Fire and life safety within Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) is a topic that is being discussed more now than ever before. With a number of high-profile events casting a spotlight on the importance of the subject, leaders from a multitude of sectors and industries are working together to better protect these properties and their occupants.
Leading manufacturer of life safety solutions, Hochiki Europe, is one such organisation working to enhance fire and life safety in HMOs. In conjunction with the Fire Industry Association (FIA), the manufacturer recently hosted an expert roundtable to explore some of the key issues on the topic. Hosted at the FIA’s training facility in Hampton, the roundtable featured a panel of leading representatives from across the life safety manufacturing, specification and installation sectors to gather insights from every cross-section of the industry. The panellists were:
The starting point for the discussion was the confusion around the definition of an HMO, a confusion that extends well-beyond the life safety industry. According to the UK Government’s own definition: “An HMO contains at least three tenants, all in one three-story household, and there is shared toilet, bathroom and kitchen facilities.” As panellists pointed out, the definition does not address a number of factors, and is therefore open to a number of ‘grey areas’. In a sense, the descriptor is in fact ill-defined, as suggested by Consulting Engineer, Neil Wright.
Whether it is commercial, residential, mixed-use or anything else in between, a building’s purpose must be clearly defined so it can be designed and built with compliance and legislation in mind. If this purpose is not 100% clear from the first instance, the task becomes more difficult and there is an increased risk of issues occurring. By the same sentiment, the confusion surrounding the definition of an HMO also makes the task of meeting regulation more challenging.
Further confusion arises around the issue of self-contained flats in high-rise buildings and whether they are, or should be, legally considered HMOs. Will Lloyd, Technical Manager for the FIA, argued that self-contained flats and student accommodation should not be regarded as HMOs as they fail the standard test under the Housing Act.
In light of this discussion, the panel concluded that there are a number of areas of contention around the definition of an HMO. As such, there is an industry-wide need to clarify the definition and limit margins for confusion, but as HMOs are so different in shape, size and structure, this is no easy task.
Roles and responsibilities
When it comes to the design and build of any premises, there are a number of different parties involved. While the exact roles and responsibilities can vary from project to project, it is important that anyone who plays a role in product specification has a solid understanding of how to meet fire and life safety requirements.
Dave Thewlis, Director at Rosse Systems, questioned whether such understanding is in place across the industry as a whole. In many instances, product specification does not lie with a representative from the life safety industry, unless additional consultation is provided. While the person responsible for product specification will have some level of awareness when it comes to fire and life safety, there are concerns as to whether that is enough. This, coupled with the inadequate and confusing definition of an HMO, is a cause for concern.
One way that this could be addressed, according to the panellists, would be to create benchmark documents set against HMOs, and introduce more guidance on the topic so developers have a greater awareness. A recent whitepaper on the use of Part 1 v Part 6 devices in HMOs, created by Hochiki Europe, is one example of what this type of supportive literature could look like.
Another way to better support developers when it comes to life safety in HMOs would be the introduction of one fully engineered solution for the market. The solution would encompass all elements of life safety, such as emergency lighting and wayfinding, and would be aligned to the specific requirements of an HMO. However, the group agreed that one of the biggest hurdles to this is the fact that this is an area where people simply do not want to spend money.
Developers are not the sole party involved in product specification, especially in an HMO. Local authorities also have a role to play in the process, and hold a degree of accountability for ensuring fire and life safety requirements are met. This lead panellists to question whether these local authorities needed to be more involved in reinforcing safety processes in HMOs. Currently, the biggest regulations in play are Local Authority Licensing and the RRFSO (The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005), both of which are enforced by the Fire Brigade, especially in larger HMOs.
When considering possible barriers local authorities may have in meeting fire and life safety requirements, Regional Sales Manager at Hochiki Europe, Richard Wharram, questioned whether there was enough awareness of what precautions must be followed, passive or otherwise. It then became apparent that it isn’t just the vague definition of an HMO that creates confusion.
According to Will Lloyd, these precautions vary: “so much per local authority. We often get enquiries asking for advice and there is often confusion over whether a property is a licensed HMO or not. We will then advise them to speak to their local authorities. It varies especially in the London boroughs.” Ian Watts, Emergency Lighting Manager at Hochiki Europe, added: “This variation in awareness may be driven by local authorities having different insurance criteria.”
With the above in mind, there needs to be an increase in awareness of the legislative requirements that effect every person involved in the supply, installation or monitoring of life safety in an HMO must adhere to. Fundamentally, however, this is only possible if there is more clarity on the definition of an HMO.
Life safety considerations
There are a number of factors to consider when installing fire and life safety systems in an HMO, or any other type of property for that matter. In HMOs specifically, false alarm reduction is one of the most pressing concerns for duty holders.
This requirement can be met in a number of ways, but it raises a wider question. Specifically, should building owners install BS 5839 Part 1 (Code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of systems in non-domestic premises) devices in the whole HMO building, or just in communal areas, with BS 5839 Part 6 (Code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises) devices in the actual living accommodation?
One of the main arguments against Part 1 connected devices in HMOs is the hypothetical situation in which a tenant burns toast, inadvertently triggering a full building evacuation. That being said, there are many solutions to counter this, such as having a button within a tenant’s property that can indicate the alarm is false, or sophisticated fire control panel programming.
Another school of thought recognises that having self-contained Part 6 domestic detection devices and connected audio/visual devices in individual flats or rooms can help avoid total building evacuation in the event of a non-life-threatening incident.
It is important to note that duty holders can only do so much in this area, and some of the possible solutions to false alarm reduction come with additional challenges. When it comes to Part 6 systems, for example, tenants can sabotage their own devices by disconnecting them or removing the batteries, and this isn’t something that duty holders can easily control.
Cost is another consideration that must be taken into account. Often, this is the most critical factor for duty holders, and sometimes this comes at the detriment to safety. This is without doubt a cause for considerable concern, and as such there is a need to create systems that balance cost-efficiency with unrivalled performance.
Making the most of new technology
The use of smarter systems such as Hochiki Europe’s range of multi-sensors is one way that duty holders can address their life safety considerations. These multi-sensors, and other newer systems and software, can differentiate between heat and smoke throughout a block of flats. In the case of smoke, the latest multi-sensors will initially trigger an audible alarm within the apartment and give a message to a larger system, regarding an ‘event’. If the smoke meets the fire threshold for a full five minutes, this will then trigger a full fire alarm, and subsequent processes, including an evacuation and investigation. If the smoke clears, the panel will reset itself.
Using dynamic systems that feature a combination of emergency lighting, detection equipment and mapping technology is another way to optimise life safety in HMOs. The use of such systems has already been widely adopted across the rest of Europe with great success. The systems can be programmed and interfaced into building management systems or dedicated fire alarm panels. In practice, if smoke is detected and evacuation is required, the system will adjust emergency lighting signage to note which is safe to use, displaying red crosses where applicable. There are products available to installers which operate using this type cause and effect programming, allowing people to exit buildings as safely as possible.
Using mixed systems, such as a combination of Part 1 and Part 6 devices, is another potential solution that helps duty holders meet cost considerations, without compromising quality or performance.
The use of more advanced systems has the potential to transform fire and life safety in HMOs. However, these advances in technology must be met with enhanced education, for specifiers, installers and duty holders alike. It cannot be assumed that an electrician working on an installation in an HMO will know how Part 1 and Part 6 devices can interact with one another, or when and where you should use each. Enhanced regulations and promoting minimum qualifications for life safety professionals are just two ways that this could be countered.
From a clearer definition of an HMO to greater awareness of legislation, there are a number of challenges to enhancing life safety in this area of the built environment. In addition, there is a need to recognise that it is not just the life safety industry that has a role to play in addressing these issues.
Therefore, leaders from across industries like manufacturing, construction, specification and more, must come together to find ways to move forward. Education is at the crux of this, be it in the form of roundtables, whitepapers or CPD schemes. Hochiki Europe is already leading the way in this area and encouraging more companies to follow suit and join the conversation.
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