Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Asides from being the catchy tag line from the eponymously titled track by The Clash, this has been the very question on the lips of residential block inhabitants across the country in relation to fire safety and evacuation following the tragedy that befell Grenfell Tower last summer.

The principle of ‘stay put’ became widely applied in the UK after the British Standards Institution recommended its use in a 1962 version of its code of practice. The principles of the policy are based on the ability of a flat to contain a fire for at least 60 minutes, before the fire service arrives. It can be summarised as; if it’s your flat that’s on fire then you should obviously evacuate, if it’s not your flat then you’re ‘normally’ safe to remain where you are (aka ‘stay put’). However, this ‘60-minute box’ principle could be irrelevant if the compartmentation has been compromised by repairs or refurbishment, therefore allowing the fire to spread to the rest of the building.

What is the difference between Stay Put and Simultaneous Evacuation
A typical ‘stay put’ policy will have the following elements:

  • If a fire breaks out in your flat, get out, stay out, and make sure to alert the Fire Brigade.
  • If a fire breaks out in a common area, any people in that location (the common area ‘compartment’) should get out of the building, stay out, and call the Fire Brigade.

The rest of the occupants in the building should ideally stay inside their flats and should be safe to do so unless the Fire Brigade ask them to leave specifically. However, if they do want to evacuate the building anyway, then they shouldn’t be prevented from doing so.

The Stay Put policy is designed to work best in purpose-built blocks of flats. In the UK the reality is that a large proportion of housing stock used as flats is not purpose-built, but converted from other uses. This means that it can be difficult or financially unviable to achieve the required compartmentation standards. Where this is the case, an alternative policy called a ‘Simultaneous Evacuation’ should be put in place. In these buildings where Stay Put policies are not possible, then a detection and alarm system will need to be purpose-designed so as to sound in the event of fire to alert occupants in the building to evacuate.

How are these decisions made?
If you live in a block of flats where your landlord has advised you to ‘stay put’ in the event of a fire, then it is likely that this will have been based on an individual fire risk assessment for that building, conducted by a competent person and regularly reviewed. Asides from the obvious evaluation of the communal escape route and its ability to withstand the spread of fire, it may surprise you to learn that the generally established process of deciding between a Stay-Put or Simultaneous Evacuation policy is based on a review of the following three factors which often can only be assumed:

The adequacy of the entire buildings original construction; that it was constructed or altered to meet building regulations at the time and had been subsequently signed off by building control.

That any built-in safety measures added at construction have never been, and will never be, compromised; This includes leaseholders areas, which ordinarily form the majority of the building and are often outside of the scope of both the fire risk assessors and freeholders/managing agents jurisdiction.

That there are no hazardous materials, or potentially explosive items stored in the leaseholder areas that might compromise the entire building. Consider, for example acetylene cylinders for a sole trader using their flat as a work-base or perhaps a medical patient receiving home care using supplied oxygen.
The importance of having a suitable and sufficient up-to-date fire risk assessment carried out by a competent person cannot be overstated. The necessity for emergency plans, especially for tower blocks, is common place knowledge amongst property professionals. Unfortunately, it is often the case that there is no clear emergency policy for a building or, in some cases, the policy is clear but stands contradictory to what appears to be common sense.

For years Fire Authorities have encouraged residents to ‘Know Your Plan – Stay Put or Evacuate’, as if it was a simple binary choice based on regulations or clear official guidance. Alas, there is no prescriptive regulation or straightforward guidance on this issue. The decision in fact rests on the professional opinion of those carrying out the risk assessments and occasionally advice can differ from professional to professional depending on their point of view or past experience.

It is an unfortunate fact that families have been trapped and perished in flats where the compartmentation in a building has failed. In flats where compartmentation has been compromised smoke can easily rise from a fire in the flat below and make its way up through the building cutting off escape routes. Such gaps in the compartmentation can often be caused by careless contractors who haven’t used the correct fire stoppage or are simply unaware of the danger they have created.

What should I do?
The message here is to remain vigilant regarding the causes & effects of fire and how your property may be compromised when it comes to compartmentation. You may also be aware that you or your tenants are storing items that may compromise the safety of the property. Any such concerns may change the way in which the entire building is managed when it comes to fire risk. If you have a managing agent or are dealing direct with the fire risk assessment consultancy such as 4site, then communication of these issues is key to managing those risks and ensuring your safety.

Most fire risk assessments only cover the freeholder areas, but it is these that form the foundation on which the entire fire strategy for a building rests. These risk assessments are a legal requirement requiring reviews at regular intervals to ensure they remain current and the building safe for occupancy. When it comes to deciding what evacuation policy to adopt for your building it is the risk assessment and the competence of the assessor that will help determine the best strategy.

In conclusion, ensuring that you have good communication with the competent person completing your fire risk assessment and having it regularly reviewed is the cornerstone of your buildings fire strategy. This is the only way to answer that important question ‘should I stay or should I go’.

Dr Shaun Lundy is the Technical Director at 4site Consulting leading the service delivery, quality and new technical developments. Shaun is both a Chartered Safety & Health Practitioner and a Chartered Building Engineer. 

February 2018