The tragic events at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, when 72 people lost their lives, has brought into sharp focus the need to improve fire safety for those who reside in medium- and high-rise residential buildings (MHRRBs) in the United Kingdom.
The public inquiry into the events that led up to that fateful night and the related review of building regulations led by Dame Judith Hackitt have been watched closely by those residing in tower blocks, who naturally seek assurance that the tragedy of Grenfell will never be repeated.
The longstanding Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) policy of ‘Stay Put: Defend in Place’ has been questioned, leading to further uncertainty, concern and confusion that is likely to reduce resident compliance with the policy in the event of further major fires. The policy can leave building occupants vulnerable where fire spreads extensively and swiftly, as tragically seems to have been the case at Grenfell Tower. Some commentators consider that the safest default position in the event of a tower-block fire should be full evacuation, as is usually the case where non-residential high-rise buildings are involved. Others contend that this approach has its own limitations, especially for densely populated premises where dangerous overcrowding of escape routes could potentially occur, causing panic and injury and impeding firefighters striving to gain access to quell the fire and rescue occupants.
There is, however, a strong case to be made for firefighters to be given greater scope to exercise their professional judgement, and to have a wider range of tactical options available to enable them to keep casualties to a minimum.
In the UK, we have traditionally relied upon passive fire-prevention measures such as the use of low- or non-combustible materials, fire doors and fire compartmentation. These measures, combined with active systems such as fire detection and alarm systems, which provide early warning, have been employed for many years, especially in older buildings. More modern buildings or those that have been upgraded may include protected escape routes utilising wet/dry risers, sprinkler systems and/or staircase pressurisation.
Another option is phased evacuation whereby in the event of a fire building occupants are directed to evacuate in a controlled manner as instructed, usually by means of a Voice Evacuation System (VES). VESs are mandatory in some jurisdictions, such as the USA, where VES design and installation is governed by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. VESs are far less common in the UK, especially in older MHRRBs. Installing such systems retrospectively can be prohibitively expensive and can also create considerable disruption and inconvenience for residents.
As an electrical engineer with over 30 years’ experience, much of it overseas, Ged Smart was horrified at the tragic loss of life at Grenfell and resolved to bring his skills and experience to bear in developing a possible solution, using mobile phone messaging technology. Through his company, Rissington Applications, Ged has created NOTIFIRE, a mobile device text-based alert messaging system for use in tower blocks that do not currently benefit from a VES at a very modest cost in comparison to the retrospective fitting of VESs.
‘Having spent much of my career working with fire safety systems, I was determined to do what I could to prevent a potential recurrence of the horrific events at Grenfell House and other such tragedies. Working with a software design team and in consultation with others with a background in the emergency services, I have over the past 18 months developed our NOTIFIRE mobile alerting system to the point where it is now ready for operational deployment. I have been mindful of keeping costs low and minimising disruption, whilst offering a product that will genuinely enhance fire safety and provide reassurance to those who reside in tower blocks. NOTIFIRE offers a different, partnership approach to fire safety, engaging residents, building owners and Fire and Rescue Services. I believe it anticipates and addresses some of the likely recommendations emanating from the Grenfell Inquiry.’ Ged Smart, Operations Director, Rissington Applications Ltd.
The benefits of NOTIFIRE include:
- Providing building owners with a means of communicating routine information about building maintenance and community safety to occupants, thereby enhancing resident involvement in building management in compliance with recommendations in the Hackitt Report;
- Providing FRSs with ongoing access to ‘red box’ technical data about buildings in their area, thereby enhancing contingency planning and creating more realistic and relevant training opportunities for operational commanders and firefighters;
- Enabling FRSs to access better intelligence in relation to vulnerable occupants who may require special support and also the actual number of occupants (including visitors) at any given time;
- Providing FRSs with more tactical options when tackling serious fires, structural damage or toxic emissions;
- Enabling FRSs to provide reassurance to building occupants on an individual, group or whole-building basis and releasing resources by reducing the number of incoming 999 calls;
- Providing FRSs with further evidence of discharging their duty under the Civil Contingencies Act to communicate effectively with the public they serve; and
- The app is not potentially subject to vandalism, power cuts or sabotage as messages go direct to residents’ registered mobile phones.
NOTIFIRE is a mobile application that can be downloaded by residents at the request (or requirement) of the building owner, who can make it a condition of tenancy should this be deemed necessary. It was estimated in 2017 that 77% of UK residents own a smartphone and 92% own a mobile phone. Resident groups will be provided with an induction programme at which the benefits of the system will be explained. The physical act of downloading NOTIFIRE provides an opportunity for residents to be better informed around ‘Stay in Place’ and evacuation policies. They will therefore be better prepared to act responsibly and effectively should they ever be involved in an incident.
NOTIFIRE is paid for by building owners, be they local authorities, housing associations or landlords in the commercial sector. There is an initial registration fee covering the costs of setting up the system and induction training for residents and staff, and an annual maintenance charge. The app provides for additional fire safety without the need to incur major capital expenditure. There is no charge to residents or Fire and Rescue Services. The amount of personal data required is minimal in order to encourage the highest possible take-up rate.
The potential demand for NOTIFIRE is substantial. There are believed to be over 4,000 residential buildings over six stories high in the UK, the vast majority of which do not have VESs fitted. NOTIFIRE can be used in any country, although it is currently only available in English. That said, messages can be added in other languages where required. NOTIFIRE is intended to supplement and complement – not replace – existing fire detection and protection systems.
For further information, go to www.rissingtonapplications.com