Forking out thousands for waking watch? STOP!

We’re on site RIGHT NOW at a London tower block installing a fire alarm so they can get rid of Waking Watch. Here’s a quick video showing what we’re doing there:

Before we get into it, we need to urgently cover with you the topic of…

Whether you’re a leaseholder, tenant, property manager or developer, if you’re paying for waking watch or facing having to pay for waking watch as a result of fire safety failings in your residential building, this article is a must-read.

But just before we get into it, we need to address…

The £30m Waking Watch Relief Fund

The Government announced a new £30m fund to assist high-rise buildings with dangerous cladding get fire alarms installed so they no longer have to rely on costly waking watch to protect residents and fire safety requirements.

The fund will cover the cost of alarms installed on or after 17th December 2020. So, time is of the essence here.

The application process is due to start in January 2021; the Government is presently working with local authorities, and Fire and Rescue Services, to get this rolled out.

The fund is separate to the £1.6bn which was pledged by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP last year to contribute to the cladding removal/remedials which are the end necessary result.

There’s 573 blocks in London alone using waking watch, saddling each flat owner with around £256 per month to cover the costs. Up in Birmingham, leaseholders of one building which hasn’t passed insurance safety standards are being legally forced to contribute £9,200 per year towards Waking Watch bills, and that’s before the increased service charges which include a building insurance which has risen from £62,000 to £263,000 a year.

It’s without a doubt the £30m grant will not be enough to stretch to all of the affected blocks needing a fire alarm (we predict it’ll cover about 240-300 buildings), but it is a start and a positive move forward for all of the residents experiencing unbelievable service charges and insurance costs, coupled with homes valued at £0 that are proving impossible to sell.

Am I eligible for the fund?

You’ll be eligible for the fund if:

  • You are in the private sector
  • Your building is over 18 metres in height
  • Your building has been found to have an unsafe cladding/fireproofing system
  • The leaseholders in your building have been saddled with costs towards a Waking Watch as the intermediary fire safety solution

The fund will provided on an application basis, first-come-first-served, and will only cover the cost of alarms installed on or after 17th December 2020. This is to encourage the many, many buildings which continue to depend on Waking Watch as their fire safety solution whilst the cladding/fireproofing is getting sorted.

Remember to subscribe on one of the forms on this page to be notified of when this opens up and to receive your free help with a tell-all guide and a consultation with one of our fire alarm experts.

In the meantime, we encourage all Responsible Persons for fire safety in residential tower blocks to consult with their local Fire & Rescue Service, to have a Fire Risk Assessment if you haven’t already and/or reach out to a fire alarm company (like us) who can help you get started to consider and compare cost and logistical options.

(Not sure who your Responsible Person is for fire safety in your building? The best place to start is by asking your Property Management Company as this will usually either sit with them or they will advise you. Click here to learn more about the Responsible Person and what this means.)

Don’t forget to discuss with your residents and leaseholders your intentions. The sooner you know you’re eligible and have started these important conversations, the sooner your application can be sent off and the sooner you can get your fire alarm in and your Waking Watch out.

Won’t I still need Waking Watch after the fire alarm is installed?

The Government has stated:

Common Alarm systems will enable costly Waking Watch measures to be replaced in buildings waiting to have unsafe cladding removed.”

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Government also states that “the guidance is clear: alarms are preferable on the grounds of both safety and cost efficiency.”

We have so far installed fire alarms in 11 residential blocks which have been signed off by their local Fire & Rescue service as being a viable fire safety solution so they were able to stop employing Waking Watch.

We’ll go into this in more depth further down in this post, but in short: your fire alarm is an automatic detection system, which, when properly designed and installed by a BAFE accredited fire alarm company. If you’re told you still need Waking Watch services to assist an automated system do a job it is designed to do – without fag breaks and without continual salary – then it throws into question the efficacy and suitability of the alarm installed.

The Government and all viable fire safety voices on this matter know that a fire alarm must be designed in line with recommendations of BS 5839-1 for a Category L5 system. However, unlike other ‘L’ type systems (which stands for Life Safety), an L5 is a bespoke system. So, one provider’s design and installation will more than likely differ from one installer to the next. This is why it is so important to consult a trusted, accredited provider (like us!) who’s done this before and will properly survey your building, including a wireless survey (as wireless/radio fire alarms are preferable here, primarily due to their adaptability and quick speed of installation).

Back in 2017, following the Grenfell Tower Fire, the NFCC did explain and concur that a fire alarm was a viable fire safety solution, but they did also talk about the solution of a Waking Watch as another solution. They’ve released more recently in October 2020 a more direct guide and statement on the use of fire alarms instead of Waking Watch, especially considering the abundant reliance on the latter and less effective means of fire protection in non-Stay Put buildings. Here’s an extract of what they’ve said:

“These amendments underscore the stakeholder group and NFCC’s firm and long-held expectation that building owners should move to install common fire alarms as quickly as possible to reduce or remove the dependence on waking watches. This is the clear expectation for buildings where remediation cannot be undertaken in the ‘short term’. This approach should, in almost all circumstances, reduce the financial burden on residents where they are funding the waking watches.”

The National Fire Chiefs Council’s Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance

Read on to learn more about the current fire safety failures, understand key definitions, underline the real facts and benefits, and importantly – what you can get moving on now so you can get rid of your costly and inefficient Waking Watch.

Key Topics Covered in This Article:

1 – A new era for fire safety8 – Why is a fire alarm preferred to waking watch?
2 – What are the current failures?9 – Are there any other benefits to having a fire alarm instead?
3 – What are the effects of these failures?10 – Where do I start?
4 – What is the solution?11 – A prerequisite for fire safety
5 – What does the NFCC say about the ‘Stay Put’ policy?12 – Our case study: fire alarm installation in a residential tower
6 – What does ‘Waking Watch’ mean?13 Conclusion
7 – How much does waking watch cost?14 – What you need to do now!

A new era for fire safety

The fire industry is not data driven, it is reactive and to an extent knee-jerk. I doubt if it’s alone as an industry as that is how humans work, we don’t tend to learn until we experience effects; climate change is a prime example of that, although a massive subject of its own.

But we are now seeing fire safety entering a new era of enlightenment, largely as a result of the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017.

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 hundreds that are still standing which do not have adequate cladding or 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.

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

What are the current failures?

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 include 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).

The cladding scandal

As this scandal marches onwards and we speak to more of the victims of fire risk affected building owners and users, it seems to me that the real issue is lack of leadership on what to do to move this along safely but quickly.

The situation stems from the need for action following the discovery of unsafe cladding, however what comes from this is a host of other issues that the buildings reveal once a professional fire risk assessor looks deeper into the fabric of the building.

Typically these include:

  • The wrong windows have been installed on the exterior of the building
  • The wrong level of fire separation from the flat to the common areas of the building
  • The failure of fire stopping between floors, specifically up and down the risers which travel from the bottom to the top of the building for wiring and plumbing etcetera, the issue here is that there should be fire protection covering the holes, but it’s either missing, incorrect or damaged.

The reason behind this is the enquiry from the Grenfell tragedy and the failure to learn from previous fires in other high rise buildings (HRBs).

What are the effects of these failures?

Residents are left in unsafe properties they can’t sell

On top of being in a building that won’t keep them safe in the event of a fire, residents (and leaseholders) are mostly being lumbered with these waking watch costs, rises in insurance, coupled with an inability to sell or re-mortgage properties, and not to mention the impact on mental health and well-being.

Check out this video posted by One Housing Group of a BBC London News snippet explaining how residents of high-rise flats are being affected by the ongoing cladding shortfalls:

The insurance inferno

I understand that one site in London has had its insurance increased from £40K to £400K for only 25% cover and a £100K excess, which has come about only because of a misguided duty of care as they were the incumbent insurer. The people concerned are less than impressed and less than insured.

Spot checks galore

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.

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.

Panicking and jumping to less efficient solutions

As there’s panic to do something in the interim whilst cladding or fireproofing is being resolved, many are jumping to waking watch as the solution, which then creates new financial problems to keep up with the costs.

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.

What is the solution?

There are two solutions which both need to happen:

  • Long Term – Fixing the underlying cladding and/or fireproofing issues in high-rise tower blocks of flats.
  • Short Term – Imposing a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ instead of a ‘Stay Put’ policy for identified buildings needing these changes AND equipping the building with a means of protecting residents during this waiting period, which will alert them in the event of a fire so they can simultaneously evacuate.

The Government promised in March 2020 a £1bn Building Safety Fund to cover cladding removal, but what this doesn’t do is cover interim measures.

Fixing the long term problem can take years, so it’s important that a suitable, workable and cost-effective short-term solution is implemented to protect residents. The rest of this post is going to be looking at number 2 in this list – the short term (which, incidentally, can be incorporated as a long-term solution if you do the sensible thing and opt for a fire alarm!).

But first, before we look at the short-term fire safety solution to protect residents whilst cladding/fireproofing is being rectified, let’s first answer a couple of questions:

What does the NFCC say about the ‘Stay Put’ policy?

Top Tip: ‘Stay Put’ is the policy typically endorsed (and was endorsed in the Grenfell tragedy’ which means that people should stay within the confines of their flat with doors and windows shut, leaving the Fire & Rescue Services to fight the fire. The Fire & Rescue Service will then alert you and evacuate you as and when needed. This exists because in theory, your home which is reinforced and protected with concrete and fire doors means that you should be safe from fire. This also means the Fire Brigade aren’t dealing with a stampede of people in corridors and stairwells trying to leave the building (because usually fire drills aren’t a thing in tower blocks, ensuring people leave in a structured and orderly fashion as you would find in commercial premises or schools), preventing them from getting to the fire quickly to fight it. There is increasing doubt and confidence in the ‘Stay Put’ policy, especially after Grenfell, but namely because of the lack of adequate cladding and fireproofing, failing to protect people as it should in their homes.

‘Simultaneous Evacuation’, on the other hand, means that everyone leaves the building at once in the event of a fire instead of staying put or having a controlled, staggered evacuation conducted by the Fire Brigade which you would have under the ‘Stay Put’ policy. Whilst this is harder to control, it’s recommended for buildings which have been identified as having cladding or fireproofing issues as the interim evacuation response in the event of a fire to prevent/minimise loss of life.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) have produced recommendations explaining what you need to do: see the 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 in ones 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 the stipulated 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 – not ideal, and we’ll explain more further down in this post).
  • 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.

The NFCC states that before switching the evacuation strategy, a number of factors ought to be considered, including: the external wall system, such as the cladding and insulation materials; all general fire precautions within the building; the height of the building; the occupancy of the building and the number of flats; the number of stairways and means of escape; and the Fire and Rescue Service attendance time.

Once these have been looked into and the decision has been made to move to a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ strategy, the NFCC suggest that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out to determine the best solution, whereby you would compare the benefits of a fire alarm as opposed to implementing waking watch.

The NFCC’s updated guidance on simultaneous evacuations in purpose-built blocks of flats was published on October 2020, advocating the use of fire alarms over waking watch. Read on further to find out why.

What does ‘Waking Watch’ mean?

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

  1. Detect a fire in or 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

waking watch warden
A member of a waking watch team patrolling a residential tower block

How much does waking watch cost?

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.

According to the Government website, MHCLG collected data on waking watch costs from June to September 2020 and found that the hourly rate per person undertaking waking watch duties ranged from £12 to £30 per hour! The Association of Residential Managing Agents also provided a case study of residential blocks containing 191 units in London, comparing the costs of a fire alarm installation to waking watch. The cost of the fire alarm was found to be the equivalent of 7 weeks employing waking watch (based on three quotes they received) – in other words, in 7 weeks, you’ve recouped what you would’ve spent on waking watch! You will, of course, have maintenance of the fire alarm system to consider in the ongoing costs, but it’ll still massively – in fact, stupidly – outweigh what it’d cost you for waking watch.

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.”

Why is a fire alarm preferred to waking watch?

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.”

The NFCC again released updated guidance on 1st October 2020 acknowledging that the initial guidance set out in 2017 was that “the installation of a common fire alarm was the preferable approach to waking watch”. Now, over three years later, many buildings identified as requiring urgent remediation still haven’t been rectified, and are still relying on solutions which are only suitable for short periods of time (i.e. waking watch).

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.

Are there any other benefits to having a fire alarm instead?

Besides being cheaper and more effective at detecting and raising an alarm in the event of a fire? The answer is: yes, of course!

Here’s more benefits outlined for you:

It’s quick to install and customisable

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 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.

It’s faster at detecting a fire

Okay, so we have touched upon this one, but it’s an important one to reiterate. Waking watch relies on a person noticing there’s a fire and then they’ve got 15 minutes to alert everyone in the building of the fire to initiate evacuation proceedings. The margin for error for something so incredibly expensive is phenomenal. Of course, huge credit to the guys who do this job – but unfortunately, however fine-tuned their process, it’s never going to be as fast or as efficient at detecting and raising an alarm as an automatic fire detection system.

No trouble with false alarms

The apartment blocks we’ve done this for have 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).

N.B. We much prefer to refer to false alarms which are triggered by cooking (e.g. burning your bacon sarnie) as being unwanted alarms. At the end of the day, it’s not a fault causing the alarm (i.e. a problem with the alarm) as it’s doing its job – detecting signs of a fire so it can raise the alarm.

Also, as side note, manufacturers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds putting their fire alarm equipment through the testing houses and it is my experience that they just don’t go wrong once the very short bedding in period has been passed.

It can be repurposed as an evacuation system

Fire alarms are a tailorable technology which can be repurposed as an evacuation system, if that’s what you would prefer, after the cladding/fireproofing issues have been resolved.

What that means is, your fire alarm will be used to raise an alarm once it detects a fire during the interim period your cladding/fireproofing is being fixed. In this period, because the building’s operating under ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ everyone evacuates when they hear that alarm.

BUT AFTERWARDS, when the underlying problem is fixed and homes are safe to return to ‘Stay Put’, you don’t really need the fire alarm to tell you there’s a fire and you need to get out, because you don’t need to get out – unless the Fire Brigade say so. This can be quite the task for high-risers, so an evacuation system can help here to raise the alarm in specific areas, such as one floor at a time, to let people know they’ve now got to evacuate. The evacuation system, therefore won’t detect a fire or raise the alarm because of a fire, it’ll simply be used as a tool for the Fire Brigade to safely, quickly and efficiently evacuate a building as and when appropriate.

The choice is yours, keep it as a fire alarm or repurpose it as an aid for evacuation!

N.B. Residents MUST be informed on the system used in their building (whether it’s a fire alarm or evacuation system) and the sounds which they make so they know to associate that sound with knowing they’ve got to get out!

Also, if changing the system to an evacuation system is something you want, it’s much better to consider this prior to the initial installation of the fire alarm to allow your fire alarm engineer (i.e. us!) to make allowances in the design for this capability later down the line.

You’re covered with warranty

Fire alarm installations are usually under warranty for at least the first year (we offer them with a 5-year warranty) so if there are any issues then you’ve covered. Unlike humans which aren’t covered under warranty, unfortunately!

Here’s a summary of the main areas of comparison against waking watch (notice how fire alarms are all yes!):

FeatureWaking WatchFire Alarm
24/7 cover?✔️✔️
Always awake?Not always (from experience)✔️
In the flats?✔️
A temporary solution?✔️✔️
A long-term solution?✔️
One fixed cost?✔️
Can be removed?✔️✔️
Investment?✔️

Where do I start?

1. Get 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.

Close-up of a WFP engineer writing on a pad of paper on a desk doing a fire risk assessment
Fire Risk Assessments are a key part of your fire safety strategy

Fire Risk Assessments will also tell you the level of fire detection needed (it would usually be an L5 – ‘L’ standing for ‘Life Safety’ – level for tower blocks, which is a bespoke level of coverage). We can sort an assessment for you, so no trouble there! Then it’s on to…

2. Install a Fire Alarm System (Don’t simply jump to Waking Watch)

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.

You’ve already read why a fire alarm is better than waking watch, and the additional benefits other than it being cheaper and more effective. Now, let’s get into…

How it’d work…

The answers to this and the below question are a little more technical – don’t worry, we’ve got this for you, but in case you want to know a little more detail on how it works and what the installation will include, have a read…OR click here to move onto Step 3.

Each flat would have radio (wireless, unless you had a particular reason for wanting a wired alarm system) 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.

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.

3. 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 the fire alarm we’d install, this’ll mean heat detectors are installed in each apartment (within each room which faces the outside), 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. Remember what we said further up about no false alarms? 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!

N.B. Flats should always have their own smoke alarms independent of the fire alarm we talk about in this article, which is linked to a communal system. These smoke alarms should be mains wired with a tamper-proof battery back-up. And remember, they’ll only sound if they detect smoke in your flat. But if the heat detectors we install – which are linked to the communal system – detects a heat indicative of a fire, then it will let everyone else know (provided there are sounders).

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).

Conclusion

Now that Pandora’s Box is well and truly opened, the victims of this issue need direction on solutions and some peace of mind. The government should step in and bang some heads together including the insurance industry and fire professionals and come up with an acceptable answer that relieves this bottleneck and gives some direction for the people stuck in this nightmare.

There is a good solution to the overly excessive costs for Waking watch,  which could be removed once the cladding has been dealt with, which could be short term, however, given how slowly this has moved until this point, I would suggest that you’ll be living with this for a lot longer than anticipated.

Addressing the issue of payment for this is something that the Government should be considering, but decisions need to be made quickly as this is fixable with the correct incentive.

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!

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Post by Paul Field

Hello, I’m Paul, the Founding Director of WFP Fire & Security. I started my career in the Royal Navy, part of their firefighting team, and have been working within the fire industry for almost 30 years.

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