Maintaining tenant safety and compliance

By Simon North – Service and Maintenance Division Manager with SE Controls

With the new 2019 edition of Building Regulations ADB coming into force on 30th August, it’s evident that considerable progress has been made on improving residential safety and security, particularly within high-rise buildings since the Grenfell Tower fire. However, it’s universally accepted that there is still more to be done.

In addition to the detailed review of construction industry regulations standards, much of the focus has rightfully been directed towards replacing potentially hazardous and non-compliant products, such as cladding, alongside the wider adoption of automatic fire suppression systems.

As building regulations already require residential buildings over three-storeys to be fitted with smoke control systems, which protect escape routes and keep them free from smoke, any move to supplement this protection with other safety technologies and solutions must be welcomed.

However, fire safety systems and their individual component parts are only as good as their maintenance regime. All too often, SE Controls engineers have been called to a property to undertake an inspection or review its smoke control systems only to discover there are issues that would directly impact on safety, impair escape and put lives at risk if a fire should occur.

It must be said, that in many cases, there is nothing inherently wrong with the design, installation and operational aspects of these systems, but their performance and reliability have been severely compromised purely by the lack of correct maintenance by skilled and, more importantly, qualified personnel.

Focussing on safety

At SE Controls, our business is focused on life safety smoke control systems that enable residents to exit a building in the event of a fire. These systems are often complex, and they must operate without fail when needed, so ongoing maintenance regimes are a critical aspect of ensuring ‘failsafe’ operation.

During the past two years, we have been approached by a growing number of housing associations (HA) and local authorities (LA) to assess a wide range of existing smoke control installations in their properties to ensure they are operating correctly and are compliant within the scope of the current regulations.

Our findings in most cases were that the systems were malfunctioning and lives were placed at risk, as a consequence of a range of different maintenance related issues. A common factor in these assessments was that a ‘fire contractor’ had carried out the system’s maintenance as part of a ‘bundled’ package.

Compromising safety and compliance

While it is perfectly understandable that with ongoing budget pressures, HAs and LAs would want to save money by ‘bundling’ fire systems maintenance and smoke ventilation maintenance into an integrated multi-disciplined ‘fire service and support’ contract.

However, compliance to a contract does not infer compliance to legislation, which is an important distinction. Compliance to the contract covers off matters such as when PPM visits are scheduled and completed; how quickly reports are completed and number of call outs attended etc. These can be measured and are generally included in KPIs that compliance managers use to manage their contractors.

The procedures for maintaining smoke control products, equipment and systems is defined by a range of important specific legislation, yet it’s quite common that compliance teams and compliance managers know very little about this vital legislation, which could compromise tenant safety.

Insufficient emphasis is placed on matters such as whether the attending engineer is trained and equipped to maintain the systems; whether the smoke ventilation system is fit for purpose and keeping tenants safe or is the system compliant to the legal obligations that the building owner or managing agent is the responsible person for?

Meeting the safety standards

Under the scope of British Standards, including BS9991, BS9999 and BS7346 Part 8, together with Building Regulations ADB; the European EN12101 standard and best practice guidance documents from the Smoke Control Association, there are specific maintenance requirements and procedures for smoke ventilation systems that must be followed.

The penalties for not adhering to these safety standards can be significant, including the prosecution of companies, building owners, landlords and individuals responsible for building maintenance, resulting in punitive fines as well as custodial sentences.

SE Controls has already been directly involved in a significant number of projects to correct problems caused after general fire contractors have been employed, but were unable to maintain the smoke control system within the demands of these critical regulations.

Clearly, these could have been avoided if the specialised smoke ventilation maintenance contract was kept separate and handled by a specialist company with the necessary skills, experience and expertise.

There is no room for compromise, complacency or ‘cutting-corners’ where life safety is concerned. Meeting the regulations and maintaining systems to the required standards goes beyond compliance and is about responsibility, quality and safety in every stage of the process.