As more of our buildings start to open up to more people, are the protective measures we put in place against Covid-19 going to impact our fire protective measures? Neil Budd, technical manager at the Fire Industry Association, takes a look
Many routine maintenance visits may have been postponed or cancelled due to the lockdown and, despite the Fire Industry Association helping fire professionals in being classified as key workers, many businesses remained closed and inaccessible during the lockdown.
As buildings and businesses begin to open up, the life safety systems installed in them will be in need of some attention in the form of routine inspections by a competent person.
A periodic inspection on a fire alarm system, for instance, isn’t just a process of checking a few call points and detectors. In fact, there is a great deal of emphasis on checking the building in which the system is installed. BS 5839-1:2017 45.3 b) is all about the visual inspection of the building and the fire detection and alarm system, to check whether structural or occupancy changes have affected the installed system’s compliance with the recommendations of the British Standard.
This includes, but is not limited to, checking that call points and detectors are unobstructed, a check that partitions have not been installed within 500mm of any detector and if any alterations cause additional system components to be needed.
For example, if Covid protective screens are hung and encroach within 300mm of the ceiling, these would be treated as walls which could obstruct the flow of smoke and heat. These barriers could also have an impact on the ability of a sprinkler system to activate correctly if the passage of heat from a fire is blocked.
Time to review the fire risk assessment
The fire risk assessment for the building should be reviewed if there has been a change in the building. Through putting up protective barriers, although dependant on the size and extent of those screens and partitions, it could mean greater travel distances to an exit, call points and firefighting equipment, and even barriers to smoke and heat.
Businesses are not only installing Covid-19 protective screens and barriers, they are also changing routes into, out from and within buildings. This again should trigger a review of the fire risk assessment and in particular, a check to see if these potential new escape routes will have an effect on the coverage of a fire detection and fire alarm system.
Does the building still meet the category of system, for example? Under BS 5839-1, a category L4 system recommends detection on escape routes. But what if new routes have been created within the building? It tends to be human nature to want to leave a building by the same route by which a person entered but with new one-way systems and diverse routes within the premises, are the exit routes that should be used sufficiently protected?
This situation does not give carte blanche to the incumbent maintenance company to proceed with the installation of additional system components, it should involve a discussion, in the first instance, with the customer and the correct relevant advice issued – based on the recommendations given in the relevant British Standards and guidance documents.
We don’t know how long the Covid-19 protective measures will be in place, but we do know that a fire can occur at any time. Whether the systems and equipment are intended for the protection of life or property, we don’t want other protective measures to hinder the operation of these critical systems or make escape from a building in an emergency situation a risk in itself.
This article was written by Neil Budd, technical manager at Fire Industry Association. Neil joined the Technical Team in January 2019 after 20 years in the fire industry. Neil progressed from Service through to Commissioning and gained invaluable field knowledge and experience on many large-scale projects across the country. Prior to joining the FIA, Neil ran his own fire commissioning and technical support business for four years.
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