Stay put - when is it safe to leave?
Stay put policies have really come under scrutiny in recent months. In a high-rise block the concept is sound - but only if all the many aspects that add up to successful compartmentalisation are in place. This means sub-dividing buildings into a number of compartments to restrict the spread of fire but it relies on effective fire doors, fire stopping applied correctly to windows and service access points and so on. Both the public and the property industry are now painfully aware that when a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, proper attention had not been paid to the passive fire protection that was needed to make compartmentalisation work. Stay put utterly failed that night and the result was horrendous loss of life. Once the policy was finally abandoned and residents advised to leave the building, it was too late to safely evacuate. Grenfell has forced government to take a fresh look at Approved Document B – which is the part of the building regulations that deals with fire safety. Stakeholders are being consulted and changes made. However, so far, those changes haven’t included any advice around escape plans, ie what should residents do if stay put has to be abandoned? The RIBA drew the government’s attention to this issue earlier this week, saying that too much emphasis is still being placed on building design and construction to resist the spread of fire, while aspects such as warning residents of a fire, escape plans and access for the fire service have not been prioritised. The architects' body wants guidance on escape plans to be included in Approved Document B, as well as a requirement for:
- at least two staircases in new multiple occupancy residential buildings;
- the introduction of centrally addressable fire alarms, which allow fire crews to quickly find which alarm has been activated; and
- sprinklers to be fitted in all new and converted residential buildings and retrofitted in existing residential buildings above 18 metres.
Jane Duncan, chair of RIBA’s expert advisory group on fire safety, said: “We simply cannot allow buildings to continue to be built to regulations and guidance that everyone, including the government, acknowledges are deeply flawed.” We agree. While the government is still shaping its response to Grenfell, let’s hope it does too.
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