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What is Fire Safety?

The term ‘fire safety’ encompasses a range of issues, which are clearly identified under current government legislation by The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO). Under the terms of the RRFSO, the responsible person in non-domestic premises has to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of all who are employed there and also that the premises are safe for any other people who may be on-site or in the immediate vicinity and are therefore at risk from fire: e.g. visitors to a public building. By ‘responsible person’, the RRFSO means anyone who has any degree of control over the premises, which can include, inter alia, the employer, owner, occupier or managing agent. By definition, therefore, there can be more than one responsible person in terms of fire safety for a particular building and there must be discussion and collaboration between them in this regard.

The duties of the responsible person(s) include:

  • Taking general fire precautions
  • Undertaking a fire risk assessment
  • Implementing any necessary preventive and protective measures
  • Monitoring and reviewing the preventive and protective measures on an ongoing basis

What are general fire precautions?

Under Article 4 of the RRFSO, general fire precautions are defined as follows:

  • Measures to reduce the risk of fire on the premises and the risk of the spread of fire on the premises
  • Measures in relation to the means of escape from the premises
  • Measures for securing that the means of escape can be safely and effectively used
  • Measures in relation to the means of fighting fire on the premises
  • Measures in relation to the means for detecting fire on the premises and giving warning in case of fire
  • Measures in relation to the arrangement for action to be taken in the event of fire, including the instruction and training of employees and means of mitigating the effects of the fire.

This is a wide ranging remit and, although prescriptive in the sense that it is a list of duties to be undertaken, it is not specific as to the actual means that should be employed as these will vary according to each individual case. It can be useful therefore to consult the HM Government entry level publication “A short guide to making your premises safe from fire” (June 2006), which puts some meat on the bones of the RRFSO, as it were: for example, it details the minimum requirement in respect of fire-detection and warning systems and the main types of portable fire extinguishers and their suitability for use on a range of different small fires.

What is a fire risk assessment?

A fire risk assessment is the means by which the various potential threats by fire to life and property can be exposed, with the aim of identifying the general fire precautions to be taken. As noted above, it is one of the duties with which the responsible person is charged by the RRFSO.

The step-by-step Fire Safety Risk Assessment schedule, included in the HM Government publication “A short guide to making your premises safe from fire”, enables the assessment to be undertaken efficiently and thoroughly.

There are five key steps:

  • Identify the fire hazards, to include the three elements of the fire triangle: heat/sources of ignition; sources of fuel; and sources of oxygen. A fire cannot start, or be sustained, if any one of these elements is missing or removed
  • Identify the people at risk: this includes people in and around the premises and those who are especially vulnerable in a fire situation, such as the disabled
  • Evaluate, remove or reduce, and protect from risk: this includes an evaluation of the risk of a fire starting and the risk to people from a fire; the removal and/or reduction of fire hazards; the removal and/or reduction of risks to people from a fire; and the protection of people through the provision of fire precautions
  • Record, plan, inform, instruct, and train: this includes recording any major findings and appropriate action taken; discussion and collaboration with other responsible people; the preparation of an emergency plan; informing and instructing relevant people, e.g. designated fire wardens; and the provision of training, e.g. in the use of fire fighting equipment such as fire extinguishers
  • Review: the fire risk assessment must be regularly reviewed and changes to the plan of execution made as necessary

What is fire prevention?

The prevention of fire, as indicated by steps one and three of the risk assessment, is accomplished by identifying potential sources of heat and fuel and removing or reducing these fire hazards as far as is possible.

The sources of heat that serve to ignite a fire include such things as naked flames, glowing cigarette ends and electrical sparks. Examples of fuel range from combustible solids (e.g. paper, wood, textiles and rubber) through flammable liquids (e.g. petrol, paints and solvents) to flammable gases (e.g. natural gas, methane and propane). Flammable metals (e.g. aluminium, potassium and sodium) and combustible cooking oils and fats pose unique hazards and require specialist fire fighting equipment. For example, deep fat fryers constitute a risk factor in catering facilities; a fire blanket as well as the appropriate type of fire extinguisher should always be to hand.

As the requirement to protect people arises from their presence in a building, it is not of course practicable to reduce or remove the third element of the fire triangle, oxygen, as this is in the air that we breathe. Generally speaking, the removal of oxygen occurs when a fire extinguisher is used to fight a small fire by smothering it with a blanket of powder or foam.

What is fire protection?

Step three of the Fire Safety Risk Assessment charges the responsible person with the protection of people and property from the risk of fire. This does not simply involve the removal or reduction of fire hazards but also the introduction of measures to enable the swift and efficient evacuation of people from the premises in a fire situation and to limit the damage to property caused by the smoke and flames of a conflagration.

Examples of such measures include the identification/provision of an escape route through the premises, with the installation of fire doors as necessary to protect the escape route and compartmentalise a fire, i.e. to contain it within a section of the building. A final exit door, with appropriate signage, will also be required, which ideally opens outwards and easily with a thumb turn lock or panic bar. Smoke/fire detectors and an early warning fire alarm are also necessary: the alarm can range from a shouted alert in a small building to a state-of-the-art electronic system that interfaces with the fire doors in larger premises.

This is not an exhaustive list but it does serve to indicate the type of issues that the fire risk assessment is designed to flag.