Fire & Security Blog

How To Prevent Waking Watch Being Needed in Your Buildings

Grenfell Tower in the background with a stamp saying that the waking watch fund is now open for applications

Stop forking out for Waking Watch.

 

(This article was last updated on 1st February 2022.)

Whether you’re a leaseholder, tenant, property manager or developer, if you’re paying for Waking Watch (or facing having to pay for Waking Watch as a result of fire safety failings) in your residential building or tower block, this article is a must-read.

A building we installed a fire alarm in to replace Waking Watch ACTUALLY HAD A FIRE in January 2022 – find out what happened and see how a fire alarm saved an East London Tower block by providing fast detection prompting safe evacuation.

First thing’s first, let’s talk about:

 

The Waking Watch Funds

 

The Government announced a Waking Watch Relief Fund of £30m in 2020 to assist high-rise buildings with common fire alarms installed in buildings with unsafe cladding.

(Specifically, that relates to buildings deemed as needing to adapt their fire evacuation strategy from ‘Stay Put’ to ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ as per the National Fire Chief Council’s (NFCC) advice, i.e. “If there is a fire, you need to get the hell out.”)

The fund has reopened various times over the last two years.

Here’s the latest phase of funds announced:

The Waking Watch Replacement Fund

 

A Waking Watch Replacement Fund has recently been announced (10th January 2022), offering up a further £27m to pay for the costs of installing a fire alarm where Waking Watching is employed in residential buildings within England at a cost to leaseholders.

Homeowners and tenants via their landlords are facing astronomical hikes in their service charges, or are finding themselves trapped and being unable to sell, due to the employment of Waking Watch patrols which costs a phenomenal amount – especially when you consider the efficacy of a fire patrol team (and no, not a live-in Fire Brigade) in comparison to an automatic fire alarm and detection system.

The Minister of State for Building Safety and Fire, Lord Greenhalgh, said:

“It’s unacceptable that innocent leaseholders are still facing fire risks in their own homes, let alone being subjected to the disgraceful misuse of rip-off measures at the hands of their building owners. The extra funding being made available today will be a huge relief to many being forced to pay unnecessary costs.”

The fund is supposed to build on the £35m Waking Watching Relief Fund (WWRF) which focused specially on high-rise residential buildings (above 18m, or 17.7 m if you’re being pernickety) with poorly fireproofed cladding, so this “replacement” fund is here to bolster the financial support to more buildings but also to add a more “proportionate approach” to buildings falling under the former 18m specification, allowing these buildings to apply to this new fund. I.e. the maths was a bit off and it turns out £35m isn’t enough.

And let me tell you, a further £27m won’t cut it either. Especially when you consider just how long it’s taking to fix the root cladding problem itself.

We anticipate to see a lot of drip feeding from the Government in the next couple of years to assist with this problem that just isn’t going away.

People are looking at Waking Watch or fire alarms as a temporary measure, but it’s likely whichever one you employ – and for goodness sake go for the latter and not the former – it’s going to be there for some time: not months, but years.

Leaseholders are paying £163 a month/nearly £2k a year (on average) for this “temporary” 24-hour fire patrol, but prices range from £12k-45k a week depending on the location, number of individuals patrolling and the hours spent on site, which means this fund is desperately needed and fast.

The existing £35m Waking Watch Relief Fund is supporting around 320 buildings to replace Waking Watch services, and it’s thought this additional boost will help a further 300 buildings. However, this is country-wide and London alone is thought to have in excess of around 600 buildings with Waking Watch; not to mention the additional buildings which have cladding or fireproofing issues with no Waking Watch or fire alarm intermediary safety procedure.

Now, this is all sounding a little negative, but it’s more disappointment than anything else at the glacial pace of bureaucracy for something that is not only pricing people out of their homes, but impacting their safety and how secure they feel in their own homes. Grenfell was five years ago this year. Progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go, and it’ll be a few years still before we see a real dent into the cladding crisis. Who knew, though, that one crisis would birth another: the Waking Watch scandal.

So, if this is you, here’s a look at what you need to know and how to apply:

1. Is My Building Eligible?

 

If your building has moved from a ‘Stay Put’ evacuation strategy to ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ (click here to see what the NFCC means by that) and has Waking Watch implemented (whereby the costs have been passed on to leaseholders) then you should be eligible.

The building must be a residential building located in England. Remember: you must be able to prove that the cost of Waking Watch has been passed onto leaseholders.

 

2. How is the fund being distributed?

 

£27m, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t very much when you consider just how many buildings need this help, and also how widely they’re distributed across the country.

Around £6m (£5.8m to be exact) has been allocated to the following metropolitan areas: Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.

It’s not been confirmed, but it’s likely the largest chunk of this will go towards buildings in Greater London.

 

3. What You Need to Know & How to Apply:

 

This fund will cover the upfront costs for you to install a common fire alarm system. The Government page specifies that this should meet the recommendations of the BS 5839-1 for a Category L5 system.

(L5, explained in further detail in the latter part of this blog post, essentially means a bespoke design based on the stipulations and considerations of that building’s Fire Risk Assessment, i.e. there is no set design but will have to be applied based on the risk assessor’s fire safety analysis. Therefore, you will need to have a Fire Risk Assessment carried out to know what detection you need where as L5 doesn’t actually mean anything without the risk assessor’s script of what is needed.)

 

Applications for the Waking Watch Replacement Fund opened on 27th January 2022 and will close at 23:59 on 28th March 2022.

 

This will cover the costs of installations on or after 10th January 2022 so will not be retrospective.

Click here to view the application guidance for the Waking Watch Replacement Fund.

Click here to access and complete the application form to the fund.

Once you’ve completed your application, this will be redirected to your local authority for actioning/response.

We encourage all Responsible Persons for fire safety in residential tower blocks to consult with their local Fire & Rescue Service, to have a Fire Risk Assessment if you haven’t already and/or reach out to a fire alarm company (like us) who can help you get started to consider and compare cost and logistical options.

(Not sure who your Responsible Person is for fire safety in your building? The best place to start is by asking your Property Management Company as this will usually either sit with them or they will advise you. Click here to learn more about the Responsible Person and what this means.)

Don’t forget to discuss with your residents and leaseholders your intentions. The sooner you know you’re eligible and have started these important conversations, the sooner your application can be sent off and the sooner you can get your fire alarm in and your Waking Watch out! 

 

A New Era for Fire Safety?

 

The fire industry is not data driven, it is reactive and to an extent knee-jerk.

I doubt if it’s alone there as an industry, as that is how humans work; we don’t tend to learn until we experience the effects. Climate change is a prime example of that (although a massive subject all by itself and completely irrelevant here!).

But we are now seeing fire safety entering a new era of enlightenment, largely as a result of the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017.

Property developers, in particular, are factoring in fire safety and fireproofing more than ever before, with increasingly stringent processes and on-hand experts to advise the best courses of action for all future builds.

But with each new residential tower that’s built, there are hundreds that are still standing which do not have adequate cladding or fireproofing and need both temporary and long-term solutions put in place.

There are approximately 100 towers and apartment blocks which have failed fire safety checks since 2017, but in truth this is just the tip of the iceberg.

These 100 towers failed tests measuring compliance with the standards set by the Regulatory Reform Order (RRO) but an additional 300 high-risers in England are found to have Grenfell-style cladding.

Inside Housing noted “figures [from Responses to Freedom of Information Act requests] that “fire authorities attended 300 fires during the three years since Grenfell – a stark reminder of the game of Russian Roulette the country is playing with the risk of a repeat disaster.”

 

Fixing the Underlying Issue: Poor Cladding & Fireproofing

 

City AM concluded that it’ll take 397 years to fix buildings affected by unsafe cladding if works continue at their current pace.

That’s based on only 12 buildings out of 3,191 having been rectified from having non-composite material cladding (as of January 2022) since the launch of the fund in July 2020.

Then there’s the hundreds of buildings that have been rejected from fund after applying, so this figure of 3k is pretty far from accurate.

Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has taken a lot of heat on this issue and detailed earlier this month that property developers ought to take more of the brunt in replacing and refurbishing cladding in tower blocks.

But the intermediary issue of fire safety still needs sorting to help protect people in their homes whilst they wait for such works to be carried out.

It is important to note that it’s possible a building can revert from a ‘Stay Put’ strategy to ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ with even ample cladding. Everyone thinks cladding is the only culprit here, but that’s because of media displays.

We’ve done fire alarm installations for buildings which have internal fireproofing issues (e.g. poor compartmentation; such as the integrity of walls, ceilings and doorways), and these buildings are also viable for the fund as Waking Watch can still be employed for this reason.  

From inadequate fireproofing, including insufficient cladding and fire door considerations, to ill-equipped fire safety equipment and limitations to escape routes – there are many areas which need addressing.

The most common failures in apartment buildings include a lack of sufficient fire separation between rooms and floors, limited signage for emergency and exit routes, as well as failing to have an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment (and adhering to the recommendation of an assessment).

 

The Cladding Scandal

 

As this scandal marches onwards and we speak to more of the victims of fire risk affected building owners and users, it seems to me that the real issue is lack of leadership on what to do to move this along safely but quickly.

The situation stems from the need for action following the discovery of unsafe cladding, however what comes from this is a host of other issues that the buildings reveal once a professional fire risk assessor looks deeper into the fabric of the building.

Typically these include:

1. The wrong windows installed on the exterior of the building.

2. The wrong level of fire separation from the flat to the common areas of the building.

3. The failure of fire stopping between floors, specifically up and down the risers which travel from the bottom to the top of the building for wiring and plumbing etc…the issue here is that there should be fire protection covering the holes, but it’s either missing, incorrect or damaged.

The reason behind this is the enquiry from the Grenfell tragedy and the failure to learn from previous fires in other high rise buildings (HRBs).

 

What are the Effects of these Failures?

 

1. Residents are Left in Unsafe Properties They Can’t Sell

On top of being in a building that won’t keep them safe in the event of a fire, residents (and leaseholders) are mostly being lumbered with these Waking Watch costs, rises in insurance, coupled with an inability to sell or re-mortgage properties, and not to mention the impact on mental health and well-being.

Check out this video posted by One Housing Group of a BBC London News snippet explaining how residents of high-rise flats are being affected by the ongoing cladding shortfalls

2. The Insurance Inferno

I understand that one site in London has had its insurance increased from £40K to £400K for only 25% cover and a £100K excess, which has come about only because of a misguided duty of care as they were the incumbent insurer. The people concerned are less than impressed and less than insured

3. Spot Checks Galore

Fire and Rescue Services are upping their game when it comes to spot checks, with hefty fines on the rise for those failing to meet adequate fire safety requirements.

As a result, the number of developers and property management companies (and even residents!) taking it upon themselves to undergo fire safety audits is also, understandably, on the rise to ensure their buildings remain safe in years to come for inhabitants.

4. Panicking and Jumping to Less Efficient Solutions

As there’s panic to do something in the interim whilst cladding or fireproofing is being resolved, many are jumping to Waking Watch as the solution, which then creates new financial problems to keep up with the costs.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, occupancy levels have increased, money’s become tighter and job security isn’t what it was. All of this combined means appropriate action which is properly considered and cost-effective is more important than ever.

 

What is the Solution?

 

There are two solutions which both need to happen:

Long Term – Fixing the underlying cladding and/or fireproofing issues in high-rise tower blocks of flats.

Short Term – Imposing a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ instead of a ‘Stay Put’ policy for identified buildings needing these changes AND equipping the building with a means of protecting residents during this waiting period, which will alert them in the event of a fire so they can simultaneously evacuate.

The Government promised in March 2020 a £1bn Building Safety Fund to cover cladding removal, but what this doesn’t do is cover interim measures.

Fixing the long term problem can take years, so it’s important that a suitable, workable and cost-effective short-term solution is implemented to protect residents. The rest of this post is going to be looking at number 2 in this list – the short term (which, incidentally, can be incorporated as a long-term solution if you do the sensible thing and opt for a fire alarm!).

But first, before we look at the short-term fire safety solution to protect residents whilst cladding/fireproofing is being rectified.

Let’s first answer a couple of questions:

What Does the NFCC Say About the ‘Stay Put’ Policy?

 

Top Tip: ‘Stay Put’ is the policy typically endorsed (and was endorsed in the Grenfell tragedy’ which means that people should stay within the confines of their flat with doors and windows shut, leaving the Fire & Rescue Services to fight the fire. The Fire & Rescue Service will then alert you and evacuate you as and when needed. This exists because in theory, your home which is reinforced and protected with concrete and fire doors means that you should be safe from fire. This also means the Fire Brigade aren’t dealing with a stampede of people in corridors and stairwells trying to leave the building (because usually fire drills aren’t a thing in tower blocks, ensuring people leave in a structured and orderly fashion as you would find in commercial premises or schools), preventing them from getting to the fire quickly to fight it. There is increasing doubt and confidence in the ‘Stay Put’ policy, especially after Grenfell, but namely because of the lack of adequate cladding and fireproofing, failing to protect people as it should in their homes.

‘Simultaneous Evacuation’, on the other hand, means that everyone leaves the building at once in the event of a fire instead of staying put or having a controlled, staggered evacuation conducted by the Fire Brigade which you would have under the ‘Stay Put’ policy. Whilst this is harder to control, it’s recommended for buildings which have been identified as having cladding or fireproofing issues as the interim evacuation response in the event of a fire to prevent/minimise loss of life.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) have produced recommendations explaining what you need to do: see the NFCC Waking Watch guidance.

This details Waking Watch fire safety and carefully discusses the ‘Stay Put’ advice, which they recommend should be temporarily disregarded in buildings (only in ones which have cladding and fireproofing issues until they are resolved), turning to a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ method instead in the event of a fire in the meantime.

To summarise, the NFCC Waking Watch guidance outlines several key areas of advice for the ‘Responsible Person’ to bear in mind:

…Where the building has failed tests on the external cladding, action must be taken to support the change from ‘Stay Put’ to ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’.

…It is required in buildings over 18m tall, but the height is arbitrary and the decision should be based on the fire engineer’s guidance, regardless of any strict height rule.

…‘Stay Put’ is still the strategy of choice if the fire safety of the building is up to standard.

…Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats should be taken into account. These paragraphs require the Responsible Person to ensure than any fire safety compartmentalisation issues have been thoroughly investigated prior to changing from ‘Stay Put’.

…Consideration should be given to the impact created by people evacuating the building in relation to the size of exit routes, and fire and rescue services, as well as plans for the evacuation of disabled people.

…Fire detection by a Waking Watch will require sufficient staffing levels to alert people within the stipulated 10-15 minutes and can be achieved by the Waking Watch hearing the smoke alarm go off inside the flat (whilst the fire watcher is outside in the corridor – not ideal, and we’ll explain more further down in this post).

…Waking Watch or fire alarm solutions are short term solutions to mitigate the fire safety works.

When the ‘Stay Put’ strategy is suspended, the fire chiefs recommend either a combination of a fire alarm and Waking Watch or a new fire alarm system with heat detectors in the flat covering the rooms with windows that overlook the exterior of the building.

The NFCC states that before switching the evacuation strategy, a number of factors ought to be considered, including: the external wall system, such as the cladding and insulation materials; all general fire precautions within the building; the height of the building; the occupancy of the building and the number of flats; the number of stairways and means of escape; and the Fire and Rescue Service attendance time.

Once these have been looked into and the decision has been made to move to a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ strategy, the NFCC suggest that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out to determine the best solution, whereby you would compare the benefits of a fire alarm as opposed to implementing Waking Watch.

The NFCC’s updated guidance on simultaneous evacuations in purpose-built blocks of flats was published on October 2020, advocating the use of fire alarms over Waking Watch. Read on further to find out why.

 

What Does ‘Waking Watch’ Even Mean?

 

This is also referred to as ‘fire watch’, which is having a team of people patrol your building all day, every day to primarily:

1. Detect a fire in or on the building.

2. Summon the Fire & Rescue Service, and warn people in the building.

3. Take actions dictated by the building’s fire management strategy, which could be to evacuate the building .

 

waking watch warden
A member of a waking watch team patrolling a residential tower block

 

How Much Does Waking Watch Cost?

 

The costs for Waking Watch is typically a minimum of £25k a week, which of course, after months racks up to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

According to the Government website, MHCLG collected data on Waking Watch costs from June to September 2020 and found that the hourly rate per person undertaking Waking Watch duties ranged from £12 to £30 per hour! The Association of Residential Managing Agents also provided a case study of residential blocks containing 191 units in London, comparing the costs of a fire alarm installation to Waking Watch.

The cost of the fire alarm was found to be the equivalent of 7 weeks employing Waking Watch (based on three quotes they received) – in other words, in 7 weeks, you’ve recouped what you would’ve spent on fire patrols! You will, of course, have maintenance of the fire alarm system to consider in the ongoing costs, but it’ll still massively – in fact, stupidly – outweigh what it’d cost you for a fire watch.

The Fire Protection Association said: “While Waking Watches are supposed to be temporary measures, some have been in place for years, and some back to June 2017, with concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could extend their use. In turn, 34 councils had spent £29.4m on Waking Watches at 134 buildings.”

 

Why is a Fire Alarm Preferred to Waking Watch?

 

A more viable and intelligent solution to the problem that satisfies the NFCC’s guidance is to design and install a fire detection and alarm system within the residential building, which we have found in the past to have saved more than 75% of the cost associated with a Waking Watch solution.

Plus, a fire alarm is much more reliable because it detects a fire at the onset and can alert the whole building at once, making it more time efficient and logistically feasible when detecting a fire than Waking Watch.

The NFCC states in their Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance: “NFCC strongly recommends that where a change to a simultaneous evacuation is deemed appropriate and will be required for medium to long periods of time that a temporary common fire alarm system is installed. This is because a temporary common fire alarm, when designed, installed and maintained appropriately is a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection. An appropriate communal fire alarm and detection system will generally provide more certainty that a fire will be detected and warned at the earliest opportunity rather than rely on using trained staff.”

The NFCC again released updated guidance on 1st October 2020 acknowledging that the initial guidance set out in 2017 was that “the installation of a common fire alarm was the preferable approach to Waking Watch”. Now, over three years later, many buildings identified as requiring urgent remediation still haven’t been rectified, and are still relying on solutions which are only suitable for short periods of time (i.e. Waking Watch).

Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service also reinforces that the practice of using Waking Watch “would be too labour intensive for any extended period of time, and therefore, it is an accepted procedure for the premises/part of the premises to be covered by an automatic fire detection and warning system for the purpose of life or property protection.”

We recently helped a major UK property developer who realised they had a lack of adequate fireproofing within their residential blocks, and following this forked out £50k a week to employ fire watchers (Waking Watch) to patrol the building and effectively act as a human fire alarm…that was before we told them about the other alternative: installing a wireless fire alarm system.

 

Are There Any Other Benefits to Having a Fire Alarm Instead?

 

Besides being cheaper and more effective at detecting and raising an alarm in the event of a fire? The answer is: yes, of course!

Here’s more benefits outlined for you:

1. It’s Quick to Install and Customisable

 

 The beauty of the system we’d install for you is that it’ll be wireless – therefore it can be installed quickly and with minimal disruption to your building. We installed 14 wireless fire alarm systems across apartment blocks up to 19 storeys high in just 5 weeks, including planning and design time.

And not only that – because they’re wireless devices, they can be easily removed and repositioned, so you can choose to keep them in or take them out once the building’s fireproofing has been addressed.

 

2. It’s Faster at Detecting a Fire

 

Okay, so we have touched upon this one, but it’s an important one to reiterate. Waking watch relies on a person noticing there’s a fire and then they’ve got 15 minutes to alert everyone in the building of the fire to initiate evacuation proceedings. The margin for error for something so incredibly expensive is phenomenal.

Of course, huge credit to the guys who do this job (the ones who do it properly, that is, as we have heard some atrocious horror stories) – but unfortunately, however fine-tuned their process, it’s never going to be as fast or as efficient at detecting and raising an alarm as an automatic fire detection system.

 

3. No Trouble with False Alarms

 

The apartment blocks we’ve done this for have had absolutely NO FALSE ALARMS! Because we use heat detectors and not smoke detectors, they’re designed to only go off when it reaches a certain temperature as opposed to smoke setting it off. So false alarms (that’s the alarm going off and everyone evacuating when there isn’t a real fire) are pretty much completely eliminated (read further down to learn more about how this works).

N.B. We much prefer to refer to false alarms which are triggered by cooking (e.g. burning your bacon sarnie) as being unwanted alarms. At the end of the day, it’s not a fault causing the alarm (i.e. a problem with the alarm) as it’s doing its job – detecting signs of a fire so it can raise the alarm.

Also, as side note, manufacturers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds putting their fire alarm equipment through the testing houses and it is my experience that they just don’t go wrong once the very short bedding in period has been passed.

 

4. It Can be Repurposed as an Evacuation System (Depending on the System and Installation Design)

 

Fire alarms are a tailorable technology which can be repurposed as an evacuation system, if that’s what you would prefer, after the cladding/fireproofing issues have been resolved.

What that means is, your fire alarm will be used to raise an alarm once it detects a fire during the interim period your cladding/fireproofing is being fixed. In this period, because the building’s operating under ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ everyone evacuates when they hear that alarm.

BUT AFTERWARDS, when the underlying problem is fixed and homes are safe to return to ‘Stay Put’, you don’t really need the fire alarm to tell you there’s a fire and you need to get out, because you don’t need to get out – unless the Fire Brigade say so. This can be quite the task for high-risers, so an evacuation system can help here to raise the alarm in specific areas, such as one floor at a time, to let people know they’ve now got to evacuate. The evacuation system, therefore won’t detect a fire or raise the alarm because of a fire, it’ll simply be used as a tool for the Fire Brigade to safely, quickly and efficiently evacuate a building as and when appropriate.

The choice is yours, keep it as a fire alarm or repurpose it as an aid for evacuation!

N.B. Residents MUST be informed on the system used in their building (whether it’s a fire alarm or evacuation system) and the sounds which they make so they know to associate that sound with knowing they’ve got to get out!

Also, if changing the system to an evacuation system is something you want, it’s much better to consider this prior to the initial installation of the fire alarm to allow your fire alarm engineer (i.e. us!) to make allowances in the design for this capability later down the line.

 

5. You’re Covered with Warranty

 

Fire alarm installations are usually under warranty for at least the first year (we offer them with a 5-year warranty when in a servicing subscription – something you have to do for compliance anyway) so if there are any issues then you’ve covered. Unlike humans which aren’t covered under warranty, unfortunately!

Here’s a summary of the main areas of comparison against Waking Watch (notice how fire alarms are all yes!):

 

Feature Waking Watch Fire Alarm
24/7 cover? ✔️ ✔️
Always awake? Not always (from experience) ✔️
In the flats? ✔️
A temporary solution? ✔️ ✔️
A long-term solution? ✔️
One fixed cost? ✔️
Can be removed? ✔️ ✔️
Investment? ✔️

 

Will I Still Need Waking Watch After the Fire Alarm is Installed?

 

The Government has stated:

Common Alarm systems will enable costly Waking Watch measures to be replaced in buildings waiting to have unsafe cladding removed.”

– Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

 

The Government also states that “the guidance is clear: alarms are preferable on the grounds of both safety and cost efficiency.”

We have so far installed fire alarms in excess of 16 residential blocks which have been signed off by their local Fire & Rescue service as being a viable fire safety solution so they were able to stop employing Waking Watch.

We’ll go into this in more depth further down in this post, but in short: your fire alarm is an automatic detection system, which, when properly designed and installed by a BAFE accredited fire alarm company. If you’re told you still need Waking Watch services to assist an automated system do a job it is designed to do – without fag breaks and without continual salary – then it throws into question the efficacy and suitability of the alarm installed.

The Government and all viable fire safety voices on this matter know that a fire alarm must be designed in line with recommendations of BS 5839-1 for a Category L5 system. However, unlike other ‘L’ type systems (which stands for Life Safety), an L5 is a bespoke system. So, one provider’s design and installation will more than likely differ from one installer to the next.

This is why it is so important to consult a trusted, accredited provider (like us!) who’s done this before and will properly survey your building, including a wireless survey (as wireless/radio fire alarms are preferable here, primarily due to their adaptability and quick speed of installation).

Back in 2017, following the Grenfell Tower Fire, the NFCC did explain and concur that a fire alarm was a viable fire safety solution, but they did also talk about the solution of a Waking Watch as another solution. They’ve released more recently in October 2020 a more direct guide and statement on the use of fire alarms instead of Waking Watch, especially considering the abundant reliance on the latter and less effective means of fire protection in non-Stay Put buildings.

Here’s an extract of what they’ve said:

“These amendments underscore the stakeholder group and NFCC’s firm and long-held expectation that building owners should move to install common fire alarms as quickly as possible to reduce or remove the dependence on Waking Watches. This is the clear expectation for buildings where remediation cannot be undertaken in the ‘short term’. This approach should, in almost all circumstances, reduce the financial burden on residents where they are funding the Waking Watches.”

– The National Fire Chiefs Council’s Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance 

 

Where Do I Start ?

 

1. Get a Fire Risk Assessment

 

Don’t wait for it to be flagged by a Fire and Rescue Service spot check or a weary resident. For the many buildings out there, there isn’t the option to scrap it all and start again.

A Fire Risk Assessment will determine what issues relating to fire safety need to be resolved; each with the level of risk and its priority level marked clearly for your understanding of what to do next.

 

Close-up of a WFP engineer writing on a pad of paper on a desk doing a fire risk assessment
Fire Risk Assessments are a key part of your fire safety strategy

 

Fire Risk Assessments are a key part of your fire safety strategy.

Fire Risk Assessments will also tell you the level of fire detection needed (it would usually be an L5 – ‘L’ standing for ‘Life Safety’ – level for tower blocks, which is a bespoke level of coverage). We can sort an assessment for you, so no trouble there! Then it’s on to…

 

2. Install a Fire Alarm System (Don’t Simply Jump to Waking Watch)

 

Following your Fire Risk Assessment and you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll have a better understanding of the level of complexity involved and the time it might take to put it right.

If, like the property developer we recently helped, the building materials and design need improvement, then you’ll need a reliable (and fast) solution in the interim.

You could pay £50k a week for fire watchers. Or you could employ Wire-Free Experts (us!) to install a fire alarm system.

You’ve already read why a fire alarm is better than Waking Watch, and the additional benefits other than it being cheaper and more effective. Now, let’s get into…

How it’d work…

The answers to this and the below question are a little more technical – don’t worry, we’ve got this for you, but in case you want to know a little more detail on how it works and what the installation will include, have a read…

Each flat would have radio (wireless, unless you had a particular reason for wanting a wired alarm system) heat detectors fitted at the entrance lobby and, if the risk requires it, within every room with a window overlooking an external wall, these would be spaced according to the requirements of the NFCC or relevant British Standards (BS5839 Part 1 2017) and connected using radio signals to the nearest radio cluster, which in turn would be connected via radio or wiring to the next point, and ultimately to the control panel on the ground floor.

The control panel would be sited in a location that would alert the building management or concierge. In addition to this, a remote monitoring device would be fitted to provide a secure link to the local Fire & Rescue Service.

Dualcom is a totally wireless, secure, multi-path monitoring device which will signal a monitoring station who will follow the rules set down by the fire engineer, which would typically be to call the Fire & Rescue Service.

How will residents know if the fire alarm system has detected a fire?

Simply fitting heat detectors inside the flats is only half of the solution; it would only let the concierge know that a fire has been detected, therefore it is our recommendation to fit sounders inside the flats to warn the occupants of a fire, generally by emanating from another flat.

There are choices in this regard, and both revolve around sound levels, or to be more specific: can the sound level be measured within the rooms of the flat that the designer is looking to achieve? This sounds complex, but in reality, all we are talking about here is the fire alarm sounder being loud enough to rouse a person from sleep.

Base-mounted sounders, which are simply sounders mounted within the base of the heat detector inside the flat, will provide in the region of 85 dB of sound pressure, measured at 1m (which is how sound is measured), and wall-mounted sounders will provide in the region of 95dB of sound pressure at 1m. Within the British Standards in relation to fire detection within domestic buildings which BS 5839 Part 6 2019 Section 13.2 says that you should achieve 75dB of sound pressure within the bedroom of the flat’s main resident.

 

3. Solving the Underlying Fireproofing & Fire Safety Problems

 

This’ll take a fair bit of time, consideration and planning, but once done it’ll mean the fire safety groundwork is in place to keep the building (and more importantly, the occupants inside) safe, should a fire break out.

In the meantime, having implemented Step 2 with a fire alarm system, you’ll have the peace of mind to implement this final, all-important step with due diligence.

This step could involve measures to improve any or all of the following:

Fireproofing/passive fire protection (a design measurement, which sits dormant)

1. Cladding (to use non-combustible minerals for the insulation layer rather than combustible foam).

2. Compartmentalisation of walls and floors with adequate fire-resistance between them (fire doors also fall within this category).

3. Clear means of escape including considerations taken to stairwells on each level (plus adequate signage indicating fire exit routes).

Active fire protection (responsive systems to extinguish a fire or provider an alert)

1. Sprinkler installation within the communal areas (you can also get these installed on the outside of buildings).

2. Installation and maintenance of dry risers (empty pipes located at ground level for use by the Fire Brigade to connect their water source to, pumping it up to the numerous floor levels in the event of a fire).

 

A Prerequisite for Fire Safety…

 

Each apartment should have its own smoke detectors fitted; usually these will be mains connected and if set off, it will sound in the apartment directly affected but nowhere else.

However, if you’re in a 20+ storey apartment building with a fire started on level 7, slowly working its way up – you want to be able to alert those above and below. With the fire alarm we’d install, this’ll mean heat detectors are installed in each apartment (within each room which faces the outside), which are connected to the main communal fire alarm.

But what if I’ve just burnt my bacon sarnie? Aren’t you going to have the problem of evacuating a whole people for no reason?

Simply, no. Remember what we said further up about no false alarms? The heat detector will not be set off by smoke so false alarms like burning a bacon sarnie won’t result in an alarm. Heat detectors are meticulously designed to respond when its in-built thermistor goes beyond 58°C (or another pre-set temperature). Once that happens, the sounders within the communal areas on each level will omit 100dB of sound, which is reduced to approximately 70-80dB from inside the apartments (taking into account that fire doors reduce the sound by around 20-30dB) – but don’t worry, that’s definitely still loud enough!

N.B. Flats should always have their own smoke alarms independent of the fire alarm we talk about in this article, which is linked to a communal system. These smoke alarms should be mains wired with a tamper-proof battery back-up. And remember, they’ll only sound if they detect smoke in your flat. But if the heat detectors we install – which are linked to the communal system – detects a heat indicative of a fire, then it will let everyone else know (provided there are sounders).

 

Our Case Study: Fire Alarm Installation in a Residential Tower

 

Our fire alarm installation for a UK property developer faced with a fire-proofing dilemma was awarded a finalist position for ‘Fire Safety Solution of the Year’ in 2019’s London Construction Awards.

LCA Fire Safety Solution of the Year 2019 Finalist Logo

What did we do? Let’s start with…

 

1. The Problem

 

The building’s passive fire protection needed vast improvement. The walls surrounding apartment doors were fireproofed. The doors themselves were fireproofed (fire doors can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on their design).

But the wall space above the door had no fireproofing.

With fires, where there’s a will there’s a way. There is always the will. And the wall space above is the way – a direct route for it to follow, completely negating the thought and work put into the surrounding areas.

 

2. The Solution

 

 To rectify the problem would take a lot of time and acquiring the right people to research and implement the necessary measures. The key word being time.

Because once done, you won’t be looking to do it again any time soon. It’ll be the bedrock and foundation that’ll keep your building safe in years to come (so long as it’s well maintained).

You know the problem’s there, it needs to be addressed, but you need a reliable solution in the interim.

At the time when we arrived on site to survey the apartment building, the property management company were paying £50k a week for fire watchers who would patrol the building 24/7 to look out for fire-related emergencies, ready to create an alert to evacuate the building if needed.

Our job was to get a physical fire alarm system in there to protect the building and the people inside of it. The fastest way to do this was to install a wireless fire alarm. The alarm system doesn’t require the infrastructure of wiring, except from the signal booster, and the connection between the mains and the control panel. This process doesn’t only grant speed, but also flexibility as devices can be easily repositioned or removed.

We installed 14 brand new radio/wireless fire alarm systems across 400+ apartments within blocks up to 19 storeys high. All within a timeframe of 5 weeks.

Wired systems, by comparison, can take months depending on the complexity of the building.

Residents experienced minimal disruption and invasiveness. Each one of the apartments had heat detectors installed, which were linked to the external fire alarm system within the communal areas.

 

3. The Result

 

Goodbye Waking Watch and forking out £50k a week! The property developer, the property management company and the residents can all rest assured that they’ve got a reliable solution which will pay for itself in peace of mind (and in saving £100k a month on Waking Watch).

 

4. Conclusion

 

Now that Pandora’s Box is well and truly opened, the victims of this issue need direction on solutions and some peace of mind. The government should step in and bang some heads together including the insurance industry and fire professionals and come up with an acceptable answer that relieves this bottleneck and gives some direction for the people stuck in this nightmare.

There is a good solution to the overly excessive costs for Waking watch,  which could be removed once the cladding has been dealt with, which could be short term, however, given how slowly this has moved until this point, I would suggest that you’ll be living with this for a lot longer than anticipated.

Addressing the issue of payment for this is something that the Government should be considering, but decisions need to be made quickly as this is fixable with the correct incentive.

 

 

What You Need to Do Now!

 

If you’re a RESIDENT and you’re looking for some advice, a PROPERTY MANAGER/AGENT looking for a more efficient and cost-effective solution to Waking Watch (or in addition to), or a PROPERTY DEVELOPER looking for a fire safety specialist to advise on existing or pending builds to overcome or avoid the issues mentioned in this article, we’re here to help!

 

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