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Why architects must pay more attention to fire alarm bells

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When the staff nurse at the Rosepark Care Home in Uddingston heard the fire alarm she checked 'the obvious places' and silenced the alarm. Tragically, the 'obvious places' did not include the small first-floor cupboard where the fire is thought to have started.

Her immediate assessment was that the likelihood of a false alarm was greater than the likelihood that fire was blazing in some as yet undiscovered place.

Statistically, she was right. In this instance, the alarm system may have been working efficiently. But the number of alarms which turn out to be well-founded is estimated to be as low as one in 10, making the Uddingston blaze the tragic technological equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

Such situations can only be averted by a total change in the general perception of technology which, in turn, calls for a universal upgrade to more sophisticated detection and alarm systems in order to make false alarms the exception rather than the norm.

Sophisticated products such as video smoke detection (pp 4648), offer a glimmer of hope but are of little help to organisations such as Scottish Care, which considers even the provision of basic sprinklers to be beyond its means. For the foreseeable future, detection and response will continue to be patchy, reinforcing the importance of prevention and containment - issues which architects too often overlook.

But if architects are proving slow to face up to their responsibilities, the insurance sector, motivated by the financial implications of damage to property, has found itself in the unlikely role of architecture's moral conscience. Its list of essential principles to be considered during design is set out in full on pages 14-15. The enquiry into the Uddingston tragedy will be asking whether a failure to comply with Rule 3 contributed to the deaths of 14 elderly people. Paskin Kyriakides Sands would have avoided the threat of a multimillion-pound bill for fire damage had it been deemed to have complied with Rule 1.

Morally and financially, ignoring the threat of fire is a risk we cannot afford to take.

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