When fire doesn’t mean running for the exit

New concerns over the safety of London’s tower blocks have emerged following a fire in Camberwell which claimed the lives of six people.

If you’ve been watching the media you’ll know about the fire in the block of flats in Camberwell – and I’ve talked about that in an earlier blog. However, the issue hasn’t gone away and now the news is featuring people in other blocks of flats who are worried about their safety.

The problem is that most people think that the only response to a fire is to get everyone out of the building. That’s not necessarily true.

Yes, you need to have a plan, but a blanket fire evacuation policy isn’t the answer. A good fire risk assessment will examine the building and the fire prevention and warning systems. There may be many things that need to be addressed – but most landlords can’t simply do everything at once – part of the fire risk assessment will include risk ranking to enable remedial measures to be prioritised.

In a building like the one in Camberwell a full scale immediate evacuation is not necessary, or even desired. The apartments are designed flat by flat and, if a fire starts in a flat, the residents of that apartment only need to be evacuated. If the fire spreads to the corridor then the people on that floor need to be evacuated. It’s only when a fire starts to jump from floor to floor that other floors will need to be brought out of the building.

The problem is that people don’t know that. That’s where the issue lies – it’s about communicating information to tenants.

Information to tenants is low hanging fruit – it’s easy to do; all is needed is a letter explaining what the procedure is. In fact, this kind of common sense should be part of the tenancy agreements. It appears clear that the people in the block of flats in Camberwell just didn’t know what to do.

A fire alarm that is based on outcomes and alerts those people in the area where the fire is, or is heading for, rather than the whole building is less likely to be ignored.

The key to all this is a really good fire risk assessment – that goes further than the tick box approach that was shown on news. The competence of the person conducting any fire risk assessment is critical; they may have some knowledge, they may have had some training, but do they really UNDERSTAND the implications of their recommendations?