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The news is regularly filled with reports of injuries and fatalities caused by smoke inhalation and fire, often started accidentally. Unfortunately many of these occur in social housing and homes in multiple occupancy.
One thing that can greatly reduce the risks associated with fire is sprinklers. Various fire authorities and pressure groups are encouraging social landlords to retrofit their high risk properties with sprinklers.
In February 2014 it was the National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group’s (a body representing over 1 million homes) “National Sprinkler Week”, which aimed to increase awareness of the benefits of sprinklers, particularly in social housing.
There is also increasing pressure on the government to make the installation of sprinklers in residential homes compulsory. Similar legislation has existed in Wales since 2011, and by 2016 all new homes built in Wales will, by law, have sprinklers installed.
It is likely that there will be some moves towards the introduction of compulsory sprinklers in England over the next decade.
Some Councils have decided to pre-empt any move by the government, for example Southwark Council is to retrofit sprinklers to its sheltered housing and Tamworth and Leeds Councils are also following suit and installing sprinklers in some high risk buildings.
Comparisons can easily be drawn between sprinklers and seat belts. Originally seat belts were optional, but their ability to save lives quickly became apparent and as such they are a key part of vehicle safety today.
Likewise, sprinklers are likely to form a key part of provisions designed to protect lives and, to a lesser extent, property in the future.
Whilst sprinklers are not, as yet, compulsory in residential homes in England there are a variety of different obligations in relation to fire safety that arise from various different laws. These obligations can be broadly categorised to cover three distinct areas – common areas, appliances and furnishings.
Failure to comply with any one of them can lead to fines and criminal convictions, as well as negative publicity, should the worst happen in a non-compliant property.
Since the introduction of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) in the Housing Act 2004, fire has been included as one of 29 recognised hazards. This provides the local housing authority with a framework for assessing the risk of fire as well as various enforcement powers, including emergency remedial works, prevention orders etc.
In assessing fire safety, the cost of remedial works is irrelevant and as such it is important to address fire safety concerns before letting a property to a tenant.
To comply with the HHSRS all dwellings should be free from avoidable hazards and designed in such a way as to minimise the risk of being a fire hazard.
Further fire safety laws are also in place, most importantly the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (Order). This places an obligation on the ‘responsible person’ (eg a social landlord or in some cases the managing agent) to undertake a full fire risk assessment into the common areas of all of their properties, including stairwells, entrance halls, refuse areas etc.
The responsible person should then take action to minimise the risk of fire.
Once the risk assessment has been undertaken and actions implemented, the responsible person has a general obligation to put in place a suitable system of maintenance and ensure that any procedures have been implemented correctly.
There is some scope for social landlords to transfer the role of the responsible person. Whilst it is unlikely that the local authority will willingly accept that a social landlord has contracted out of its statutory obligations in relation to fire safety, the responsible person is defined by the Order as the person who has control over the premises.
It is therefore possible that a managing agent could be the responsible person, depending on the terms of the agreement between the social landlord and the managing agent.
Fire safety precautions that should be considered are wide. For example fire fighting equipment, escape routes and fire detection should all be considered, in addition to measures to reduce the risk and spread of fire.
Obligations on social landlords regarding appliances and furnishings are much less onerous than those regarding common areas. All gas fittings and flues should be correctly maintained (including an annual service) and an annual gas safety check should be carried out, with a copy of the gas safety certificate given to the tenant.
Any furniture or furnishings supplied must comply with the relevant fire safety regulations. Most items brought recently should comply, but older items may not.
Although sprinklers may become compulsory in social housing in England in the future, given the obvious benefits of sprinklers in preventing injury and death, it is worth landlords considering the installation of sprinklers into their properties, especially given the prevalence of fires in social housing and homes in multiple occupancy.
Whilst the current obligations are not particularly onerous, the penalties for not complying can be severe so it is well worth keeping fire safety under regular review, even if social landlords decide that sprinklers are not a workable option.
This article was written by Rob Eastern.
For more information please contact Rob on +44 (0)1483 252622 or firstname.lastname@example.org