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Burning issues

Navigating the minefield of fire safety can be a nightmare.Here we clarify the responsibilities of the consultative bodies

For consultation about fire safety on any given construction project to begin, the architect needs to notify the local authority that work is about to start.There are two ways that this can be done: either by the issue of a Building Notice or by a Full Plans Application.

The Building Notice is a simplified approach that is typically suited to either small building jobs or works of a minor nature. This procedure cannot be used if the building is of a commercial or industrial type requiring a fire certificate on completion (see below).

The Full Plans option involves the formal approval for the proposed works by the local authority or improved inspector and carries a right of appeal should that approval not be forthcoming. On completion of the project, the local authority will, if requested, issue a completion certificate confirming that the building has been built in conformity with the relevant parts of the Building Regulations.

There are two principal statutory bodies responsible for approving work associated with a construction project.

When the work being undertaken constitutes 'building work' - defined in the Building Act 1984 as the erection, extension or material alteration of a building, the provision of a controlled fitting or service, or a material change of use - the building control department of the local authority, or an improved inspector, has primacy.

In London, the district surveyor's department of the local borough is involved. Once a building is occupied, however, the responsibility for fire safety in the building moves to the local fire authority and is administered on its behalf by the local fire service.

From this brief description it is easy to appreciate how responsibilities can overlap, leading to confusion on the part of those involved, including the fire officer and the building control officer.

Fire certification signifies that the fire authority, through the offices of the local fire service, has assessed a building to ensure compliance with a predetermined and prescriptive set of technical standards. The fire certificate can be considered as a basic fire-safety 'healthcheck' for the building and confirms that the building meets certain minimum legal standards relating to fire safety.

The Fire Precautions Act 1971 (as amended by the Fire Safety and Safety in Places of Sport Act 1989), is the principal piece of fire safety legislation in the UK and designates certain classes of premises as requiring a fire certificate.

These are generally deemed to be those that present a high risk to the safety of people in the event of a fire, either in buildings which contain sleeping accommodation for staff or guests, or those that are used for the purposes of a shop, office or factory.

Overlapping authority During the building consultation process, the standard procedure is for the building control officer, or approved inspector (BCO), to be the main point of contact during the design and construction phases of a building project. All matters related to compliance with the requirements of the Building Regulations should, at this stage, be addressed by the BCO.

In matters relating to fire safety, the BCO is legally obliged to consult with the fire authority if a building is likely to be put to a use that is designated under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and for which a fire certificate may be required.

Certain types of buildings may fall within the scope of other legislation and will also require consultation between the BCO and the fire authority. This includes premises used as animal establishments, children's homes, homes for elderly and disabled persons, licensed premises, schools and places of sport.Any comments that arise during the consultation process will be channelled to the architect via the BCO.

Once the construction phase has been completed, the lead consultative role passes to the fire authority for all matters related to the ongoing enforcement of fire safety legislation for the building when in use.

During the fire service's survey of a building, it may impose requirements for improvements and could withhold the issue of a fire certificate if the works have not been completed to the necessary standard in the time specified.Without a fire certificate, it would be an offence to use the building. It may also at this stage make recommendations concerning fire safety in the completed building.Although these 'recommendations' are not mandatory, they are usually based on good practice or fire service policy and should be considered.

The fire authority also has responsibility for the safety of occupants and firefighters in the event of a fire and all actions taken in relation to fighting a fire in the building.

In the event of the BCO wishing to relax or dispense with any requirement of the Building Regulations associated with structural fire precautions, the provision of the means of escape from the building, or any measure intended to ensure that the means of escape can be used when required, he or she must, once again, enter into consultation with the fire officer.

Time to comment Although this process may lead to delays in the construction process, it does allow the fire authority the opportunity to comment on the fire safety measures covered by the Building Regulations. It also enables it to secure agreement on matters that, although not directly required by the Building Regulations, may be required under other legislation, but which may prove costly to add at a later stage in the construction process.

The Health and Safety Executive also become involved during the construction stage and it will issue the site with a fire certificate for the duration of the construction phase.

Notwithstanding any additional approval of plans pre-commencement during the building process, the BCO will visit the site to inspect various aspects of the work. These inspections will be programmed to ensure that any fire safety measures that will be concealed by the structure can be surveyed without opening up, for example, fire-stopping or cavity barriers within hidden voids.

Completion certification Once the building has been completed, and provided that the requirements of the BCO and the fire officer have been complied with, a completion certificate will be issued for the building if requested. This certifies that the building work complies with the relevant requirements of the Building Regulations and prevents the fire authority from imposing any additional requirements pending the issue of a fire certificate - should one be required.

This statutory bar is imposed by the provisions of Section 13 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. This prevents the fire authority from abusing its power by making the issue of a fire certificate dependent on alterations or additions to the measures that were required by the Building Regulations, which were dealt with during the consultation process.

It must be noted, however, that no similar statutory bar exists in the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations (amended) 1999. These require, inter alia , the occupier of every workplace to carry out a fire-risk assessment for the premises and to make any changes necessary in order to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

Risk assessment The potential exists for a building to comply with the requirements of the Building Regulations, be issued with a completion certificate, but on completion of a fire-risk assessment to require additional works to be carried out.

This has led to situations where the chief fire officer of a local authority fire service has required the provision of an automatic sprinkler system to a building that has otherwise complied with the relevant requirements of the Building Regulations, over which the building control officer and the fire officer had been fully consulted.

It is clear that this was not the intent of the regulations and it may be viewed that the fire authority are abusing their authority.However, until there is adequate case law on this subject, each case must be dealt with on its own merits.

The intent behind the regulations was to develop a regime of risk- appropriate compliance, whereby the provision of fire safety systems in a building is determined by an objective assessment of the fire hazards and consequent risk therein, rather than by the application of prescriptive and possibly outdated standards. Originally implemented in 1977, the regulations were amended in December 1999 to include all premises that are used as a workplace, including those that may be in the open air.

Appeals The appeals process is one particular area of the consultation process that continues to cause confusion. There are two formal routes by which an appeal to a higher authority can be brought and the correct choice depends on the grounds on which the appeal is being made.

The first route is by way of a relaxation of a particular requirement or requirements of the Building Regulations. By granting a relaxation, the secretary of state for the department of the environment, transport and the regions agrees that the regulation in question need not be complied with on this occasion.

This type of appeal will rarely be granted in relation to any of the requirements of Part B of the Building Regulations, that is any requirement related to fire safety in buildings. The secretary of state has gone on record as saying that any requirement that has a direct bearing on the safety of lives in buildings is too important to be relaxed.

The other route by which the secretary of state may be asked to intervene when a suitable compromise cannot be reached, is by way of a request for a determination. This is the appropriate route of appeal when the architect and the building control officer fail to agree whether a proposal complies with a requirement of the Building Regulations or not. For example, Requirement B1 requires that every 'building shall be designed and constructed so that there are appropriate provisions for the early warning of fire, and appropriate means of escape in case of fire from the building to a place of safety'.

The exact design of the means of escape is left to the architect. If the building control department do not agree with the architect as to the appropriateness of the design, the secretary of state may be asked to make a determination. All appeals, whether relaxation or determination, can only be instituted by the BCO.

After occupation Once a building is occupied, the responsibility for enforcing the requirements of the various pieces of fire safety legislation resides firmly with the fire authority.

If a fire certificate is issued, the fire authority must be notified before any material alterations are made which may affect the means of escape from the building. If the amendments involve 'building work', an application must be made to the local authority and the procedure will follow the normal building consultation process.

When 'building work' is to be carried out in an occupied building, the principal authority will be the fire authority and not the building control, as it is necessary to ensure that the proposed work will not compromise the fire safety arrangements for the occupants. In this case, it will be the responsibility of the fire authority to notify and consult with the BCO.

It is important to recognise that the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1999 apply in tandem to the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and do not replace them.

Therefore, a single building may - depending on its use and the number of people employed to work there - have been issued with a fire certificate from the local fire authority, but will still require a fire-risk assessment to be carried out.

Although the fire certificate will contain details on the extent of the fire safety measures provided in the building in order for it to comply with the requirements of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, the outcome of the fire-risk assessment may require additional measures to be implemented.

This duality can lead to the anomalous situation that was outlined earlier and it is known that the government is investigating how this situation can be resolved.

It is likely that the fire certification process will be retained only for certain 'high-risk' premises, such as hotels and factories, with all other buildings which contain a place of work being subjected to the selfcompliance aspects of the workplace regulations. This should be seen as a positive move towards greater flexibility in the design and construction of buildings.

The status of the various technical guidance documents that deal with fire safety in buildings is often not fully appreciated. The Approved Documents, issued in support of the Building Regulations, British Standard Institution Codes of Practice, and the numerous 'Guides' published by the Home Office, have one thing in common - they are all considered to be 'A p p r o v e d C o d e s ofPractice'and, as such, are entirely nonmandatory. They all contain suggested solutions to common design situations.

Generally, if you comply with the recommendations, it will tend to show that you have complied with the requirements of the relevant legislation.

Approved Document B is the Approved Code of Practice for meeting the fire-safety requirements of the Building Regulations and contains a number of fairly detailed recommendations to enable the architect to comply with the regulations. However these are only recommendations and it is possible to develop alternative approaches that comply with the requirements but will also meet the aesthetic aspirations of the architect. This is one of the roles that can be filled by the fire engineer.

Fire engineering is an integrated approach to the achievement of fire safety in buildings, both for the safeguarding of life and for the protection of property, as compared with the Building Regulations which are concerned solely with the safety of persons in and about the building.

An integral part of a fireengineered solution is the identification of hazards and assessment of fire risk in a proposed or existing building. Once this has been completed, the engineer can work on developing a fire strategy, tailored to meet the specific characteristics of the building using a combination of passive and active fire safety systems.

An engineering approach to fire safety can increase the effectiveness of a building by treating the building material and contents holistically, rather than as individual components in an isolated system.

Steve Cooper is principal fire engineer at Lawrence Webster Forrest Fire Engineering Consultants. Contact s.cooper@lwf.co.uk tel 020 8655 1605

FIRE SAFETY AND RISK ASSESSMENT

One would think that, given the numbers of fires that occur each year, a reasonable database of statistics ought to be available.

The Home Office gathers data from every fire attended by the local authority fire services, but this is not always accurate enough to be used in determining mathematical probabilities.

The London Fire Brigade has addressed this issue and has, over the past five years, developed a substantial 'Real Fire Database'.

This contains specific data concerning the actual cause of the fire, determined by an analysis of the fire scene by an experienced fire investigator. There is also data on the composition of the materials responsible for the spread of the fire and the methods and materials used for the construction of the building.

This can now be used to determine the mathematical frequency, and from there the probability, of a fire occurring in any particular type of building.

Once the likelihood of a fire has been determined, it is possible to calculate with some degree of accuracy, the extent of fire spread and, by consideration of the building materials used, the extent of damage to the structure itself.

From this it is possible to evaluate the effect that the fire will have on the people in the building and to formulate a fire safety strategy that will either keep the hazardous products of the fire away from the occupants, or will enable the fire alarm to be raised so that people can escape in time.

The power available on desk-top computers allows realistic fire scenarios to be reproduced and run in real-time using software based on computational fluid dynamics.

These models, although complex to programme, allow scenarios to be changed to reflect changes in the design of the building and can show graphically the effect that these may have on the movement of heat, flame and smoke in the building.

Some models allow the population of the building to be modelled as a collection of independent 'characters' and their movement through the building monitored as they respond to the changing fire environment.

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