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CROSS Safety Report

Fire safety concerns for partially occupied Higher Risk Residential Buildings

Report ID: 1169 Published: 24 May 2023 Region: CROSS-UK


Overview

Fire authority checks found several safety failings in partially occupied Higher Risk Residential Buildings.

Key Learning Outcomes

For inspecting authorities:

  • It is advised to closely monitor the development progress for indications that buildings are being allowed to be occupied by residents
  • If residents partially occupy a building, it is suggested not to rely on the issuing of final completion certificates before initiating inspections under section 7.2.d of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, or under the Government's High-Risk Residential Inspection programme

For contractors, clients and building owners:

  • If the partial occupation of a building is being considered, the areas to be occupied and their full escape route (and any associated systems) would need to be assessed as being in full working order and providing the appropriate level of protection

Full Report

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This section contains the Full Report submitted to CROSS and describes the reporter’s concerns or experiences. However, the text has been edited for clarity, and identifiable details have been removed to ensure anonymity and confidentiality. If you would like to know more about our secure reporting process, or submit a report yourself, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.

 

As a fire authority, the reporters inspected two separate new residential developments under the Government’s Higher Risk Residential Building (HRRB) programme which was set up after the Grenfell Tower fire. Both sites came under the same developer and represented similar issues of concern.

Although both developments were incomplete, the reporters had received partial completion certificates referring to individual apartments, but there were no final completion certificates for the whole building. However, the reporters were made aware that the developers were allowing occupation of completed apartments despite the common areas of the buildings and external areas still undergoing works, and without an overall completion sign off.

developers were allowing occupation of completed apartments despite the common areas of the buildings and external areas still undergoing works

Prior to the inspections, the reporters requested documentation from the developers relevant to the partially occupied buildings, including:

  • commissioning certificates for all fire safety related systems
  • the Fire Risk Assessment

However, none of this documentation was made available prior to the inspections.

On the days of the inspections, the site manager was asked if fire safety related systems had all been commissioned. The manager verbally reassured the inspectors that they had been, but they were unable to show copies of these certificates or a copy of a fire risk assessment.

On inspection, several issues were found:

  • At one site, there were access issues for fire appliances to partially completed and partially occupied blocks, because of large planters being sited. This had been done to prevent residents from parking in the central courtyard area, which would obstruct ongoing construction works. However, this also prevented adequate access for the fire service to the occupied high rise residential buildings
  • At one site, on a level where apartments were being occupied, the smoke detectors in the communal corridor had not had their covers removed. This would have prevented the automatic mechanical ventilation from activating in the event of fire, potentially putting escaping residents at risk
  • At one site, the reporters were unable to locate the override control for one of the firefighters lifts, making it unusable as a firefighters lift. They were then informed that the switch had been installed at basement car park level but had been covered up. An engineer was urgently called to rectify this and re-sited the switch at ground floor fire service access level. However, on inspection by the fire service, it was found the lift still travelled to basement level on activation of the override switch. This again had to be rectified. This issue would have significantly delayed firefighting and rescue operations to occupied flats on the upper floors
  • The same firefighters lift was fitted with a smoke curtain at basement level. On activation, this curtain failed to activate due to a poorly installed plasterboard ceiling obstructing its descent
  • At another site, the firefighters lift, once activated and under fire service control, would not open its doors when returned to ground floor level. In addition, the original fire strategy drawings showed the firefighters lift being one of two passenger lifts opening on the upper residential floors within 7.5 metres of the firefighting stairs, in accordance with current technical guidance. However, upon inspection it appeared that the installers had configured the wrong one of the two passenger lifts for firefighting purposes, which resulted in the lift further from the firefighting stair being adopted, opening more than 9 metres from the firefighting stairs. This meant that there was a consequent significant deviation from building regulations guidance without any justification or assessment

The reporters’ main concerns are:

  • The principle of allowing residents to occupy high rise residential buildings that have not been fully signed off and are still undergoing construction works on site. This is occurring because either there is a lack of understanding from the developers of the importance of fire service access and the correct functioning of fire safety-related systems in high rise residential buildings for maintaining the safety of residents, or there is an understanding of the importance of these systems for residents’ safety but the drive to generate returns on investment takes priority
  • The lack of documentation being made available to demonstrate fire safety-related systems have been commissioned prior to occupation
  • The competency of the ‘competent persons’ carrying out the commissioning, assuming that the firefighting lifts had indeed been commissioned at both sites, given the number and seriousness of the obvious defects the reporters discovered

The reporters would like to advise inspecting authorities that are engaged in building control consultations, particularly in high-rise residential developments, to closely monitor the development progress for indications that buildings are being allowed to be occupied by residents, and not to rely on the issuing of final completion certificates before initiating inspections under section 7.2.d of the Fire & Rescue Services Act 2004, or under the Government's High-Risk Residential Inspection programme, if and when it appears that the buildings are being occupied by residents.

Expert Panel Comments

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Expert Panels comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-UK Expert Panels page.

This is unfortunately a relatively common occurrence for Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) to identify, and anything we can do to highlight this issue and educate the sector should be taken. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), and other sector stakeholders, have been involved in workshops with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regarding partial completion under the Building Safety Act (BSA), and this particular issue was raised and acknowledged.

The reporters identify many of the common failings that the UK FRS also identifies where partial completion occurs and can include (not exhaustive):

  • Incomplete fire-resisting compartmentation between:
    • Flats
    • Flats and common areas
    • Flats and common areas and areas are still under construction
  • Inadequate means of escape
  • Inadequate access and facilities for the FRS
  • Inadequate/inoperable fire detection (to raise alarm and/or operate other fire safety measures)
  • Inadequate/inoperable suppression systems
  • Inadequate/inoperable smoke control systems

places occupiers, and firefighters, at an increased risk

This practice not only places occupiers, and firefighters, at an increased risk that should not exist, it also places an additional regulatory and resource burden on those authorities that have jurisdiction in addressing these shortcomings. This can affect not only FRSs, who are generally the enforcing authority of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO), but also the HSE and Local Authority Housing/Building Control departments.

From a fire safety perspective, this sees the FRSs having to use the FSO to address failings under the Building Regulations (as amended), something for which it is not directly suitable given the fire risk assessment, as required by the FSO, should be informed by the Regulation 38 fire safety information, under the Building Regulations (as amended), from a premises design that complies with the Building Regulations (as amended). However, this may still result, and has resulted, in formal action being taken under the FSO that can lead to:

  • Issuing of article 30 Enforcement notices
  • Issuing of article 31 Prohibition notices (which may prohibit or restrict the use of the whole, or part of, the premises)
  • The commencement of investigation to ascertain if offences under the FSO have been committed, with the potential to lead to prosecution

This should not be happening and it is imperative all required safety measures be in place to protect those that are occupying the premises, regardless of how many occupiers that may be. It is acknowledged developers and investors wish to realise financial gain for their investment, but this cannot be at the cost of risk to occupiers, and firefighter safety. It is also acknowledged that, in England and Wales at least, there is no requirement for sign off by a Building Control Body before occupation.

Moving forward, for those new (and altered/extended) premises that will fall within the scope of the new BSA regime under the Building Safety Regulator via the Gateways, specifically Gateway 3 Occupation, it is expected this practice will not be permitted to arise. It is hoped these lessons will be applied to the wider built environment for all premises, those in and out of the scope of the BSA, and this dangerous practice will cease.

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