regular maintenance periods.

“Visual inspections can determine whether a door and its hardware has attained any damage as both the physical door and its surrounding frame and hardware can become damaged over time.”

Functional checks are also key to maintaining a door’s fire safety and operational elements.

These checks will reveal whether hardware is still operating effectively, without requiring any undue force.

“Seals or weatherstripping can sometimes become loose and inhibit the correct operation of a fire door and may need to be replaced,” said Trigg.

“Similarly, some fixings may need to be tightened to ensure that the door can swing freely.

With the development of new fire safety reforms, we now should be guiding those responsible for our hospitals to better standards within their buildings

“By completing these checks, not only will facilities managers expand the lifespan of their hardware, but they’ll also protect the lives of occupants.

“Simply put, the choice of hardware will always be integral in the success of a facility’s fire safety.

“And, with various high-profile failings being publicised, it’s clear that a change in approach to fire safety is long overdue.

“With the development of new fire safety reforms, we now should be guiding those responsible for our hospitals to better standards within their buildings. After all, it only takes the failure of one designated fire door to spell disaster.”

Companies