Fire safety: improving building safety

Prevention is better than cure

20 June 2011

Phil Buckle looks at how to improve building safety to reduce the cost of fires in the home

In May 2010, RICS President, Robert Peto, said that building control professionals need to engage with colleagues in related disciplines, to fulfil the profession’s role as a leading economic driver. Meetings between RICS and the Electrical Safety Council (ESC), a UK charity committed to reducing deaths and injuries caused by electrical accidents at home and work, found much common ground.

The UK’s electrical industry has a strong safety record, yet every year in the UK, about 70 people die (source: WHO, HSE and CLG data) and 1.2m are injured in electrical accidents in the home (source: Ipsos Mori online panel June/July 2010). There are also more than 20,000 fires in homes each year that occur through misuse of, or faults with, electrical appliances or installations (source: CLG Fire Statistics 2007). Today’s challenging economic climate has increased discussion of the pros and cons of prevention, detection and suppression of fires.

The UK government’s Fire Kills campaign, which has focused on the installation and use of smoke alarms, has been a resounding success. At the beginning of the campaign, they were installed in only 9% of households, but are now recognised and used by over 80% of households (source: English Housing Conditions Survey 2004/05).

Prevention is the best way to increase fire safety in residential properties: however, one safety device, long established but still largely unknown to the general public, is the residual current device (RCD). An RCD is a potentially life-saving device designed to prevent a fatal electric shock if a person touches something live, such as a bare wire – a level of personal protection that ordinary fuses or circuitbreakers cannot provide. A DTI report from 1997 also suggested that RCDs can reduce the risk of fire.

ESC research indicates that more than half the homes in the UK (13m according to BRE data) don’t have adequate RCD protection installed. Government research also indicates that approximately 4,000 domestic fires (i.e. 20% of fires having an electrical origin, according to a DTI Report 1997) might have been prevented if RCD protection had been fitted and functioning in the consumer unit or fuse box.

While all new builds since 2008 have been required to include RCD protection to cover virtually all circuits in a home, there are a considerable number of older properties without comprehensive RCD protection. The requirements in the UK Wiring Regulations (BS 7671) regarding the installation of RCDs have increased significantly over the past few decades as the safety benefits became more evident. Although these regulations are non-statutory they may be used in a court of law to illustrate compliance with a statutory requirement and are considered the industry standard.

In 1991, the initial requirement was simply to provide RCD protection for a socket outlet used to supply outdoor portable electrical equipment. The requirement was later extended to cover every socket outlet rated up to 32A that might reasonably be used to supply electrical equipment for use outdoors. Then in 2008 the 17th edition of the IEE Wiring Regulations (BS 7671:2008) introduced requirements for all socket outlets in new and rewired domestic premises to be RCD-protected as well, as most, if not all, concealed circuits (including lighting circuits), unless alternative measures are taken to protect the cables against penetration.

...building control professionals need to engage with colleagues in related disciplines, to fulfil the profession's role
- Robert Peto

The UK’s requirement to RCD-protect all concealed circuits exceeds the minimum requirements of the equivalent International and European standards on which BS 7671 is based. This is because the joint BSI/IET committee responsible for the technical content of BS 7671 wanted to address the potential dangers that can arise when concealed cables in walls are penetrated by, for example, nails and screws. Such accidents had caused several electrocutions in homes previously. However, as none of these requirements applied retrospectively, around half of UK homes have yet to benefit from the additional protection RCDs in consumer units provide.

Last May, the ESC launched its campaign, Plug into Safety, to raise consumer awareness and promote the use of RCDs. The campaign, planned to run for five years, has been covered across all media channels and involves extensive stakeholder engagement and industry collaboration. While the fundamental message is straightforward, achieving the objective – increasing RCD protection over the next five years in 10% more UK homes than would 'naturally' occur via new requirements in BS 7671:2008 – will be a major challenge.

Besides effective RCD protection, the ESC recommends that developers and surveyors consider regular periodic inspection reports (PIRs) – which from July 2011 will be known as ‘electrical installation condition reports’ – to help ensure and maintain electrical and fire safety in buildings. A PIR is an assessment of the electrical installation only; it does not include electrical appliances or products. There is no statutory obligation for regular PIRs in commercial premises, although the Electricity at Work Regulations require that all electrical systems are safe and maintained. PIRs are a legal requirement for HMOs, but not single-occupancy rented accommodation (owner/occupiers are recommended to arrange a PIR every 10 years).

The ESC advises that in rented properties PIRs are undertaken at least every five years, or on change of tenancy. A number of housing associations undertake this as a matter of best practice and many surveyors view PIRs as part of the comprehensive survey process. PIRs can be of particular importance in mixed-use premises, such as HMOs, where unrelated occupiers, who live independently from one another, share common areas of the same building.

Common areas may not be fitted with fire-detection and warning systems (although self-contained smoke alarms should normally be fitted within each accommodation unit). Where a property has been converted to self-contained flats, bedsits or an HMO, and the conversion is not in accordance with current Building Regulations, a common ‘mixed’ firedetection ystem will generally be required. Specialist advice from a competent fire safety consultant should be sought and the level and type of detection based on the outcome of a fire risk assessment.

A guide to electrical safety in communal areas of residential properties is being developed by the ESC in collaboration with the Association of Residential Managing Agents and leading housing associations. The guide is available both electronically and in hard copy. ESC has also been asked to contribute to new government guidance on fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats.

While the ESC supports government’s attempt to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, it has concerns regarding the possible removal of elements of Part P from the Building Regulations for England and Wales: all electrical installation work in a home, garden, conservatory or outbuilding must comply with Part P.

Part P states that anyone carrying out electrical installation work in a home must make sure that the work is designed and installed to protect people from electric shock and fire. It applies to newly built homes and any changes made to existing installations, including any parts that have been rewired. Part P also requires that, with certain exceptions, all domestic electrical installation work must either be reported to the relevant building control body, or carried out by an electrician who is registered with one of the government’s authorised competent person schemes.

The ESC believes the removal of Part P from the Building Regulations would adversely impact on consumer safety in England and Wales. Its concern is that it would reduce the use of registered electricians who have been assessed as competent to undertake Part P work and potentially increase the activities of rogue traders and inexperienced DIYers.

Adequate RCD protection, regular PIRs and effective enforcement of Part P would all help ensure that electrical injuries and fires in homes could be effectively reduced. We believe electrical installation work must only be carried out by people who have the knowledge, skill and experience to avoid danger to themselves and others. It’s easy to make an electrical circuit work: it’s much harder to make it work safely. And putting the right preventative measures in place is a cost-effective way of protecting lives and property.

The ESC produces a series of best practice guides. For further technical information on how you can protect against fires of an electrical origin, see Best Practice Guide number 5 Electrical Installations And Their Impact On The Fire Performance Of Buildings, which covers domestic premises but not HMOs.

Landlord guides (one covers England and Wales, there is a separate booklet for Scotland) provide further information, including electrical safety requirements for HMOs.

Phil Buckle is Director General of the ESC