Following the recent tragedy in West London and a number of smaller incidents, many people’s thoughts have turned to fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats and conversions.
While we all know we carry an element of personal responsibility for our own safety, we still expect those in authority to be “more” responsible. In a block of flats, this extends to the Directors of the Residents Management or Right to Manage Company.
If you are the sole director or chair of the board, it is also probable you are the “Responsible Person” in respect of health & safety legislation. This is a legally recognised role bearing responsibility for all aspects of health & safety compliance.
You would also be liable for any failure to comply. The penalties can vary from minor fines for basic non-compliance up to criminal charges in the event of death or serious injury caused by these failures.
It is currently legally unclear if this role can be devolved to a managing agent. Logically it cannot as the “Responsible Person” must have autonomy to make decisions regarding Health & Safety issues. It would be argued that a managing agent would need to seek the consent of the board for any changes so this is not the case. At present there have been no cases brought to test this.
All blocks of flats should conduct a risk assessment on the communal areas. This can be done by the directors or agents. However it is prudent to have it completed by a professional to ensure all points are covered.
The risk assessment should be a living document not a report which is filed away and only sent out when solicitors ask for it! It should be regularly reviewed (preferably on each site visit) and formally updated every 3-5 years depending on the size of the block.
A new assessment MUST be completed if significant changes have been made to the block, for example: –
There should be an agreed policy for what happens in the building in the event of fire. Most buildings would have a stay put policy. This means, in the event of fire, if you are not directly affected you should remain within your property until the fire service advise you otherwise.
It is natural human instinct to panic in the event of fire and this can cause chaos and confusion if a large number of flats try and evacuate the building all at once. If the directly affected flats are the only ones to evacuate, this causes less confusion and is safer for all concerned.
If you are in a flat on the fourth floor of a building, and the fire is on the first floor – it should take a couple of hours for the fire to reach you – by which point the fire service should be present and it may well be fully under control.
Small blocks may have a full evacuation policy as in a block of four, all flats are likely to be directly affected by the fire. However this can be a judgement call by those involved.
As was seen in Grenfell Tower, items in communal areas are a continual issue for blocks of flats. This is something the resident directors can help the managing agents with as they are at the block all of the time.
The communal areas are usually the main escape route in the event of fire and must be kept free of all items. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is they could cause a trip hazard when trying to escape.
However items which may not seem like a trip hazard (buggies & bikes under the stairs etc) can catch fire and will not only feed the blaze but could also block the escape route. Burning rubber tyres will also create a large amount of smoke which serves to further reduce visibility and can emit noxious fumes.
Sometimes the management companies add to this issue. We all know communal hallways can look bleak and uninviting. To alleviate this, many companies put pot plants, sometimes on small tables, at strategic points in the communal areas to make them look better. All of these will burn and create trip hazards in the event of a fire.
While the managing agents can write to residents and remind them, it is also helpful if the directors take a “hands on” approach when speaking with their neighbours.
There is usually a “reason” why the items are being left in the communal areas. The owners will often claim the flat is too small for the pram/bike, they can’t carry it upstairs or there is no room for all of the toys. While the directors may feel sympathy for the residents, it doesn’t change the law and these items will still create an issue in the event of fire.
Another significant issue is footwear. In any block of flats you will find one or two which have a small shoe shop set up outside the front door.
Again there are always “reasons” – new carpet, smelly trainers, muddy boots or religious observance to name but a few. However if a life is lost in a fire due to either an escaping tenant or an entering firefighter falling over the smelly trainers – this has the potential for criminal charges to be brought against both the leaseholder and the company.
Suddenly it seems better to buy carpet protectors and air freshener!
To follow the true letter of the legislation, escape routes must be completely clear of all items. This technically includes door mats.
When the legislation was new, many companies and local authorities sought to comply completely and demanded the removal of all door mats from communal areas.
This enraged residents and amid cries of “health and safety gone mad” and a significant amount of press coverage, most managing agents and freeholders stepped back on this decision.
They now operate a limited control mechanism where many door mats are tolerated. The exceptions being damaged/curled mats which are a trip hazard and the extremely thick coir mats. Most local authorities and housing associations have an acceptable depth within noted their procedures.
All doors must be 30 minute fire doors (FD30) and have a self-closing mechanism. This includes: –
This is especially important if the fire policy is “stay put”. Theoretically if the fire starts in a flat on a different floor and you have smoke lobbies – it should take up to two hours for the fire to reach your flat (30 minutes each for the burning flat door, 2 lobby doors and your own front door).
However this only works if the doors are closed. It is highly important that the lobby are doors are not left propped open as this obviously negates their effectiveness.
The front doors of flats are more complex as they usually belong to the leaseholder. If they are being changed, they must be replaced with the FD30 door with a closer.
Leaseholders should seek consent from the freeholder to change their door but many do not! A vigilant resident director however will spot these quite quickly and be able to ensure action is taken.
With fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats or flat conversions we can always do more but directors must be quite clear on their remit. The management company is likely to only be responsible for the communal areas. Anything beyond the residents’ front door is probably beyond their control.
Again this seems like a logical course of action. However it may not be straightforward.
Firstly directors need to be clear on the terms of the lease. Many leases do not allow the freeholder to “improve” the premises. Service charge money can only be spent to repair and maintain the block.
Adding a new alarm or sprinkler system would be classed as an improvement. Therefore it is not covered under the service charge clause for either installation or maintenance. Therefore there would need to be an alternative way to fund this.
It is suggested this may become a legal requirement following the regulation review currently being undertaken. This would cause an issue for many freeholders as the lease and the legislative requirements would be in opposition to each other.
At present we can only work within the guidelines and requirements currently available. The government are working on a review of all of the fire safety regulation in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
This may make significant changes to the manner in which assessments are carried out and the prevention provisions which are required. However, unless anyone can see into the future, we have to continue doing the best we can to comply with the law as it stands.
Directors, leaseholders, freeholders and managing agents must work together to ensure fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats. It is not a job any one of these parties can do alone.