As revealed in a study by the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS) in 2014, almost half of those responsible for managing fire safety in multi-occupancy buildings (HMOs) were simply unaware of their legal obligations. Given this includes social housing, which accommodates a high percentage of vulnerable tenants, there is a clear need for absolute clarity in fire safety standards and regulations.
Fundamentally, this comes down to understanding the three levels of fire safety:
(1) Top level
The law and legislation – this includes specific Acts and Regulations, which are written by the government
(2) Middle level
Guidance – this includes the best codes of practice
(3) Base level
Standards – this includes product and test specifications
The principal piece of legislation in England and Wales that covers safety in social housing is the Housing Act 2004, which identifies 29 categories of potential hazards, one of which is fire.
Additionally the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (commonly known as the FSO) applies to the common parts of multi-occupied residential housing, and requires landlords or housing owners to carry out a fire Risk Assessmentent and implement appropriate precautions.
Furthermore, given 43% of social housing tenants have a long-term disability, housing providers also have a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to not place any of these residents under any unfair disadvantage. This also corresponds with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which requires all employers or organisations to ensure that all people, including the disabled, can safely leave the building in the event of a fire.
Before undertaking a risk assessment, it is best practice to read the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) guidance (2008). It offers guidance for landlords and fire safety enforcement officers in both local housing authorities (LHAs) and in fire and rescue authorities (FRAs) on how to ensure adequate fire safety in different types of residential accommodation.
One of the problems for fire safety in social housing, or any other residential accommodation, is that there is often an overlap between two enforcing authorities: the local housing authority (Housing Act 2004) and the local fire and rescue service (Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005).
As a result, there are two types of risk assessments for social landlords to consider:
For further information see – Building Regulation Approved Document B, and BS 5588, Code of Practice BS 5839-6: 2019, and BS 5446.
However LACORS states that:
“Although under the Fire Safety Order (FSO) 2005 this requirement only applies to the common parts of premises, in practice the responsible person (carrying out the risk assessment) will need to take into account the entire premises – including, to some extent, the units of accommodation themselves”.
Therefore, whilst the FSO has limited application to certain types of property e.g. those that are not a ‘true shared house’, the principles of fire safety risk assessment apply across the board, and their application should ensure compliance with all the safety standards and regulations.
The general consensus for a risk assessment in social housing is to follow a five step process:
It is also important to consider vulnerable tenants that may live in an adapted property or possess a host of technological devices in a risk assessment. In these circumstances, work closely with the tenant and carer (if they have one), acknowledging their specific needs and requirements.
The Risk Assessment should be the first process in a standard step by step fire safety guide for tenants. Beyond this, housing providers should provide safety information to tenants (and awareness about evacuation procedures) and make sure they liaise with local fire rescue services to arrange free home fire safety checks.
Housing providers should also install and test fire alarms (simultaneously to annual gas safety and electrical checks) in all properties. However, tenants should also independently check their alarms on a weekly basis. Furnishings and furniture should also be compliant with the Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations (1998) and electrical equipment with the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994.
Whilst many registered providers of social housing do so, it is best practice to give new tenants instructions for taking care of their home via a ‘homeowners pack’ or ‘tenant information pack’. This will allow tenants to independently maintain and mitigate their own fire risk.
The British Standards BS 5839-6: 2019 (also known as BS 5839: Pt.6) is the code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises. For the purpose of specifying a fire detection and fire alarm system, the standard has both grades and categories of system.
There are six grades of system ranging from Grade A to F, whereby a higher grade generally represents a greater risk of fire in the premises, so a higher level of fire safety system is needed to be installed. However, the nature of the premises and the characteristics of the occupant are also important factors.
The majority of standard housing in the UK fall within the D-F category -whereby mains or battery powered alarms are installed. This progresses in complexity until a grade A is reached, in which a full fire detection system with control and indicating equipment is installed (in accordance with BS 5839: Part 1).
The three main categories for implementing a fire safety system are as follows:
LD1 (maximum protection) – alarms are in all circulations spaces that form part of escape routes, and in all areas where a fire may start (excluding bathrooms)
LD2 (additional protection) – alarms are in all circulation spaces that form part of escape routes and rooms/areas that present a high fire risk (such as kitchens and living rooms)
LD3 (minimum protection) – alarms in all circulation spaces that form part of escape routes
An LD3 system is normally effective at protecting tenants, and is recommended as a standard in domestic premises in England and Wales. However, parallel with recommendations in Scotland and Northern Island, it is best practice to implement an LD2 system to ensure an enhanced level of protection for tenants.
Although Building Regulations in England and Wales only specify a Category LD3 system as the basic requirement in domestic new builds, this only offers a minimum level of protection in circulation spaces, so it is best practice to install to Category LD2.
This is as BS 5839-6: 2013 (also known as BS 5839 Pt. 6) states that “a Category LD3 system cannot be expected, with any degree of reliability, to protect people who might be involved with the fire at ignition or in its early stages.” In fact, the equivalent Building Regulations in Scotland and Northern Ireland require Category LD2 as a minimum level of protection. Building Regulations in England and Wales are therefore expected to follow suit when they are next revised.
However, considering social housings’ high percentage of vulnerable tenants – such as those who are elderly, have dementia or are disabled – it may be best to install to a Category LD1 with interlinked alarms. This is relative to the longer time it may take these tenants to escape.
Whilst the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 is private rented sector legislation, it is a clear example of how regulations are evolving in the housing market. It is therefore best practice for social landlords and procurement managers to follow these British Standards, as it will best protect tenants, provide a duty of care and also safeguard for future changes in legislation. It is better to be proactive in property maintenance, rather than reactive.
Useful further reading: