Fire Safety - What You Need To Know
Social housing providers have a lot to answer for – poor practice, inadequate systems and undertrained staff leave families living in damp, mouldy properties, whole estates going without necessary gas safety checks and sadly, disasters like Grenfell. Unfortunately, given that most of these organisations do the minimum they need to comply with the rules, each time one of these events happen, new rules are created and each time, the private rented sector gets painted (tainted?) with the same brush.
Fire safety is no exception and the attempt to 'systemise' solutions has led to some daft interpretations of some well-intentioned rules – so here we run through some of them and hopefully, help explain what you should and should not do.
What Is Fire Safety About?
This is the simple bit – as a landlord you have 3 objectives:
- To reduce the risk of a fire starting
- If a fire does start, to alert everyone in the property that there is a fire
- To ensure that people can either escape from the property or stay where they are safely, should there be a fire.
Reducing the risk of a fire starting is more a tenant issue than a landlord one, as long as all supplied appliances are fit for purpose, regularly serviced and the like – but should a fire start, we are talking about detectors and alarms (usually the same thing) and escape routes and the separation of those escape routes from the source of fire.
Where To Start – A Fire Risk Assessment
Most landlords understand their responsibilities and do what is needed to minimise fire and to ensure appropriate escape routes without formally documenting it – however, if you have an HMO it is a requirement of most local authorities that you have a formally produced Fire Risk Assessment (FRA), and to be honest, for your own peace of mind, it is worth having one for all of your rental properties (and your own home).
In essence, a FRA will document the likely sources of fire in the property, the probability based on the type of tenants and their lifestyle and will itemise where detectors and alarms need to be placed, how they should interoperate and what measures are required to protect occupants in the case of fire – either separating their escape route from the likely source of fire or protecting them within a part of the building through the use of fire doors, intumescent strips and the like until such time as the emergency services are able to escort them to safety.
Who Can Provide A Fire Risk Assessment
This is where it starts to gets confusing.
The legalities state that any 'competent person' can perform an FRA but there is no clear definition of 'competent'. Personally, I would say that anyone who has taken the time to read the various rules, to consider their property and to document where the risks are and what action should be taken is probably competent – but the issue is always that you do not know what you do not know and, should there be a fire and someone is seriously injured or worse – it would be really nice to be able to argue that it was not your fault and as a landlord, you had taken all the necessary precautions.
With this in mind, my personal recommendation is that you attend a formal training course (such as the one we have organised this month) or take an equivalent online course, you use a very good template like the NRLA FRA document which will guide you on all of the key aspects and then you can argue, in the worst case, that you had fulfilled your necessary duties and were not at fault. Note – this is for a straightforward property – as soon as it becomes complex (vulnerable tenants, 3-storeys, rooms with no outside access except through, say, a kitchen, open staircases, etc) then use a professional.
Many will say 'always use a professional, especially as they have public liability insurance' – this is a valid point of view except, many of the so called professionals just do not understand the rules specific to HMOs, some are unqualified (we know of one local agent who has reported one local provider after it became clear he had no formal qualifications and did not have the skills to maintain an alarm installation (one with a board – Grade A as they are called)) and others are superficial – we have seen two separate single page FRAs – how can you summarise all of the risks and necessary steps to minimise them, even in a small HMO, on a single page.
This is important - when people die in fires, if you have inadequate fire protection blame will be apportioned and it is the landlord in the line of fire (sorry, bad pun). So whether you do it yourself or use a 3rd party - too much is better than too little.
So, our advice – get the training and do your own if your property is simple (no more than 2 storeys, no rooms accessed only through a fire risk area, etc) or use a professional who you know is good. For properties that come under FSO (see new rules below), which will include 3 or more storey properties and most mandatory HMOs, our advice is to use a professional as whilst it may not be mandatory this week for your particular property, it is likely to be in the near future.
Where Do I Need Alarms/Detectors
First let's keep this simple – a 'complex installation' such as a large HMO with a Grade A installation is beyond the scope of this article but whatever you use/need will be determined by the FRA.
For HMOs, any detectors/alarms should be interlinked and mains powered. In the past, we have argued against mains powered on the basis that the main guidance (LACORS) was written in 2008 before the introduction of '10-year life guaranteed lithium battery wireless interconnected' alarms/detectors. Sadly, experience has shown that many of these battery devices do not last 10 years – I bought several dozen and within a couple of years, I was regularly asking the manufacturer for a replacement due to battery failure – initially this was quick and painless, but after a while, I suspect they thought I was running some sort of scam as it got harder and harder to get failed devices replaced.
The other change in this space is that for mains powered detectors/alarms, you used to have to run a cable between the devices to interlink them, which, particularly between upstairs and downstairs (where they were on different circuits and there was no obvious path between the two) was expensive and time consuming. Today's mains powered detectors/alarms can often be sited near a light, so it can take its power from the lighting circuit and they can be wirelessly interlinked – so many of the supposed advantages of the battery alternative no longer exist.
So, what is the FRA likely to say about where to put detectors/alarms?
For a 'normal risk' property (small family home or small HMO) it will advocate a smoke detector on the escape route on each floor (typically the hallway and upstairs landing) and a heat detector in the kitchen with maybe another in the lounge and a CO detector near the boiler or any other gas appliances other than a hob – all these detectors able to sound an alarm should any of them detect smoke/fire/CO and all interlinked.
A 'high risk' property is one with vulnerable tenants, tenants with substance addictions or mental health problems or one where tenants are not living as a group – so a typical bedsit arrangement. In this case, the FRA is likely to specify a detector/alarm in each occupant's room – on the basis that they may be more likely to cause a fire in their room and less likely to be told there is a fire by others should one occur.
This normal versus high-risk distinction makes sense but some local authorities, in their attempts to systemise their processes, have determined that occupants on a joint tenancy are 'normal risk' whereas occupants on individual ASTs are 'high risk'. Do pay attention to this one and challenge any such interpretations if they are inappropriate for your situation. Your FRA will determine what is needed, but if you take individual students into your HMO and then for your own simplicity, ask them to sign a joint AST, you may need to think about your property as being 'high risk' whereas if you let your HMO to a group of friends and let them sign individual ASTs (as the Uni prefers) then you should definitely argue against any attempt to class your property as 'high risk' unless other factors make it so.
Do I Need To Test Detectors/Alarms?
LACORS states that Grade A systems need to be tested weekly and Grade D (those with just detectors and no central control panel) should be tested monthly. This is supported by the later rules in BS5839 but…. LACORS goes on to state that these rules makes sense for a resident landlord or building manager but are inappropriate for a remote or non-resident landlord.
For Grade D systems, 'testing' is simply a question of pressing the test button on one of the detectors and confirming all of the alarms sound as they should. We have a genuine concern that if they are tested all of the time, then people will start to ignore them – so our recommendation is to ensure tenants have details of how to test and a recommendation that they test monthly and you yourself should test periodically (guided by the FRA but for most, as part of a quarterly inspection routine).
We would argue that if you are a sole trader and it is only you who will be testing alarms, there is no value in documenting that you have done so. However, some Licensing schemes stipulate that a written log is required – unnecessary bureaucracy in most cases and should the place burn down, a rogue is just as likely to create a false log after the fact so little credence in our view should it ever end in a court of law – but if the rules stipulate it, it is probably easier to maintain one (there is one available from PCC which includes checking the CO monitor, the fire blanket, etc - so worth using that one to avoid problems).
Grade As should have a proper log book where the panel is. Tenants are always informed when a test is going to take place (normally via email the day before or when you give notice you will be visiting) - but installations requiring Grade A alarms are beyond the scope of this article.
How Do I Maintain Detectors/Alarms?
Apart from regular testing, what else should you do? Obviously, you need to ensure all detectors/alarms are replaced when they reach their 'use by' date – typically 5 years old in many cases. For many, reminders about this will come as part of your gas safety check, but if your gas engineer does not do this you obviously need to ensure that it is not overlooked.
Then we are back to the 'vague rules and various interpretations of them'. In essence, the regulations stipulate that detectors/alarms should be serviced by a competent person (yes, who is competent?) in accordance with the manufacturers guidance (more on that later) or 'every 12 months if it forms part of a sheltered housing scheme – otherwise not applicable'.
Do ensure that all detectors are regularly dusted (or hoovered if the manufacturer guidance allows).
Manufacturers guidance comes in 2 forms: internal batteries, where they exist, will need to be replaced when a low battery warning is issued OR in accordance with manufacturers recommendations, whichever occurs first. That is reasonably clear and simple.
The 2nd part of the manufacturers guidance is often in the form of 'smoke tests' which means that a special smoke detector tester (usually an aerosol) be used to confirm the alarms are working properly. One manufacturers engineer stated in conversation that this guidance is to protect the manufacturer should a device not operate in the case of a fire – they could always argue it had not been smoke tested as advised otherwise the user would have known it was faulty. The engineer went on to state that these sprays should not actually be used as with his detectors, more often that not, they stopped functioning properly after being subjected to a spray. We hope that was an inaccurate remark and that most devices function well whether spray tested or not – but still advise that you do not smoke test unless you must, just in case.
Just about any door you buy these days will come with a fire rating (FD30 for example means it will hold back fire for 30 minutes, whereas FD60 will do so for an hour).
If you have any works done to your property, building control will specify FD30 everywhere unless you already have 50mm thick solid wood doors in which case they will accept them.
We would suggest that any door that separates an occupant from a possible source of fire be a minimum of FD30 but - if it is open it is useless and, if it does not fit well it is useless.
Obviously a good FRA will specify what type of doors you need where but in general, most doors should be at least FD30, should have an even gap between door and frame of about 4mm (thickness of a £1 coin) with 8mm at the bottom, should never be wedged open and hangers which go over the top of the door should be discouraged.
Where a door separates the possible source of fire (example kitchen) from an escape route (example, hallway) then it is probably worthwhile ensuring that not only flames are held back, but also smoke. You achieve this by fitting brush strips around the edge of the door - so when shut it is almost airtight.
Where a door is likely to be the only thing between the occupant and the fire and there is a possibility that the occupant will need to stay safe in the room until the emergency services arrive, then intumescent strips set into the edges of the door (or the frame) are required - these swell up and seal the door when exposed to extreme heat. But of course, these are rarely needed in a small HMO where the focus will typically on ensuring the occupants get out quickly - intumescent strips come into their own at the top of tower blocks where escape may be impossible, but as always, your FRA should detail what you need where and why.
And New This Month
Think you are getting the idea of what you should and should not do? Well, sorry - new regulations came into force on 1st October 2023. Most of the detail is aimed at making tower blocks safer but there will be some who will use these rules to justify application to HMOs - maybe that is the direction of travel and it will come, but as yet, these new rules mean that holiday homes including all Airbnb lets will need detectors in the guests bedroom but otherwise, are focussed more on the need for documented FRA's, logs for testing and better cooperation between all of the agencies involved. It also states that persons uundertaking FRAs are competent and promises to define 'competent' shortly - so we will see....
And perhaps a better explanation here.
- Do get an FRA and implement its recommendations
- Do put detectors / alarms wherever they are needed
- Do test them regularly, though not necessarily every month
- Do ensure they are in date
- Ensure fire doors do what they are supposed to do
- Get some training (come along to our course later this month if that helps)
We do hope this short guide helps - feel free to challenge or correct as you see fit, there has been much discussion on our HMO Facebook group already and we are sure there will be much more in the months ahead.