Friday, 25 July 2014

Smoke signals

Identifying fire risks is key to preventing tragedy. Helen Clifton finds out how one housing association is working with the fire service to keep tenants safe

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This month marks the second anniversary of the Lakanal House tragedy, where six people died when fire swept through a Southwark Council-owned tower block in Camberwell, south London. Fire crews rescued more than 40 residents and some 90 families had to vacate their homes, which were uninhabitable in the aftermath of the blaze.

Incidents like these - though thankfully few and far between - have prompted social landlords to step up their fire safety procedures.

Worcester Community Housing has been working closely with Worcester and Hereford Fire Service for severeal years, allowing it to use void properties for training purposes. ‘It’s to help them get a feel for our properties,’ explains Bruce Mourby, head of neighbourhoods at WCH, which owns and manages 4,700 homes. ‘If they go into a smoke-filled building they know what they are looking for and they know their way out.’

Finding the hotspots

WCH has promoted free fire safety checks for residents since it was established in 2004. It does this through newsletters and community safety days and around 50 residents take up the offer every year. But, keen to further minimise risk, in September 2010 the association introduced free fire safety checks as part of its tenancy agreements.

Not all WCH’s new tenants receive the checks, which take between 15 minutes and half an hour and are carried out by Worcester and Hereford Fire Service. Instead, housing officers use welcome visits which take place two weeks into a tenancy as an opportunity to identify ‘hotspot’ homes - those are viewed as being more vulnerable to a blaze - and ask the fire service to pay the household a visit.

As a result, 20 fire safety checks have taken place over the past 10 months. ‘Those properties are normally ones with a lot of lifestyle risks. They may house large families where the chip pan is bubbling away while they are watching TV, or those who store rubbish and waste paper within the property,’ explains Mr Mourby.

The two main causes of fires in WCH’s 4,700 properties are discarded cigarettes and chip pans.

Including fire safety checks in the tenancy agreement allows WCH to target residents who might not otherwise ask for one, says Mr Mourby. It also means that, if a tenant refuses a check, WCH can ‘look at acquiring an injunction to enter the property’.

Before introducing fire safety checks as part of its tenancy agreement, there had been no fatal fires in WCH’s properties, but there had been four or five per year after which residents needed treatment for smoke inhalation. Statistical improvements are yet to be seen - there have been four fires in WCH’s properties since August last year - but Mr Mourby says it’s ‘too early’ to be able to show the positive impact of the addition of fire safety checks to its tenancy agreements.

He adds that the scheme has cost nothing for the housing association to set up and run because the checks are conducted by the fire service.

They have led, however, to WCH having to pay to remove rubbish that could be a fire hazard, carry out repairs and install fire-proof doors.

Extra precautions

WCH fire safety policy includes informing the fire service about tenants who need to keep oxygen tanks in their homes for medical reasons, as oxygen is highly inflammable. The housing association has also changed its fire alarms from battery operated to working from a centralised system.

Sprinkler systems, although a legal requirement in all flats in blocks over 30 metres high, are not mandatory in lower buildings. But Worcester and Hereford Fire Service has installed sprinklers in the flat of one at-risk WCH tenant found with multiple cigarette burns around her furniture.

The association has also carried out risk assessments on all its sheltered housing schemes because of concerns that mobility scooters, which are relied upon by an increasing number of residents, pose a fire risk as they can block exits. It now ensures the vehicles are stored in purpose-built shelters, or in spacious areas.

The Chartered Institute of Housing last month issued a fire safety practice brief and together with West Midlands Fire Service and the Chief Fire Officers’ Association offers fire safety and risk assessment training to landlords. More than 700 people have attended the seminars over the past 18 months.

John Thornhill, report author and CIH senior policy and practice officer, says the demand for these seminars shows that social landlords need to take a ‘back to basics’ approach to fire safety; and, like WCH, develop closer partnerships with fire services.

‘It’s about being confident that their buildings are fit for purpose, and that their residents know what to do to be safe,’ he explains.

In 2008, more than half of accidental fires in homes were cooking-related, while 7 per cent were caused by smoking materials. Statistics show a link between fires and poverty; in the same year, in Scotland, 31 per cent of accidental fire dwelling deaths occurred in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 15 per cent most deprived areas.

‘Social housing provides accommodation for some of the most vulnerable people in society,’ Mr Thornhill says. ‘This is not a cause of fires, but you have to think about what particular measures you need to ensure those who are vulnerable are safe.’ Such measures might include translating fire safety instructions into different languages, or ensuring that older people have a personalised rescue plan.

Tony Prosser, the Chief Fire Officers’ Association lead for social housing, has worked closely with the CIH, and believes WCH has the right idea.

‘There are some things that are out of our control. What do you do with the guy on the 15th floor who wants to dismantle his electrical system [thus starting a fire]?’ he states. ‘We have to be invited in by the tenants. But it doesn’t always work like that. That is why we think free fire safety checks should be part of the tenancy agreement.’

Case study: kitchen nightmare

After several fires broke out in one older resident’s ground floor, one-bedroom flat, Worcester Community Housing realised it needed to take decisive action.

The resident was leaving food cooking on an electric hob, causing fires and smoke damage to her kitchen. The safety of families living above her in the three-storey, 12-flat block became a growing concern.

‘I visited [the tenant] myself to give her some advice - but it was very clear she would probably forget who I was,’ says Bruce Mourby, head of neighbourhoods at WCH. ‘I don’t think she realised the potential danger for her and other residents,’ he adds.

After a fire safety assessment by Worcester and Hereford Fire Service - which the resident was happy to receive - WCH decided to fit a heat detector on her hob.

The device works by detecting body heat and automatically switching off the hob if the resident leaves the room. The cooker is switched back on by pushing a button.

Since the installation, there have been no more fires.

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