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Fire safety: Reducing the risk

Paul Henson, from Ramtech Electronics, discusses ways that schools can reduce the risk of fire during refurbishments

Posted by Hannah Vickers | May 20, 2017 | Security & safety

By Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics

The latest round of school capital funding is aimed at addressing the needs of individual schools in order to maximise the impact of every pound of taxpayer’s money. The £4.4 billion Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) is rebuilding and refurbishing numerous school buildings across the UK. There are two phases of the programme covering a total of 537 schools. PSBP1 involved rebuilding or refurbishing 260 schools, with most being completed by the end of this year. The second phase, PSBP2, will see 277 schools benefiting from the capital grant by the end of 2021.

PSBP differs from other investment programmes because it focusses on refurbishing or rebuilding individual buildings rather than replacement of the entire school. As such, the school remains a live learning environment for pupils during building works, which means there needs to be particular focus on fire safety because of its ability to spread rapidly. 

A fire hazard has two components and these must be balanced against each other; one is the possibility of a fire occurring and the other is the consequences of that fire

When contractors are considering fire risk assessment within a school environment, it is necessary to understand the definition of fire hazard. It is generally agreed that a fire hazard has two components and these must be balanced against each other; one is the possibility of a fire occurring and the other is the consequences of that fire. For example, construction or refurbishment of a school building, like any site, can present an elevated fire risk due to the presence of flammable materials, combined with hot works such as cutting and welding activities. The ability of fire to spread rapidly to adjoining buildings adds another element of risk on refurbishment projects.

If contractors follow the guidelines laid out in JCOP (Fire Prevention on Construction Sites; The Joint Code of Practice on the Protection from Fire of Construction Sites and Buildings Undergoing Renovation) guidelines, then the risk and consequences of a fire can be mitigated. Version 9 of JCOP now contains the advice; Components of automatic fire detection and alarm systems should be marked as complying with EN 54 (paragraph 13.8). JCOP is not prescriptive on whether the system should be wired or wireless, although there are significant benefits associated with the latter because it avoids the need for specialise trades such as electricians to reposition the call points, whilst avoiding the issue of trailing leads.

Several leading insurance companies including Zurich and Aviva have responded to the latest update to JCOP with an expectation that; ‘BS-EN 54 compliant alarms should be specified in any new contracts as long as there is availability from normal suppliers at reasonable cost and that over time all customers should move to this standard’.

In updating JCOP, the FPA (Fire Protection Association) and the insurance industry have created a step change in fire safety on site. By making it clear that a fire alarm system should be to EN 54, it has made it much easier to specify the appropriate system for a construction and refurbishment project. In doing this, it brings fire safety up to the same high standard as other safety critical aspects of construction site work such as ladders and scaffolding.

Ask the question

Many contractors in the UK now regularly specify EN 54 compliant fire alarms during construction, with the vast majority choosing a wireless system because it makes repositioning the manual call points or automatic heat/smoke detectors much easier.

However, when offered a fire alarm system, contractors should always verify that each and every component within the system meets the relevant requirements of EN 54. Irrespective of whether the supplier offers verbal reassurance and, in some cases, equivocal certification, you simply need to: 

1. Ask for a Declaration of Performance for each type of unit within the system (base station, manual call point, heat/smoke detectors). These are your proof that the product you’re considering has been tested to the appropriate governing standards. You should expect a full fire alarm and detection system to include references to several different sections of EN 54. If only one, or part of a unit complies with EN 54, it does not follow that the whole system meets this important standard.

2. Check the CE mark on the product - if it’s been certified by a Notified Body you’ll see a four digit number after the mark denoting which test house has tested and certified the product. If there’s no such number, the product has not been tested and certified in accordance with the latest and most stringent legislation.

Wireless fire alarm systems that meet EN 54, verified by a supplier that presents you with this full documentation, which is subsequently installed on site in accordance with your project’s Fire Plan, will create a completely secure mesh network of alarm coverage. The system usually comprises manual call points that can be manually triggered by personnel on site or, alternatively, heat or smoke detection units that provide automatic cover 24/7. This ensures the site is protected even when personnel are not present. 

Putting safety first

Using an EN 54 compliant wireless fire alarm system that incorporates automatic heat/smoke detectors effectively means that the refurbishment benefits from the same high standard of fire alarm coverage as a completed building. That in itself is an important consideration when used on refurbishment projects such as PSBP where adjoining buildings remain live classrooms.

When it comes to your fire alarm and detection system compliance, there are really only a couple of simple things to bear in mind. First and foremost is that the whole system – each and every unit - needs to be compliant with the relevant section (s) of EN 54. By doing this you will ensure the system you use on a PSBP project is properly tested and certified as compliant with the most recent – and most stringent – legislation as well as being aligned to your insurer’s guidelines.”

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