Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London and the 2014 Lacrosse apartment blaze in Melbourne, fire safety within multi-storey buildings has been the subject of considerable public attention.
For facilities managers, this raises questions about the types of issues which can be overlooked and strategies they should adopt to ensure that risks within buildings under their control are effectively managed.
According to Jeremy Fewtrell, Chief Superintendent, Community Safety & Research, Community Safety Directorate at Fire & Rescue NSW, areas where things can go wrong fall into several categories.
First, there is the impeding of exit paths and evacuation routes. This could occur where evacuation paths are blocked by items which are temporarily placed in exit paths or disposed of in fire stairwells, structures which have been erected as a result of modification work or vehicles which are parked at ground level in the vicinity of fire exit doors. It could also occur where evacuation routes are compromised by fire doors being blocked or held open with items used for storage.
To combat this, Fewtrell says facilities managers should work to ensure that all parts of access routes are kept clear. To achieve this, he says FMs should engage with tenants and utilise mechanisms such as the body corporate to communicate expectations regarding behaviour in this area. When modifications or construction work is in progress, he says this must be scrutinised to ensure that fire safety and egress routes are not compromised.
Next, there are fire safety systems, such as pumps, sprinklers and alarms. Whilst these are generally looked after from a technical perspective by specially contracted fire service industry specialists, Fewtrell says facilities managers should understand where these are located and what they do.
From this, he says it is important to check that those performing maintenance do so properly. This includes ensuring that those contracted to undertake work are able to demonstrate sufficient expertise in order to do so properly and either spending time with contractors to monitor what they are doing on site and/or checking work after they leave. Indications of problems could include exit signs which are not illuminated or fire extinguishers which have not been changed over, Fewtrell said.
Third, there is maintenance and construction work – a cause Fewtrell says is not uncommonly found where fires in occupied buildings do start. Before work commences, he says it is important to ensure that contractors are inducted into the property, follow required health and safety guidelines and have requirements such as hot work permits in place. Facilities managers, he said, should speak with contractors, understand the nature of work to be performed and ensure that the contractor has a suitable approach which addresses critical areas of risk.
Finally, there is the issue of overcrowding. This is a considerable issue in the Lacrosse example, where occupancies of five or six people per unit were reported even though the occupancy permit stipulated a maximum of 36 per floor, or an average of 2.4 per apartment.
According to Fewtrell, this can lead to more people needing to use the stairwell or fire escape than what these were designed to accommodate, extra time before people are able to get out of the apartment itself and more luggage and belongings and thus more fuel for any fire which does start.
Whilst not easy to monitor, Fewtrell encourages facilities managers to be aware of signs this could be happening. These include complaints from neighbours or an unusually large number of people coming and going from a particular unit. This should be reported to the strata manager, whilst the building manager should also document their own handling of the situation.
Brad Paroz, Regional Practice Manager – Property Risk at risk management consultancy Greencap, offers a slightly different perspective and says areas where things go wrong include risks introduced by tenants and issues surrounding fire engineering solutions.
In terms of the former issue, Paroz says building managers often focus on common areas, but notes that tenants have been known to contribute to fire danger within their occupied areas.
In an industrial or logistics setting, for example, this could include by storing goods over and above the capacity of the sprinkler system to handle or changing the nature of merchandise or equipment stored. A sprinkler system, he says, is designed with a particular hazard category in mind. Where a tenant either increases the volume of goods they are storing or changes the nature of goods they are storing, this can alter the hazard category or profile of the building and lead to a situation whereby the sprinkler system is unable to cope. Where this happens, either the storage could impede the water flow of the sprinklers (e.g. by being too high) or the volume/nature of material being stored could be incompatible with the fire rating of the sprinkler system.
In addition, fitouts undertaken by tenants in commercial buildings can interfere with smoke management systems. Stair pressurisation, for example, can be impeded whereby a tenant which has a smoke exhaust point toward the rear of the tenancy puts in a solid glass wall which inadvertently prevents relief air from reaching pressurised stairs. Unless the facility manager has performed suitable tests to ensure that any building work or refurbishment performed by the tenant – such as the erection of partitions – does not have an impact upon the fire safety system, Paroz says there is a danger that you could be waiting up to a year before the relevant tests are performed and the problem is identified.
Finally, issues could arise whereby staff on a ground floor café on a high rise commercial building inadvertently block exit routes by stacking tables up against the tower’s discharge door.
In terms of fire engineering solutions, meanwhile, Paroz says one issue which could arise is where the facilities manager is not aware of particular measures within the building which are specifically required by that building’s fire engineering solution. He cited things like maximum occupancy or operation of the fire safety system as examples. In terms of egress cascading, for example, the fire engineering solution might require a specific cascading system but a facilities manager who is unaware of this may revert to what is considered to be normal egress cascading.
Secondly, where tenant fitouts take place, fire engineering solutions will generally need to be prepared by that tenant. The facilities manager, however, may not necessarily be aware about that particular solution or its implications for the fire safety of the broader building as a whole.
When it comes to strategies which facilities managers should adopt, Paroz says it is important to ensure that fire safety systems are maintained, plan for emergencies and consider annual independent audits.
When it comes to maintaining fire safety systems, it is critical that professional services contractors are engaged. When doing this, he says maintenance contracts should reflect the current fire safety standard for services maintenance – something he says legislation across most state jurisdictions is currently being rewritten to accommodate. Particularly important, he said, are high level services such as five-year hydrostatic tests of hydrant systems and 25-year laboratory testing of sprinkler heads. Whilst expensive, he says these tests are critical to ensure that equipment works properly when needed.
Paroz also urges facilities managers to seek expert help to develop an emergency management plan for each property. This includes emergency procedures, diagrams, planning, and evacuation drills. To create buy-in, facilities managers should promote participation in evacuation drills and training sessions for wardens. The plan should be consistent with the requirements of any applicable fire engineering solution. Although use of lifts is generally avoided, for example, some emergency management plans might actually require this (in such cases, the lifts would generally be contained within fire rated construction and have more than one source of power).
Finally, annual audits should include a review of maintenance documentation and fire engineering solutions, as well as physical inspections of all tenancies and base building areas, and supervision of key performance tests relating to issues such as system interfaces and stair pressurisation. This, Paroz says, provides the FM with an independent assessment of their property along with a prioritised list of independent issues to attend to. Such an exercise can form part of statutory annual certification requirements around fire safety, he said.
Fewtrell, meanwhile said facility managers should be diligent about fire safety and aware about what systems are in place, where they are located, what they do and how they need to be used. Finally, a functioning emergency control or warden organisation which conducts periodic emergency management exercises to ensure that people are aware of the passage to exit the building is critical, he said.
Recent events demonstrate the importance of fire safety management within buildings.
Through simple strategies, facilities managers can ensure that risks in this area are adequately managed.