Don’t neglect the common areas
The Fire Safety Order includes the common areas of flats and maisonettes, yet there is still a worrying degree of ignorance about this. Bob Williams sets out his concerns and asks whether the lettings industry is taking its responsibilities seriously enough.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (Fire Safety Order) came into effect in October 2006 and is an all-encompassing piece of primary fire safety legislation for England and Wales. Similar legislation has also been enacted in Scotland under the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and in Northern Ireland under the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2006. The Fire Safety Order replaced a host of acts, regulations and bye laws which had been introduced over many years.
Local fire authorities had always been geared up to prescriptively administer fire safety in certain designated premises under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 through the fire certification process. Under the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (As Amended) the authorities became validators of fire risk assessments carried out by building occupiers. This process has now been carried over to the Order and includes a requirement to undertake risk assessments on the common areas of residential buildings.
A worsening situation
Why were these common areas included in the new Fire Safety Order? The government were obviously aware of the considerable amount of new apartment blocks being constructed, many of which were probably built to satisfy the new buy-to-let market in the property boom. However, the government also appeared to acknowledge that there was still a great deal of older housing stock throughout the country and as time passed, these older properties were going to deteriorate further. It may have been a concern that the standard of fire safety in them would also worsen to the point that a number of them could possibly be classed as dangerous.
Within the common areas of the smaller, older properties there can be a lack of adequate passive fire resistance measures: possibly timber walls or partitions; non fire resistant glazing in doors, which themselves contain original thin timber panels and are of less than adequate construction to hold back a fire; opening transoms onto escape routes; and hidden voids etc. Coupled with this there are often hazards within the escape routes in the form of unprotected electrical apparatus which can be near the final exit door through which people have to pass to make their escape.
While tenants may have battery operated smoke alarms within their own individual dwellings, some landlords are still unaware that a more robust form of automatic fire detection should be provided within the escape routes of these older properties. These issues, together with the lack of emergency lighting and clear instructions on what to do in an emergency, sometimes paint a frightening picture.
Maintenance of life safety systems can be another issue. Where interlinked hard wired smoke alarms, fire alarm and emergency lighting systems have been provided at the time of construction, testing, maintenance and servicing may have been ignored – sometimes for many years. This is not uncommon and equally applies to a smaller but significant number of commercial, multi-occupied premises, many of which contain different purpose groups, e.g. sleeping accommodation above commercial/retail premises.
This is probably the very reason why the common areas of such properties were included within the Fire Safety Order. They had previously escaped fire safety regulation or enforcement, unlike houses in multiple occupation where safety was usually enforced under the Housing Act. Nowadays, safety can also be enforced under the Fire Safety Order and under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System.
Apathy or lack of awareness?
The basic requirements of the Fire safety Order are that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment should be carried out within the common areas. The Responsible Person – who could be the landlord, managing agent, limited company set up to administer the freehold, or any other person in day to day control of the property – should then introduce general fire precautions which are reasonable and proportionate to the risks identified.
Following the tragic fatal fire at Lakanal House in London, one would assume that risk assessments of common areas, especially in larger blocks of flats, would be a priority. Although the cause of this incident is thought to have originated inside an individual dwelling, following the fire it was discovered that risk assessments in literally hundreds of blocks over four stories high had not been undertaken. It is very difficult to estimate how many of these remain outstanding but if smaller flats and apartment blocks were included, the number of properties across England and Wales could well run into tens of thousands.
Whilst many managing agents, social landlords, letting associations and other similar organisations now appear to be aware of their responsibilities, it seems that there is still a certain amount of general apathy among them. Some agents are being proactive and arranging for fire risk assessments to be undertaken and acted upon, but there are others who have still not put the necessary arrangements in place.
Birmingham landlord pays £4500 after fatal HMO fire
A Birmingham landlord has had to pay £4,500 after failing to maintain smoke alarms at a property he had rented out on a multi-occupancy basis to four tenants, one of whom died in a fire.
Birmingham Magistrates Court heard on 6 August that two smoke alarms installed in the house had no batteries in them at the time of the fire. The prosecution was brought by Birmingham City Council under the Housing Act 2004.
The landlord, Mumtaz Mohammed from Sparkhill, pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that fire alarms were in good working order, under Regulation 4 of the Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006. Mr Mohammed was fined £2,500 and was also ordered to pay the council’s legal costs of £2,000.
Taj Sikander was asleep at the property on 18 November 2009 after working a night shift when the fire broke out at around 11.00 am. He is believed to have died from smoke inhalation and the cause of the fire is thought to have been a faulty fridge freezer. The other three tenants were out of the house.
A spokesperson for Birmingham City Council said: “This case has sadly highlighted the fact that landlords who fail to comply with their legal obligations leave the council with no choice other than to prosecute them. It is hoped that this tragic case will serve as a warning to other landlords in the city that they should ensure that all their properties have adequate fire safety measures in place.”