Time to change
David Mowatt explains why the Smoke Control Association believes that now is the time to change how Building Regulations deal with fire safety, particularly when it comes to controlling the biggest killer – smoke.
In December 2017, the Department for Communities and Local Government published its interim report into the Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. The review was chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, who was appointed by government to lead the review following the Grenfell fire, which resulted in the devastation shown in the image above.
The interim report precedes a final report to be published this spring, and the SCA has offered support and assistance through an open letter to the review body.
In truth, it should never have taken such a tragedy to bring attention to the many shortcomings in fire safety, especially in the UK in the 21st century. Dame Judith is correct in calling for a ‘cultural and behavioural change’ to ensure residents of all buildings can feel safe in generations to come.
More often than not it is smoke inhalation rather than the fire itself that is the cause of fire fatalities. Smoke can build up extremely quickly and often incapacitates so rapidly that victims are not able to locate or access a suitable exit. A building fire is capable of filling a 10,000m2 area full of smoke within minutes and just a few breaths of toxic fumes can have fatal consequences for those inside. As well as saving lives, a smoke control system can protect property and help to minimise damage to the building.
We have been long term advocates for more regulation of smoke control design. Smoke control systems are a single element of an effective fire strategy and the proposed system should complement the overall approach to dealing with emergency situations.
Lack of clarity
Smoke control can be achieved through a number of methods (natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation, pressure differential systems) and there are many factors to consider, but the recommendations of the Building Regulations, in the form of Approved Document B, need to be far more concise. Their current lack of clarity has caused confusion, resulting in too many poorly designed and ineffective smoke control systems.
At the beginning of the design process the interactions between the smoke control system and other building systems must be carefully considered. Modern buildings are often equipped with building management systems and these can vary significantly when it comes to function and complexity.
One of the key issues regarding the current building regulations highlighted in the interim report is the fact Approved Documents are not produced in a user-friendly format. While the current format considers the various aspects of a building’s design separately, in reality there is a lot of crossover in the common elements of a building, and this needs to be reflected more in the regulations. Designers have to consider all interactions between the smoke control system and other building systems. No single aspect of fire protection should be considered in isolation.
Sprinklers and suppression systems, for example, have received a lot of coverage over recent months, but it is worth emphasising that suppression systems are not guaranteed to extinguish the fire and their primary objective is to suppress and control the fire to the boundaries of passive protection. They have little or no benefit in improving visibility or removing hot toxic smoke from the building, which is critical during evacuation. Smoke control systems are designed to keep escape routes clear of smoke to aid evacuation and assist fire fighters by keeping access and evacuation routes relatively clear.
Another issue highlighted in Dame Judith’s report is that there has been a widespread culture in relation to building and standards of waiting to be told what to do by regulators rather than taking proactive steps to correct standards. The attitude seems to aim for minimum compliance rather than a long-term vision. The problems arising from this approach are exacerbated by contractors and designers who enter the market with little understanding of the rigours to which life safety systems should be designed and installed.
It is vital that the review of Approved Document B clearly defines levels of competence to ensure that designers, installers, commissioning engineers and maintenance contractors have suitable knowledge and training to deliver fully functioning life safety smoke control systems. These need to be designed, installed, tested and maintained to a standard that is not compromised by commercial pressures to value engineer to the lowest possible level.
The Smoke Control Association has self-regulated the industry through the evolution of new techniques and influencing adoption of standards, both British and European. But, ideally, going forward the industry will be able to rely on more than that.
It is our belief that a clear and common starting point is required from our regulations so that future systems are designed and tested to standards that are themselves relevant to the application.
David Mowatt is chairman of the Smoke Control Association (SCA)