Last Updated on 27 November 2023.
In Scotland, it’s the law to have emergency evacuation alert systems in residential buildings above 18m.
It’s believed this will eventually become the standard across the UK, especially as we’re seeing more stringent fire safety regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 and the subsequent cladding scandal.
The following article is a helpful read if you live in a high-rise building, or if you manage or build high-rise buildings.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
What is the difference between a fire alarm and an evacuation system?
Unlike fire detection and alarm systems (which detects signs of a fire through smoke and/or heat, thus triggering an alarm to notify building inhabitants), an evacuation alert system is for the Fire & Rescue Service to control an evacuation upon their attendance following the alert that there’s a fire.
Fire alarms are also more commonly used and legally required in commercial premises, but evacuation alert systems are used primarily in buildings containing flats (and in Scotland, it’s the law to have them in high-rises above 18m).
Your building’s fire alarm is handled by people on the premises – such as a site manager, caretaker, security or concierge – where a responsible person will be tasked with carrying out weekly testing and liaising with their fire alarm maintenance company (i.e. us!) if any faults arise and to organise periodical maintenance, which typically occurs every six month depending on the Fire Risk Assessment stipulations.
Your evacuation alert system (also called ‘Evacuation Alert Control & Indicating Equipment’ or simply an ‘Evacuation System’), however, is for use solely by the Fire Brigade when they attend a building to fight a fire.
The evacuation system is similar to a fire alarm in that it sounds an alarm, but how it’s different is that it is used to tell people that it’s now time to evacuate, and the alarm can be controlled to create an alert floor by floor, instead of the entire building at once.
Pretty smart, eh?
Your evacuation system won’t serve you in the way a normal fire alarm does; in other words, it cannot detect a fire.
An evacuation system is simply a tool to use to help the Fire Brigade do their job to safely get people out as quickly and effectively as possible.
You won’t see triggering devices such as fire detectors or manual call points for this reason. But, similar to a fire alarm, you might notice that sounders are visible on floors to allow the warning sounds/alarms to be heard.
What is the BS 8629:2019?
This is the British Standard (published by the British Standards Institution, or BSI Group) which recommends and instructs the correct way to install this type of system.
Its official title is the ‘Code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems for use by the Fire and Rescue Service in buildings containing flats’ – nice and snappy, I know.
This will be what your fire protection company (people like us who you employ to install your evacuation alert system) will be working to when they carry out the installation to make sure it’s compliant.
It’s also important to adhere to these British Standards for continuity and uniformity reasons; since it’s used by the Fire Brigade, all evacuation systems should really look and operate in the same way for ease of use.
The British Standard for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems, by contrast, is the BS 5839:2017 (Part 1 is for commercial buildings and Part 6 is for domestic use).
The BS 8629 does not incorporate warnings to occupants via a speech message (pre-recorded or live) or two-way communication.
These voice alarm systems also have their own section of recommendations within British Standards in BS 5839 (Part 8).
Why do you need a building evacuation system?
Imagine a building with, say, 30 storeys.
There is a fire on the 10th floor and the lift has been suspended, leaving only one central staircase for both the firefighters to use and for everyone to evacuate.
If the whole building used that staircase to evacuate whilst those firefighters were trying to get up there to fight the fire, it would be disastrous.
So, instead, when the fire brigade attend, they can use the evacuation system panel on the ground floor to isolate the 10th floor, and perhaps also the 9th and 11th floors, first by sounding the alarm on those floors to get those people to evacuate first, creating a more managed and controlled evacuation, allowing them to fight the fire quickly and effectively.
Remember, if your building is in ‘Stay Put’ mode either because it has no fire safety failures or those failures have been rectified, then should a fire break out in your building, your apartment, and the surrounding walls and doors, should be fortified enough to protect you, so there is no need to evacuate unless the Fire Brigade deems you need to.
So, that’s why you won’t see these evacuation systems in ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ buildings, i.e., with those failures, as they will need to evacuate immediately if there is a fire; these evacuation systems are for buildings deemed fire safe to simply manage an evacuation should there need to be one in the event there ever is a fire.
Check out the below diagram to demonstrate:
How does a building evacuation system work?
Each section of a building, typically a floor, will be considered an evacuation alert zone, so the Fire Brigade can then control which zones/floors/areas hear the warning sound to evacuate by means of a manual toggle-switch for manual operation by the Fire & Rescue team, and a series of LED lights to indicate to them which zones have been ordered to evacuate.
The evacuation alert panel is housed in a security-rated enclosure with a patented BS EN 1303-compliant lock and key mechanism for the Fire Brigade’s exclusive access and use so unauthorised use will be restricted.
The evacuation system will usually be designed in such a way that it allows for expansion or adaptation.
If your high-rise tower block has a fire alarm, for instance, you’ll find that this can be adapted and used as an evacuation system once the building has returned to its ‘Stay Put’ policy. (This is where, for instance, a temporary fire safety solution (a fire alarm) was needed due to the identification of fire safety failings, such as poor cladding or inadequate internal fireproofing, and during this time the building went from its usual ‘Stay Put’ policy to a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ policy.)
This is another reason to turn to a fire alarm installation, instead of waking watch, in failing fire safety tower blocks, as it offers this later adaptability once the cladding/fireproofing has been resolved, thereby providing a temporary and long-term solution that’ll be a solid investment in the building’s overall fire safety.
Think of your fire alarm like a transformer.
It’s important to note here that if it is intended for a fire alarm to be adapted for use as an evacuation system later down the line, this should be catered for in the design of the fire alarm before installation.
Also, if a fire alarm is, instead, left to co-exist with an evacuation system, the two will operate independently of one another.
Are evacuation alert systems wired or wireless?
They can be both, but radio/wireless systems are preferred if you’re retrofitting into existing buildings as it’s much a much faster, less invasive and more adaptable installation.
For brand new buildings, a wired system would be more cost effective. It is also possible to use hybrid systems which used elements of both wired and wireless.
When is a building evacuation system needed and are they a requirement?
A huge reason the BS 8629 was published back in November 2019 was in response to the Scottish Government’s legal guidance that these evacuation alert systems should be installed in all new blocks of flats standing at or more than 18m above ground level.
After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the Scottish Government Ministerial Working Group (MWG) conducted reviews into fire safety in high-rise buildings to ensure all recommendations were revised and tightened where appropriate.
The same is happening across the UK, where devolved governments are taking their own steps to create blanket recommendations and rulings on fire safety in high-rise residential buildings.
This is not currently a legal requirement in England as it is in Scotland, however it is anticipated that we won’t be far behind.
(The Fire Safety Bill is currently awaiting the House of Commons’ consideration of the House of Lords’ amendments, which will likely see further changes and clarity to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which predates Grenfell Tower and thus is in much need of a review to address fire safety stipulations not previously adhered to in both domestic and commercial premises.)
Is there Government funding available for the installation of evacuation systems?
No, there is not (at least not presently).
However, there is Government funding available for the installation of fire alarm systems (the ‘Waking Watch Relief Fund’, if you are paying for waking watch) and you can discuss with your fire alarm installer about wanting the system to be adapted for use as an evacuation system after cladding/fireproofing remediation has taken place, which they can make sure the infrastructure and design allows for when you’re ready.
What is the difference between an evacuation system and an evacuation plan?
An evacuation plan is basically your emergency plan of what you need to do and consider when a fire-related incident occurs, but the evacuation system is what your Fire Brigade will use to assist with a controlled evacuation.
Not all buildings will have or need an evacuation system, but every building – commercial or residential – will need an evacuation plan of how they will deal with a fire should it happen.
This will usually include:
- What to do if you discover a fire
- How is the alarm raised to alert everyone there is a fire?
- What do you do if you hear the alarm?
- Does anyone in the building require a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP)? E.g. for the elderly or disabled.
- Who calls the emergency services and helps lead an evacuation?
- Are there clear exit signs and a known route to exit, as well as an assembly point?
As Benjamin Franklin would say, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.
You will usually see your building’s evacuation plan in a central, communal area, which also sometimes has a floor plan of your building to demonstrate where the exit routes are. It might look something a little like the below…
Got a question about evacuation systems that you don’t see here? Or need help installing a fire alarm or emergency evacuation system? Contact us today!
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