MANAGING A site or location can provide many challenges, not least in ensuring safety and security when it comes to fire. Peter Lackey explores which solutions managers need to implement
Facility managers across a multitude of sectors face unique challenges when it comes to maintaining fire safety and security across their estate. Those in support services in particular need to cover a variety of workplace environments, so planning the integration of fire safety and security solutions can be wide ranging and difficult, even though it still needs to top their list of priorities.
Beyond the construction phase where considerations need to be made to support temporary structures, once built, facility managers need to bring in an array of safety and security solutions to ensure the safety of on site workers.
The minimisation of false and unwanted alarms is also a key consideration when it comes to fire safety. Companies have a responsibility to protect not only their own employees, but also the lives and interests of surrounding communities, and it’s essential to reduce the long term risk or disruption to either group.
Repeated false alarms could result in a genuine alert being missed, or false alarms causing unneeded fire service call outs. In turn, this presents a risk to corporate reputation, relations with the local community and victims of real fires. Fire and rescue service response to an incident under blue light conditions poses an increased chance of a road traffic accident despite heightened driver awareness. That journey should not be unnecessary due to the cause being a false alarm.
What’s more, should a premises need to be evacuated as a result of a false alarm, this could result in hours of lost productivity or worse – the rise of ‘alarm apathy’ with workers becoming immune to the sound of an alarm and ignoring it when it could in fact be a real fire alert, with potentially life threatening consequences. The causes of false alarms must be investigated and eradicated, whether they are due to environmental factors, human error or faulty equipment.
False alarms are an incredible drain on public resources. According to London Fire Brigade (LFB), around a third of all calls attended to are false alarms. This has led many fire services to review their policies. After all, repeat offences increase the risk that the response to a genuine incident will be delayed. Facilities managers should, but may not always be aware that the local fire brigade might not respond to an alarm activated by an automatic fire detector due to its policy of not answering false alarms – again, increasing risk when it comes to a real fire occurring.
In addition to this, since January 2014, LFB charges companies if it has to attend more than ten false alarms in a 12 month period. This is to ensure firefighters are available to attend in a real emergency rather than being held up at the scene of a false alarm. False and unwanted fire alarms cost a huge amount to fire and rescue services, but the true cost may be that someone loses their life.
Recently, it was reported that the UK’s National Health Service was fined a total of £177,000 because of multiple false alarms. Alerts automatically triggering calls to the emergency services resulted in LFB being called out on numerous occasions, mostly due to badly maintained systems as well as things like burnt toast, steam and dust. Public sector organisations simply cannot afford to be putting themselves in a position where they are faced with unnecessary fines that burden resources or mean additional budget cuts.
Fines such as these should be a warning to organisations to ensure proper and effective fire alarm and security systems are in place, and are not being triggered unnecessarily. As much as 40% of false alarms can be resolved by improvements to the siting, design and choice of automatic detectors in key areas of concern on poorly performing systems.
With many fire brigades now charging for repeated unnecessary call outs, there is a real danger that some companies see the cancellation of their automatic signalling link to an alarm receiving centre, or even turning off the fire alarm system at certain times of the day, as being the answer. This is not only irresponsible and potentially illegal under the requirements of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order [FSO], but also carries additional complications related to insurance.
Businesses should upgrade older or badly designed systems and then ensure that a reputable third party accredited service supplier provides a competent level of maintenance going forward. In addition to this, facilities managers need to ensure either that fire wardens are well trained in correct reporting procedure, or that fire detection equipment is capable of discerning between, say, dust and smoke.
Automatic alarms are often hard to verify, so being able to pinpoint the exact location of a fire, or suspected fire, will enable a quicker fire response and accountability of employees. This can be done by using smart technology that monitors premises with a range of different technologies, from CCTV cameras to automatic sensor detection, to create a full image to confirm a fire as well as the scale, exact location and spread of it.
For businesses looking to improve safety and reduce false and unwanted alarms, it is advisable to implement a well thought out fire safety strategy that takes into account the necessary risk assessments across each of these possible triggers and situations. This is crucial in order to identify and, wherever possible, eliminate the potential scenarios in which false and unwanted alarms could occur, whilst still being able to provide reliable, early detection of all fire types.
If an existing system has been prone to false alarms, it is worth looking at upgrading to an intelligent fire alarm system. Installing software which utilises interactively adjusted algorithms incorporating fuzzy logic, these modern systems can establish if the detected properties of carbon monoxide, heat, smoke or particles correspond to those held in memory for real fire events. By using this type of detection technology, someone using an e-cigarette, for example, will not trigger an alarm.
Once a fire detection and alarm system is in place, although it might sound basic, facilities or operations teams must ensure that absolutely all staff tasked with using the fire controls are trained to do so – a wrongly chosen fire extinguisher or ill advised escape route could mean the difference between life and death.
Integrating a complete security system that can then be monitored and controlled from a centralised location is a huge step towards making the role of facilities managers easier. Having a single smart panel that visualises where an alarm has been instigated, and whether all the signs of a real fire – heat, smoke and gas – have been detected, will enable facilities managers to trigger a fire evacuation plan quickly, avoiding potentially dangerous areas.
In addition, having access controls in place will enable managers to accurately account for staff working on the premises that day, and ensure accountability. Accuracy and speed are crucial to response when a fire alarm sounds. The site policy must be robust when managing the activities of visitors and accounting for them. In addition to this, the policy must cover contractors carrying out works which pose an additional fire hazard and other building works that might create dust, which can be problematic to older, less intelligent systems, causing the alarm to sound unnecessarily.
With an appropriate fire detection and alarm system installed, there must be a programme of planned, preventative maintenance in place. In England and Wales this is a legal requirement under Article 17 of the FSO, and its equivalent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The advisory engineering best practices related to how maintenance should be carried out can be found in British Standard, BS 5839-1: 2013.
Facilities managers should ensure that their fire detection and alarm system is maintained by a competent servicing organisation. As facilities managers will be aware, completing a fire risk assessment which is ‘suitable and sufficient’ is a legal requirement under current UK fire legislation, and should result in a satisfactory fire safety strategy, part of which will include an automatic fire detection and alarm system.
British Standard BS 5839 Part 1 is a code of practice which details how to design, install, commission and maintain systems correctly from an engineering perspective. It should be remembered that BS 5839-1 is an engineering level of best practice, and whilst the content can be used to audit an installed system, it is not a fire safety or specification document.
Depending on the risk, size and complexity of the system, buildings should ideally be visited for a maintenance check four times per year. Twice per annum would be considered the absolute minimum, and at each visit the false alarm record should be checked. This will allow the servicing engineer to work with the facilities team to identify and eradicate any persistent causes of false alarms.
The number of maintenance visits required is determined by the fire risk assessment, and should take into account the level of risk (to life, property and personnel), complexity and size of the system. Such maintenance visits will allow the servicing engineer to work with the team to identify any persistent causes of false alarms.
Embracing the future
Reducing false and unwanted alarms has to be high on the agenda, as not only will this help to ensure the highest levels of safety, but it will also help to reduce the amount of resources teams have to dedicate in order to manage the time consuming and potentially costly repercussions.
Ultimately, technology is the key to a resilient and compliant fire detection and suppression system. With innovative connected devices and detectors, facilities managers can automate many of the most crucial parts of the fire alarm system, increasing accuracy and helping save lives when a real fire occurs. Speed and accuracy are of the essence in high risk scenarios, and technology should be used as a tool to ensure the safety of personnel and supporting fire brigade services to act quickly.
Even with the latest technology correctly designed to manage changing risk levels and well maintained alarms with good housekeeping practices, there is still no guarantee that a fire won’t occur. As a result, every company should put a fire business continuity process at the heart of their business management planning, covering everything from calling the fire service, down to releasing an informed statement to give customers the confidence that it has the capability to continue trading the morning after the event.
Peter Lackey is fire marketing manager for UK and Ireland at Tyco. For more information, view page 5