Fire protection: strategies for safe new buildings

In the UK, we’ve seen a 37% reduction in the number of fires requiring fire service assistance in the past 10 years, along with a 27% drop in the number of fatalities. The decreases are due, in part, to advances in fire protection measures that prevent ignition, provide early alerts, prevent fire spread and enable swift and safe exit from burning buildings. Yet, with 68,871 serious primary fires in 2019, there is still a way to go to improve fire safety in buildings and protect the people who live and work in them.

Construction companies have a clear role in designing and constructing fire-safe buildings. So, what requirements need to be met, how do you evaluate the risk and which protection methods should you install?

Apartment on fire

Fire protection by law

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to nearly every building, except private homes. The law states that any person with a level of control over a building must make reasonable steps to reduce the risk from fire and additionally ensure that people can escape should a fire occur. Part B of the Building Regulations also covers domestic properties through several overarching requirements: fire warnings and escapes, the reduction of internal and external fire spread and appropriate access for fire services. Compliance with these regulations is the minimum requirement to ensure fire-safe buildings and this applies to health and safety during construction too.

Assessing the risk

Before any fire protection strategies are designed or applied, it’s important to understand the risks. A full fire safety risk assessment should be carried out as part of the design process. It should also be repeated during construction (to ensure fire safety measures are being included), and then again before client handover. This final step demonstrates compliance and helps building owners to enforce protection measures once they move in.

A fire safety risk assessment should:

  • Identify the fire risks, including any potential ignition points, combustible materials or pathways that could fuel a fire or help it to spread
  • Identify the people at risk. Are there vulnerable people using the building who may struggle to leave in a fire? Are people working on their own? Or will groups of people be working with combustible materials?
  • Evaluate how risks can be removed or reduced by employing fire protection measures
  • Plan for emergencies: establish escape routes and access for fire services
  • Put review and checking procedures in place to ensure that fire safety remains a top priority

 

PlanRadar contains pre-defined fire safety risk assessment templates with all the key criteria needed to complete a thorough safety check. Assessors can access checklists on their smartphone, tagging any issues directly onto blueprints, flagging to a supervisor and assigning it for immediate action. At the end of the project, fire assessments can be passed to the client for proof of fire safety compliance. Contractors can easily demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken to protect the building and its users. Even after a client moves in, they can use their own PlanRadar licence to complete regular checks, making sure everything still meets requirements.

Active and passive protection

Once you’ve removed as many hazards as possible, you should plan measures that lower the impact of any remaining risks. To do this, both active and passive fire protection systems need to be in place. Together these measures act to stop a fire and prevent it from spreading. Architects and contractors need to design both kinds of measures into a building and maintain them to deliver continued protection.

Active fire protection

The term “active fire protection” describes measures taken to stop fires after they begin. These measures are a powerful and essential line of defence. Typical active systems include sprinklers, fire extinguishers and automatic dousing systems. Designers should tailor each system to the specific building, using water, foam, powders or inert gases to stop a fire in the quickest and safest way.

Alarm systems are also a powerful active fire protection tool that no building should be without. They alert building users to a fire and enable them to take immediate action.

Passive fire protection

The word ‘passive’ belittles the importance of this fire protection method. Passive fire protection is essential to prevent a fire from spreading. Passive measures resist the fire, compartmentalise its impact, protect the building’s structure and give building users time to escape. These seemingly dormant firefighting strategies are passive because they need no action in order to work.

Passive measures are usually structural. Architects and engineers build them into walls, ceilings and floors to provide three main benefits:

  • structural support
  • heat insulation
  • reducing the passage of gases and smoke, which can kill far before a fire reaches someone

 

Some structures provide all three benefits but a passive fire protection plan requires a range of interconnected measures to provide an optimal defence.

Common passive fire protection measures include fire doors, partition glazing, cavity barriers and gap seals. But passive measures extend into the very foundations of the building. For example, fire-resistant materials such as concrete, bricks and gypsum plasterboard, can also help protect the structural stability of a building and compartmentalise fires. Some methods can offer up to four hours of protection, thus adding time for firefighters to control blazes and evacuate buildings.

Dampening is also a crucial passive fire protection tool. Ducts, pipes and cables can provide hidden and highly-effective passages for fire and smoke to spread – often moving unseen through cavities. It is therefore essential to include fire and smoke dampeners when installing fittings for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units. These need to be properly maintained to be effective, so it is important to handover all maintenance documents to clients.

Planning escape

Finally, a key element of an effective fire protection plan is to design safe evacuation routes. All building users should be able to leave quickly and safely. Alternatively, architects should include fire-proof areas for use if evacuation isn’t possible. These spaces can protect users from a fire until help arrives. Plan escape routes around maximum capacity, assuming a mass exit and allowing for any additional mobility needs of the building’s users. This extends to allow firefighters access to the property too, along unrestricted roads and pathways.

PlanRadar is your essential partner in designing, implementing and maintaining fire protection measures. The easy to use, customisable fire safety assessment templates are readily available on any smartphone at the touch of a button. Users can record any issues directly on the building’s digital blueprint, along with photos and additional data. Smooth communication via the app enables fast remedial action. Record all data and access it via comprehensive and customisable reports. These records ultimately provide users with a full audit trail of all fire protection measures. Whether for their own records or for client handover, a construction company should always have this data to hand. That’s where PlanRadar can help.