Forking out thousands for waking watch? STOP!

There’s a more efficient and cost-effective solution recommended by the NFCC to help you solve your interim fire safety issues whilst you look into rectifying your cladding and fireproofing problems: installing an automatic fire detection and alarm system.

Fire safety is entering a new era of enlightenment.

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 dozens that are still standing which do not have adequate 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.

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 including 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).

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. However, many residents are not only facing living in a building with inadequate means to keep them safe in the event of a fire, but because of this failing they’re finding they can’t sell their properties and their homes have massively devalued. And it doesn’t stop there, many leaseholders are facing surges in service charges as a result of increased insurance premiums for buildings with a lack of adequate fire safety measures.

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

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.

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.

And the good news is there are experts out there who can help.

But before we get into it, let’s answer a couple of important questions…

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

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) have produced recommendations explaining what you need to do: 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 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 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).
  • 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.

What Does ‘Waking Watch’ Mean?

waking watch warden

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

  1. Detect a fire in and 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

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.

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.”

Inside Housing also noted “figures [from Responses to Freedom of Information Act requests] that “fire authorities attended 300 fires at these blocks 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.”

So, what’s the best solution to poor fireproofing and cladding?

  1. Get a Fire Risk Assessment
  2. Install a fire alarm system OR waking watch (but a fire alarm is more cost efficient, and more efficient full stop at detecting early warning signs of a fire)
  3. Solve the underlying fireproofing design issues

Get a Fire Risk Assessment

Close-up of a WFP engineer writing on a pad of paper on a desk doing 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.

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

Close-up of architect drawing a floor plan with a black marker on white paper

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.”

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.

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.

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 guess what, they’ve 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).

(The project was awarded a finalist position in the London Construction Awards for ‘Fire Safety Solution of the Year’ 2019!) Scroll down further to read the case study.

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.

You’ll have found your reliable temporary solution that could continue to incorporate part of your long-term fire safety solution – the choice is yours!

How it’d work…

Each flat would have radio (wireless) 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.

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 Step 2 implemented, this’ll mean heat detectors are installed within each apartment 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. 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!

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. What did we do? Let’s start with…

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.

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.

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).

What Next?

They can either choose to keep the wireless fire alarm systems for the duration of time it takes to solve the core issue of passive fire protection/fireproofing (which could take months or even years!) and remove it afterwards (which would be quite easily done as they are wireless rather than wired devices).

Or…they can keep the system running in there and continue to maintain it as part of the residential tower blocks’ fire safety infrastructure.

The great thing about fire alarms is they are an adaptable technology. For instance, you can disable the sounders on the system so that the fire alarm would still operate, but instead of sounding within each flat, it will call the Fire Brigade automatically and alert any concierge or desk staff that a fire has occurred. One other key advantage of this is that if you ever need to re-enable the sounders, you can simply change the programming to re-enable them and you are back to the initial design level – hey presto!

Our team has extensive experience in fire alarms and have installed systems as an alternative to waking watch (or fire watch), and have the experience to be able to offer advice on how best to achieve a solution to the problem that you may be faced with.

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!

Call 01277 724 653 or email help@w-fp.co.uk

FAQs

Why don’t we install smoke detectors inside flats but heat detectors instead?

The main reason for not installing smoke detectors in a domestic setting is that they are much more likely to be triggered by the smoke from cooking or other sources of smoke, such as e-cigarettes; therefore it is recommended that a heat detector is used, which, from our testing is much less likely to cause a false alarm.

What level or design of fire alarm is required in a block of residential flats?

This will be an L5 design of fire alarm, which is essentially bespoke, depending on the building’s individual requirements as per the Fire Risk Assessment and minimum requirements as per the British Standards BS 5839. Your fire alarm company (i.e. us!) will work with your risk assessor (if it’s not us) to ensure it’ll meet the requirements of your building.

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. You’ll see an extract of this within Appendix 1 below, which is significant when compared with hotel rooms which require the sound level to be 75dB at the bedhead of every single bedroom. However, the NFCC recommends a much higher standard of 85dB at the open doors of the bedroom.

Got a question which you don’t see here? Call 01277 724 653 or email help@w-fp.co.uk and we’ll be happy to help!

Appendix 1

Extract from BS 5839-6 2019, 13.1.2 Audibility

A fire detection and alarm system only provides satisfaction protection of life if it is capable of rousing the principal occupants of the dwelling from sleep (e.g. the adult occupants in a typical single-family dwelling). No particular sound pressure level is certain to rouse all occupants of a dwelling in all circumstances. Depth of sleep varies during the course of the sleep period and also varies from one person to another. Greater sound pressure levels are often required to rouse children from sleep than is necessary in the case of adults. BS 5839-1 recommends that, if an audible alarm is intended to rouse sleeping persons, a sound level of 75dB should be achieved at the bedhead when all doors are shut, although this will not guarantee that every person will be awakened, particularly if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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Post by Paul Field

Paul Field

Hello, I’m Paul – the Founder and Managing Director of WFP Fire & Security. I started my career in the Royal Navy before becoming a fire alarm engineer and finding my vocation in helping premises find reliably fire safety and security solutions.

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