As the Fire Safety Act 2021 attracts controversy, Nick Rutter, FireAngel’s chief product officer, shares new ways to cut fire risks in social housing.
The Fire Safety Act 2021 updates the Fire Safety Order 2005 to clarify who is accountable for reducing the risk of fires in England and Wales. The duty-holder or building owner for multi-occupancy, residential buildings is now legally responsible for managing and reducing fire risks regarding the structure and external walls of the building, such as cladding, balconies and windows, and all doors to individual flats that open into communal areas.
The government has introduced a £5 billion scheme to help pay for removing unsafe cladding on buildings over 18 metres tall, and it plans to introduce a long-term, low-interest loan arrangement for smaller buildings. However, the Commons Housing Select Committee has urged the government to establish a new, larger fund “that addresses the true scale of fire safety issues”.
The act is by no means the end of the post-Grenfell overhaul. The Building Safety Bill, published in July 2021, aims to transform the existing fire safety system and increase accountability, transparency, and oversight of fire safety throughout the life of a building.
Under the proposals, a new national regulator will be established to maximise fire safety during a building’s design, construction, completion and eventual occupation. The government also plans to change the law to give homeowners 15 years – rather than six – to take action against rogue developers. In addition, new British Standards Institution guidance is expected by the end of the year regarding personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled, aged, and vulnerable residents.
However, there are also new intelligent ways to cut risks in social housing that can be implemented now to support the aims of the bill and Fire Safety Act 2021 and ultimately protect tenants, building managers, and landlords.
Using technology to cut fire risks in social housing
By introducing connected technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), social landlords can relieve some of the burden of fire prevention and make life safer for their tenants. Post-Grenfell, more than 400 ‘waking watches’ were established around the country to monitor buildings, costing Londoners alone £145 million per year. This sum is equivalent to more than a third of the London Fire Brigade’s annual budget, essential for keeping the capital safe from life-threatening disasters such as fires, terrorist threats and flooding.
Relying on humans for fire prevention should not be the only intervention and is not financially sustainable in the long-term. With remote monitoring and cloud connectivity of smoke detectors, social landlords can streamline fire prevention, and create an opportunity for centralised, off-site monitoring.
Connected technology can be installed within the parameters of an existing budget, and support waking watches in the short-term by sending instant notifications when an alarm is activated, any devices are removed from the base, or a tenant needs assistance.
Looking to the future, a combination of IoT, robust fire detection and alert systems and evacuation plans unique to each resident’s needs could replace the need for on-site waking watches completely.
Connection to the IoT also enables landlords to monitor essential features such as the building’s age and condition and the wear and tear of electrical appliances. This combination of IoT and AI technologies provides a 24/7 overview of buildings and their changing fire risks, collecting data that can be analysed for trends and patterns, in turn, supporting the transparency aims of the Building Safety Bill.
Opting for a person-centred approach to fire safety
Connected technology can not only monitor the risk level of a building but its residents, providing critical data on their physical or mental status. Cognitive and physical impairments are factors that can influence the probability of a fire, fire detection and the ability to extinguish it or evacuate the property, placing disabled, aged, and vulnerable residents most at risk. In multiple-occupancy houses, terraced homes, and high-rise buildings, a major fire does not just put a single household in danger but potentially hundreds of lives.
For aged tenants and the estimated 43 per cent of social housing residents who live with a long-term disability, the use of cutting-edge technology that remotely monitors the home environment 24/7 has the potential to prevent life-threatening events.
Technologies that are already familiar to many of these tenants, such as panic buttons or fall detectors, can be combined with new sensors that build on traditional fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors to provide holistic support. For example, in the event of a cooker fire, a traditional heat alarm would trigger once the fire has ignited and the temperature has already reached a hazardous level. However, installing a stove guard would effectively prevent cooker fires by intelligently switching electric cookers off before a fire can start.
With the right solution to combine these sensors and smart devices, social landlords can build a tailored IoT network to detect fire, carbon monoxide, and dangerous temperatures. The network can then send rapid alerts to waking watch patrollers, building managers and support systems such as neighbours or carers to maximise tenant protection and alleviate danger promptly.
Identifying high-risk tenants
Building owners and management teams can use a purpose-built safety solution for fire detection and prevention, with a central cloud-based dashboard where social housing providers can access device and sensor data. It can be connected via cellular signals for higher reliability than Wi-Fi to ensure tenants are kept safe even if the internet connection is interrupted.
These solutions can also monitor data over time to highlight trends and inform landlords when they need to check in with their tenants. For example, it can show if a tenant’s alarm is frequently removed or triggered due to food being left in the oven too long.
Using connected technology, a person-centred approach can be applied to fire safety procedures and systems. Adopting this approach means safeguards can be implemented, managed, and maintained according to a resident’s individual needs, helping to support the aims of the Fire Safety Act 2021, designed to “ensure that people feel safe in their homes, and a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire never happens again”.
As tenants at risk await further legislative updates, now is the time for the fire industry and social landlords to keep pace with the future of fire safety and adopt new ways of protecting resident wellbeing.
Nick Rutter is FireAngel’s chief product officer