Fire & Security Blog

Fires Actually Happen: How a Fire Alarm Saved an East London Tower Block

Tower block of flats with flames at the bottom

A fire happened at an apartment in an East London tower block – a site we installed a communal fire alarm within less than 12 months ago.

…A site that before that installation had a Waking Watch fire patrol in it.

(Did you know that there is a new Waking Watch Replacement Fund, launched in January 2022? It’s deadlining on 28th March 2022. Learn more about it here as well as how to apply, and why you need to ditch Waking Watch for a common fire alarm.)

Luckily, there were no fatalities and the fire alarm did its job to get everyone safely out.

Being a fire alarm company, you’d expect that we’d be used to receiving calls like this or hearing this kind of news.

But the truth is, it’s always hard-hitting and never something we get used to.

Singed doorway with a melted smoke detector and sounder indicating the aftermath of a fire

Our engineer was on site an hour following the incident after the Fire Brigade deemed it safe to enter.

Our Nic inspected the flat to find two melted heat detectors and a completed singed sounder device, which will need replacing, before testing the remaining detector in the bedroom to ensure it still worked and the communication with the fire alarm panel was still intact.

Luckily, the fire was also contained in the flat so there was no damage to the communal area.

(I say luckily, except this doesn’t come from luck but from the safety savviness of life-saving fire doors.)

The photos of the damage are pretty insane but due to ongoing investigations we cannot share all of these with you.

But, from the photo of this melted down sounder, you can pretty much get the idea…

Melted down and blackened fire alarm sounder

The fire was thought to have started due to an electrical distribution board fault within a flat but this is still being investigated.

Are you forking out for Waking Watch? There’s a new fund in town that will help. Read all about it here.

Faffing with Fire Alarms

Of course, as fire alarm experts, we’re so pleased to see a fire alarm in action doing its job to protect a building and its people. And examples like this demonstrate the important of fire detection and a strong fire strategy.

Over the last couple of years we’ve worked with a number of blocks of flats and apartment buildings, be it with housing associations, freeholders and landlords, or property managers.

Many of whom have been forking out thousands every month to pay for a human fire alarm (i.e. Waking Watch) whilst they wait for decisions to be made about a fire alarm installation.

If you’re telling us that a person patrolling corridors would be able to sniff out a fire starting in someone’s living room on a specific floor before a detector could tell you and raise an alarm to the entire building for simultaneous evacuation, I’m sure there’ll be a pig flying in the background.

The truth is there are hundreds of buildings deemed deficient in fire safety without communal fire alarms, either with Waking Watch or with absolutely nothing at all.

There is a lot of faffing in this industry because people simply think a fire isn’t going to happen.

But they do and it’s thanks to an automatic fire detection and alarm system to be alerted of and raise an alarm in the event of a fire, and passive fire safety warriors such as fire doors to contain it within that space, which mean the difference between life and death.

Typically in buildings with ample internal passive fire protection (such as compartmentation and fire doors), you will not always need a communal fire alarm. However, in this case, as it was a cladding (and therefore an external) issue, simultaneous evacuation was the chosen fire evacuation strategy as opposed to ‘stay put’ where you are deemed as being able to stay within your own confines whilst the fire elsewhere “should” stay suitably contained before the emergency services arrive to fight it.

In the cases of poor/flammable cladding AND poor internal fireproofing then that’s an extremely dangerous place to be in.

Fire alarms are fire safety robots and, when installed correctly and serviced properly, will be the invisible knight keeping a look-out whilst you go about living your everyday life.

If everyone knew this, and could see what could happen if there was no fire safety knight involved, I am sure there would be far less faffing when it comes to making a decision about a fire alarm.

Annoyingly, a lot of the people making decisions about fire alarms in buildings (or procrastinating, or ignoring the problem altogether) are people who aren’t even living in these buildings themselves.

What Can We Learn From This?

There are a number of lessons we can take from this unfortunate occurrence, which thankfully is a lot more fortunate than things could’ve turned out if there wasn’t a fire alarm or suitable fire doors in place.

1. Know your safety procedures.

Whether you live in a block of flats or a commercial premises, you are responsible for you.

The buck does stop with someone if something goes wrong, but you are in charge of you, so if you don’t know the evacuation strategy or what systems are in place around you to protect you, take this as heed that you should find out.

And if it’s not obvious, raise it as a point with your Responsible Person as something to remedy, as if you don’t know (for example, if there is a fire alarm or where your evacuation assembly point is) then it’s likely others won’t either.

They say knowledge is power; in this case, knowledge is a life-saver.

2. Make sure you have ample and functional fire detection, and means of raising an alarm.

This is for all applicable buildings (commercial and domestic). Let’s start with the domestic ones which this blog post is centred on: tower blocks and apartment buildings.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve advocated fire alarms (and installed plenty of them!) in tower blocks with fire safety deficiencies as opposed to turning to (or sticking with) Waking Watch, which has, quite frankly, been bankrupting people whilst not offering an altogether solid safety and evacuation strategy.

Have a read of my article on the Housing Quality Network here, which explains why people turned to Waking Watch as a solution, what the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) had to say, and why fire alarms are overall the better (and cheaper) fire detection system.

Here is a little excerpt for you:

“There is still some contention as to whether or not a fire alarm really is the tried and tested better solution.

I can tell you a fire alarm has always been more effective than a human patrolling a corridor with a klaxon. Fire alarms don’t tag fag breaks, don’t have salaries, and don’t have to run around the building to let you know there might be a fire.

Melted plastic on a fire alarm heat detector

Not to mention fire alarms are cheaper and can be installed quickly with wireless systems.

Then you’ve got the added benefit that it’s a short term and long-term solution; in other words, once your cladding or fireproofing is rectified, you can keep the fire alarm in there as an added precautionary measure…So, it’s not just a saving, it’s an investment in the building’s ongoing fire safety strategy.

We’ve also been approached with questions about false alarms. Of course, no one wants to be evacuated because someone’s burnt their bacon sarnie. This is why your fire alarm should not have call-points which can be accidentally nudged or vandalised, and why it’s heat detectors which connect up to the communal fire alarm (not your usual smoke detector), which only sounds an alarm if it detects a minimum temperature (typically 58°C). It’d be one hell of a bacon sarnie to set that off.”

And as we’ve seen in this scenario, it was a heat detector which was set off here and it was, indeed, no false alarm. You can see how it’s started melting away; not before, of course, doing its job.

Have a read of the Government’s latest announcement (as of Thursday 27th January 2022) to pledge an additional £27m to install fire alarms in all buildings where a Waking Watch is in place. This was backed up by an NFCC spokesperson who said: “Installing a common fire alarm system is a timely and cost-effective temporary measure that reduces dependence on waking watches.” Applications are now open for this fund.

Now, for commercial buildings, a fire alarm is equally important. It protects your staff, your customers, your stock, your whole investment.

Check out our post on the ‘8 Steps to Undertake Before Buying a Commercial Fire Alarm’ for a how-to guide on all the considerations you need to make for your life safety system.

The first step you should be undertaking is a Fire Risk Assessment to establish all fire safety needs and specify the amount of detection, and its locations, so if/when that moment of need arises, that fire alarm is fit purpose and sharpish.

Remember, fires move at speed, so the quicker you know the better.

Not having a properly designed, installed or maintained fire alarm, is like Arnold Schwarzenegger preparing for his Mr Universe contest by eating fish and chips every day. Then when it’s crunch time for that dead lift and he’s expecting his body to work magic, he collapses as a heap on the floor and wonders “well, where did it all go wrong?” The concept of bodies are made in the kitchen not the gym applies to fire alarms too; it’s all in the design and how you apply your ingredients.

It’s also important to consider if you need fire alarm monitoring (i.e. an emergency response), as an alarm is only good if someone can actually hear it. You could spend a lot of money forking out for an alarm system, but if you’ve not got a key holder response or an emergency response in place (for example of a night or if the building is vacant) then a fire can happen, the alarm will sound, and no one will be there to act.

Let’s not forget about trusted emergency lights, another underdog and underrated feature of your fire safety network.

These are essential to paving the way to safety – literally being the light at the end of the tunnel – in the event of an emergency (fire-related or not, when the power goes out).

That’s why it’s so important to have these installed properly and located strategically in your premises for adequate lighting when it’s needed most. On top of this, it needs maintenance every year to ensure it lasts the duration it’s supposed to (three hours).

3. Don’t forget about passive fire protection.

A fire alarm is there to detect and raise the alarm, which is essential.

But, remember, fires move fast and a huge reason for the vast damage and fatalities due to a fire is because of the lack of proper passive fire protection.

That means the integrity of the internal building structure (compartmentation) and the passage/means of escape (fire doors).

Remember in Titanic when the iceberg hit and the captain initiated the shutdown of all the doors to close off the water surging through as Mr Andrews, the ship’s architect, described how long the ship would take to sink?

It’s the same kind of concept.

Fire doors and compartmentation can’t stop a fire altogether, but they’re a crucial barrier and source of delay to allow everyone to get out. If the Fire Brigade’s quick enough, the damage will be limited, as it was in this example whereby just a couple of rooms within the one apartment were affected.

Fire doors must be able to withstand a fire for a minimum of 30 minutes (commonly you’ll find it’s 60 minutes for commercial settings, but it can last as long as three hours depending on the type of fire door).

Fire doors, just like fire alarms, also need regular inspections and services (every six months). For doors, it’s so important to make sure the integrity of seals and door-shutting devices are still at their optimum, otherwise they’re not able to do their job when you need them to.

As for compartmentation, this should be considered as part of your periodical Fire Risk Assessment, and should definitely be considered if you’re having fire detection installed. For example, there could be a hollow area which creates a void (and therefore a tunnel like the East Australian Current for the fire to strike right through) that needs to be considered as part of the detection design.

Voids are insidious buggers, so don’t let them fool you – find them and cater to them.

4. Prevention is always better than cure.

It’s one thing making sure that you’re doing everything in your power so that safe evacuation of all souls and minimal damage occurs in the event of a fire. But, let’s not forget the importance of what needs to be done to prevent a fire in the first place.

Being fire safety aware starts with fire safety training (it’s doesn’t just teach you about how to react in a fire and use firefighting equipment) and knowing what ignites a fire, the hazards that can contribute to a either a fire starting or what can jeopardise a speedy and safe evacuation.

I’m sure if everyone had a bit of this, we’d never see fire extinguishers propping open fire doors ever again.

A Fire Risk Assessment will come in handy here as well, as it’ll outline the ways your either making it a cosy environment for a fire to start or how you’re doing a stellar job of protecting your building and people.

A huge source of fires in buildings comes down to electrical failings.

In today’s world, we treat electricity like it’s oxygen. You think it’s in abundance and will never go caput or let you down.

You should have seen the vacant looks on everyone’s faces when we had a momentary power outage in our office the other day.

Electrical failings can be spotted and rectified in a number of ways. The most common (and mandatory) method for this is by carrying out an Electrical Installation Condition Report (often referred to as an EICR or a Fixed Wire Test) which tells you if your electrics are satisfactory or if there are problems which need fixing.

You can even pre-empt problems before they occur with the use of thermal imaging, which spots the heat which isn’t visible to the human eye, and therefore tells you that there’s a potential overloading issue.

Most commercial premises have EICRs every five years whereas Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) – which tests the integrity of the device you’re plugging into your electrics (e.g. a heater or computer) as opposed to the actual electrical infrastructure (what you’re plugging things into).

It’s unclear at the moment if the fire in East London was due to a fault on the electrical distribution board in the apartment but if it was, it would be the landlord’s responsibility to have had the EICR done on this if the flat was rented, and the resident’s responsibility if privately owned. Communal electrics are the responsibility of the freeholder, which is more often than not delegated to facilities or property management companies in apartment buildings, and in many commercial buildings (such as office blocks).

Conclusion

The list could go on when it comes to catering to fire safety, but the important thing to remember is: fire actually happen.

The legal implications of not catering to your people and your buildings can be astronomical, but carrying the weight of that guilt is something else altogether.

We’ve been in this industry for nearly 20 years and have seen a lot along the way.

It’s great to see one of our own fire alarms doing its job in a building we’ve installed at and still look after for regular fire alarm maintenance, which is why we were called so quickly to the scene to assess the damage on replacement fire detection equipment which had been damaged.

Albeit, the fact that these fires happen in the first place are a huge reminder of the failings still out there and the naiveté around fire safety.

We’re doing our best to educate everyone and provide the most appropriate solutions to buildings, but there is still a long way to go to ensure fire safety legislation and general awareness of prevention tactics is made mainstream and consistent.

Fires can actually happen – what are you doing to protect yourself and your building?

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