Todd, C. (2023) Remembering Rosepark, Fire Safety Matters.
Just when you were preparing to stuff the Christmas turkey, on 23 December 2022, out came a consultation from the Department that keeps changing its name, currently known as the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC), with three proposed changes to Approved Document B (ADB).
A cynic might suggest that there was a hope that people would be too busy with Christmas festivities to even notice, or perhaps care, given that the fire sector is beginning to feel “consultationed out” and somewhat uncertain as to the weight that will be given to views on matters that have more or less been decided upon. I know that some people wonder why we should give up time simply to keep a Government department’s paperwork in order, at a time when workloads of fire safety practitioners have never been higher.
Happily, I am not a cynic, and I am sure that it is just that some poor, overworked civil servant wanted to clear their desk before a well-deserved break. Moreover, the consultation period is 12 weeks, so, hopefully, allowing people enough time to notice.
The consultation proposes three areas of major change in respect of the recommendations of ADB in respect of building work, namely:
- provision of two stairways in blocks of flats above a certain height;
- removal of national classifications in favour of European classifications (for passive fire protection products); and
- sprinkler protection of care homes.
Provision of two stairways in blocks of flats
This is one of these areas in which there cannot be a right or wrong answer in the sense of a basis in science or engineering. It is also an area that, next to the difficult subject of evacuation of disabled people from blocks of flats, is probably the most contentious of current issues in fire safety; perhaps this is because of the very reason that whether the trigger height should be 11m, 18m, 30m or 50m can only really be subjective.
The consultation asks, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, for suggestions as to the appropriate trigger height (assuming that there is disagreement with the Department’s proposal of 30m), with evidence to support any other proposed threshold; it is difficult to see what evidence would be offered, but then it is also difficult to see what the evidence base is for a trigger height of 30m, other than that it is “an accepted threshold for increased fire resistance provisions”, which is, without justification, said to be that this height “marks a recognised trigger representing an increase in the level of risks in buildings overall”. In fact, in the opinion of the author, there is no recognised increase in the level of risks.
Indeed, the consultation, itself, acknowledges this, so contradicting itself with the statement that “There is no evidence to suggest that existing buildings with a single stair above the proposed threshold pose a life safety risk.”
The design configuration of the second stairway in relation to the first depends on why it is considered that the second stairway is required in the first place. There is a further tongue in cheek question as to whether additional measures should be provided to ensure sufficient separation between the staircases. If the intent of the second staircase is redundancy, so that one staircase is available if the other becomes untenable through entry of smoke, surely it is axiomatic that there needs to be measures to prevent common mode failure, of which “separation” would be a major component.
On the other hand, if the concept is that one staircase will be used by firefighters, while the other will be used by residents, it will be interesting to see how this is managed. It would be possible to use hardware to prevent the use of the second staircase by residents, but then they are back to a single staircase condition!
As in the case of various other measures, such as signage to assist the fire and rescue service (inappropriately described in England as “wayfinding signage”), evacuation alert systems and a reduced trigger height for sprinkler protection of flats, the proposal is following the lead in Scotland.
However, in Scotland, the Minister openly admitted that the second staircase was being adopted not for any technical rationale, but simply as a “political decision”, leaving the Building Standards Division of Scottish Government to find some flimsy arguments for it and provide rather vague information on how smoke control is to be configured. The argument given is, indeed, flimsy, namely that:
“Fire and rescue service equipment has a reach capability of 30m but may not have access to other elevations of the building. Therefore, in order to improve redundancy and escape route options in tall buildings, at least two escape stairs should be provided to every domestic building with a storey height more than 18m above ground level.”
This is an interesting statement because it begs the question as to why, for example, the second staircase is not required for a block of 17m in height, given that it is later acknowledged in the same Technical Handbook that the 18m storey height is historically linked with the reach capability of fire and rescue service equipment, “such as wheeled escape ladders (now obsolete)”. Obsolete would be the right word; I do not think that the cities of Scotland had wheeled escapes after the early 1980s at the latest!
However, credit to Scottish Government that their Minister acknowledged that the basis for the second staircase was a political decision, which, after all, we vote for politicians to make. There is also no waffle within the Technical Handbook about firefighters going up one staircase and residents going down another.
Ultimately, the decision in England will also be little more than a political decision, depending on who shouts loudest in the earshot of Ministers, perhaps making the response of any individual to this consultation a possible waste of time.
Removal of national classifications
This, again, must surely be something of a done deal. At first sight, this is just a tidying up of an anomalous situation, with two different performance regimes that do not translate to one another, other than in the “deemed to satisfy” sense.
However, before dismissing the proposed change as trivial, spare a thought for the poor, beleaguered, fire-resisting doorset industry, from whom there is often an expectation of a counsel of perfection.
Through a quirk of temperature measurement in the furnace, doorsets that might have achieved just over 30 minutes in the UK fire-resistance test, might now fall just short of 30 minutes in the European test; of course, doorsets can be re-tested and even re‑designed, but to what end? Certainly, it has not a jot to do with fire safety. Even that is before we come to lack of flexibility that will arise if the assessments permitted in the UK are no longer acceptable.
This is tucked away in the consultation questions, with a question asking for outline of concerns about withdrawal of the national classification with regard to fire resistance, including potential impacts, such as on the fire door industry. The industry is big enough and bold enough to speak for itself, but I hope that, in the consultation process, it has a few friends who are willing to speak up on its behalf.
Sprinkler protection of care homes
This must surely be, by far, the most important, yet least contentious, aspect of this entire consultation, and it is very long overdue.
I hope that in responding to this consultation, everyone takes a moment to remember the tragic fire at Rosepark Care Home in Lanarkshire in 2004. The 14 deaths of elderly and infirm people that occurred was the largest loss of life in a single fire between the Kings Cross disaster in 1987 and that at Grenfell Tower in 2017.
My personal memory of the fire is coloured by a number of factors. Literally 11 hours before the fire I pontificated to a colleague at close of work on a Friday that multiple fatality fires never occurred nowadays in care homes, even though all the ingredients are there; the fire occurred in the early hours of the Saturday morning.
Subsequently, I was appointed as one of the expert witnesses for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in the prosecution of the owners of the Home (which failed for legal reasons) and then the Fatal Accident Inquiry, the longest running Fatal Accident Inquiry in Scottish history. An impressive line up of experts and lawyers worked well together to assist the equally impressive Sheriff Principal to come to a sound determination that had significant consequences for fire safety in care homes.
However, long before the FAI, in the immediate wake of the tragedy, the Justice Minister promised Holyrood that Scottish Government would take action in a sincere endeavour to prevent such a tragedy occurring again. The devolved Government was as good as its word and, before the year was out, the work was done to require sprinkler protection of all new care homes in Scotland, not just by means of statutory guidance, but as a functional requirement (known in Scotland as a mandatory building standard) under the Building (Scotland) Regulations. The FAI subsequently noted this change to the regulations, and the Sheriff observed that work by BRE demonstrated “the striking value of a sprinkler system in relation to fire safety”.
In fact, Scottish Government went further in the 2004 amendments to the Building (Scotland) Regulations by requiring sprinkler protection of new sheltered housing. This is advocated in NFCC Guidance on specialised housing (which my consulting practice drafted), but is not proposed in changes to ADB in England.
So after 18 years, there is a proposal that England should catch up with Scotland, at least in sprinkler protection of new care homes. The risk to life in care homes, particularly during the night, remains stark, and there can surely be no objection to the proposal for this amendment to ADB. It might be seen as a first step in the ultimate retrofitting of sprinkler systems in the many existing care homes for which this would be justified, regardless of any lack of legislative requirement.
In responding to the consultation, consultees are asked whether existing relaxations (i.e. dispensing with self-closing bedroom doors and unlimited sub-compartment sizes) for sprinklered care homes should be retained. Again, in my opinion, England should follow the lead in Scotland and dispense with such relaxations. Sprinklers in care homes are not a “nice to have” optional extra that enable relaxation of other measures. They are an integral, critical and essential measure, at least for all new care homes.
In responding to the consultation, I hope everyone will remember the 14 souls who lost their lives at Rosepark.