Fire in your ventilation system

Cutting back on essential fire safety measures, such as fire damper maintenance, could be a big mistake, says Darren Ling from System Hygienics.

One-fifth of employers are putting their business and the lives of their employees at risk by cutting back on fire safety in an attempt to save money.

A nationwide survey by the Fire Industry Association (FIA) revealed that almost 20% of bosses interviewed admitted that due to current economic conditions they had revised some fire safety procedures to save costs, including the delaying of fire safety equipment maintenance checks, such as fire damper checks. Amazingly, 20% of those questioned had already experienced a fire in their premises.

It is not a move to be taken lightly. If something goes wrong, those deemed responsible face prosecution, which could result in fines, jail terms and the loss of the business.

Fire safety prosecution

In February, a London hotel was ordered to pay more than £260,000 in fines in what is believed to be the first jury trial of a case under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited in Finchley, North London, and its sole director Michael Wilson had pleaded not guilty to a total of 12 offences under the Fire Safety Order during the trial at Blackfriars Crown Court. The offences dated back to 18 May 2008 when a fire at the hotel spread quickly from a first floor bedroom, up a staircase and along a corridor on the second floor. Three people escaped the fire, one by climbing out of the second floor window.

The company was found guilty of six offences, while Mr Wilson was found guilty of ‘consent or connivance in the commission’ of those same violations. Among these offences included two counts of failure to ensure premises, facilities, equipment or devices are maintained in an efficient state, in working order and in good repair.

Mr Wilson was fined £180,000 and Chumleigh Lodge Hotel Limited was fined £30,000. The defendants were also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £50,000 and £2,000 compensation to the guest who fled from the second floor window.

Brian Coleman, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “This verdict sends out a clear message that if these responsibilities are ignored we will not hesitate in prosecuting and people will face serious penalties.”

In March, a bed manufacturing company, Joseph International Limited in Bradley, Huddersfield, was fined £18,000 for fire safety breaches and the premises branded a ‘death-trap’ by the presiding judge at Bradford Crown Court, following a visit to the premises in August 2010.

Although none of these cases resulted in death, should an employee or tenant die in a fire where poorly maintained ductwork is deemed a contributing factor, those responsible leave themselves vulnerable to the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007.

In addition, fire damage to commercial premises costs UK businesses more than a billion pounds every year, yet the total of insurance settlements paid out is significantly below that figure. If businesses are found to be in breach of fire codes, insurance companies will not pay.

Built-in protection

Passive or built-in fire protection is probably the most important aspect of fire safety in buildings. In a building’s ventilation system, fire dampers are installed to prevent ductwork conveying fire and smoke from one area to another and are therefore an essential part of a building’s fire safety strategy. Heat and smoke travelling down a ventilation system will activate a mechanical stop to release the fire damper shutter, which will contain the fire to its point of origin.

If the shutters are clogged with dirt, dust or other contaminants, fire could spread throughout the building in a matter of minutes.

Fire safety obligations

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states that where necessary, in order to safeguard the safety of relevant persons, the ‘responsible person’ must ensure that the premises and any facilities, equipment and devices provided are subject to a suitable system of maintenance and are kept in efficient working order and in good repair.

The British Standard 9999:2008 Code of Practice for Fire Safety in the Design, Management and Use of Buildings gives recommendations and guidance on the design, management and use of buildings to achieve acceptable levels of fire safety for all people in and around buildings. Under the topic of routine inspection and maintenance of air conditioning ductwork, the BS 9999 states: “Maintenance of air conditioning and ventilating equipment, including air filters, motors, fire dampers and their controls, smoke detectors and alarms, is of paramount importance both in preventing fire and in ensuring that measures taken to mitigate consequences are effective when needed.”

More specifically, the BS 9999 recommends that all fire dampers should be tested at regular intervals not exceeding two years, spring operated fire dampers should be tested annually, and fire dampers in dust-laden and similar atmospheres should be tested more frequently. It also puts the duty of care on the building owner to minimise the fire risks by maintaining the ductwork properly, which means regular cleaning to prevent the build-up of dust, dirt and other contaminants that can cause blockages and pose a health risk to building occupants.

Fire safety service

System Hygienics can provide an essential fire safety service whereby all fire dampers will be located to ensure they are within the fire containment area and that they can be fully accessed. They are then cleaned, lubricated, drop tested and reset to ensure they are in good working order.

If simple faults are found such as damaged linkages these can also be replaced and then drawings can be marked and a report compiled showing the time and action taken for fire safety compliance.

We recently worked with the Royal Bournemouth Hospital in Hampshire to carry out such a survey to adhere to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the British Standard BS9999, and the Health Technical Memorandum HTM 03-01: Specialised Ventilation for Healthcare Premises, which recommends annual fire damper testing. Our team was able to locate, inspect, assess, produce a photographic report, test the fire dampers and provide recommendations on maintenance.

Safety is, without doubt, the most crucial investment a business can make. The question businesses ask themselves should not be what it costs, but what it saves.

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