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A heated debate

Why are fire extinguishers being removed from some tower blocks? Kate Youde investigates one of housing’s most surprising controversies.

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A heated debate

When a housing association announced it was removing fire extinguishers from a block of flats on ‘health and safety’ grounds, the watchdog was incredulous.

After a complaint from a member of the public the Health and Safety Executive reacted by issuing a statement saying ‘it is hard to understand how anyone could sensibly use “health and safety” as a reason to remove fire extinguishers’.

‘There are no health and safety regulations which apply here,’ it stated.

While this might sound clear - and sensible - enough, housing providers would be forgiven for being a little confused. That’s because the HSE’s statement, issued in June, came less than a year after Local Government Association guidance suggested the provision of fire extinguishers in common parts of blocks of flats for use by residents was unnecessary and ‘problematic’. As a result, some housing associations - as the HSE noticed - have since removed them.

So why has this apparent contradictory advice arisen and who should social landlords listen to if they want to safeguard their tenants’ lives?

Puzzling contradictions

Debate about safety in flats was kick-started by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in 2005, which brought the common areas of blocks of flats under mainstream fire legislation in England and Wales for the first time. It requires landlords to carry out a fire risk assessment to make sure blocks are as safe as possible if a fire breaks out.

Then, following on from the high-profile fire in Southwark’s Lakanal House, which killed six people in 2009, the LGA published guidance on fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats. The guidance was developed in consultation with representatives from the housing sector, the Communities and Local Government department and the Chief Fire Officers Association and states that it is ‘not normally necessary’ to provide fire extinguishers in common parts. They should be used only by those trained to use them, it adds, and it is not considered appropriate or practicable for residents to have such training. Extinguishers should be in areas such as staff rooms and plant rooms, however.

Risk assessment

While this might seem puzzling at first glance, there is a logic to this approach. The guide warns that the provision of fire extinguishers in common areas might encourage a resident to leave their burning home to grab one before returning to fight the blaze, putting themselves at risk. The document, drafted by fire safety consultancy CS Todd and Associates, says: ‘Any proposal for the provision of fire fighting appliances, or continued presence of existing equipment, should be based only on full justification of the proposal by a fire risk assessment.’

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There is no legal requirement for specialists to carry out this assessment but Glenn Askew, group commander for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, who works with the CFOA, recommends housing providers choose a fire risk assessor with accreditation from a recognised body. He says, following a risk assessment, it might be ‘perfectly acceptable’ to have extinguishers in some communal areas providing they are not getting misused. ‘There is not a one-size-fits-all,’ he explains.

The main problem with extinguishers, he says, is that there are different categories for different types of fire. ‘Evidence suggests that, in the wrong hands, a fire extinguisher could be more problematic than the fire itself,’ he says. ‘[Take] as an example of that, a chip pan fire, which is a fat-based fire. Most of the extinguishers you would find provided in communal areas are usually either water-based or aqueous film-forming foam.

‘If that extinguisher is used on a chip pan fire, what will happen is when the water mixes with the fat, it makes the fat spread into small particles which causes a fireball.’

The London Fire Brigade agrees with the LGA guidance that it is ‘not normally necessary’ to provide extinguishers in communal areas of blocks of flats. It says retrieving an extinguisher and returning to the flat on fire could put someone’s life at risk. ‘It also goes against our advice of getting out and calling 999,’ says the spokesperson.

‘Similarly if the fire is in another part of the block, leaving your flat to tackle the fire could also put your life at risk.’ This reflects the recommended ‘stay put’ policy, which says residents not affected by a fire should remain in their flats unless told to leave by the fire service.

‘Only with the full justification in a fire risk assessment should fire extinguishers be provided in communal areas, and this is normally when there is full time staff on duty in the property such as a concierge,’ adds the spokesperson.

Case-by-case

Peter Wilkinson, associate director of the Fire Protection Association, which runs training courses in fire risk assessment as well as providing its own risk assessors, says housing providers will want to save money by not having maintenance contracts on fire extinguishers that are not legally required.

However, his organisation would ‘think long and hard before actually putting a recommendation in a report that said we think you should remove fire extinguishers that are already there’.

‘But if a client asked us, “Do we need to provide extinguishers?” then the answer would be no,’ he says.

‘It’s an interesting debate. If they are appropriately sited, they are not necessarily in the way or creating an obstruction, there’s no history of them being maliciously used or set off, then there’s not necessarily a need to remove them.’

Mr Wilkinson says he can see why the recent HSE statement, issued by the watchdog’s independent Myth Busters Challenge Panel, might have caused confusion, however. The panel was set up to scutinise complaints from the public about decisions or advice issued for health and safety reasons. June’s release was issued after the panel looked into the case of an unnamed housing association that removed fire extinguishers, doormats and wall signs from a block of flats.

Causing more confusion

Jonathan Compton, head of health and safety at Richmond Housing Partnership, believes the myth-busting briefing published on the HSE’s website will probably cause ‘more confusion’ among residents. Having already faced questions from tenants over its removal last year of ‘quite a lot’ of extinguishers from common areas on the advice of accredited fire risk assessment company BB7, he says a few more questions will probably now come the housing association’s way as a result of the HSE’s comments.

Despite the apparent categoric nature of the HSE panel’s statement, however, there is a twist in the tale. While some may have been left confused, the HSE insists there is no contradiction between its stance and the LGA guidance. In fact, an HSE spokesperson states it was solely the unnamed association’s use of the phrase ‘health and safety’ that irked the panel.

‘This case was not an “occupational” health and safety issue,’ the spokesperson explains. ‘The reason we have the panel is to make the point that people should explain the real reason for their actions. The “health and safety” label is often incorrectly used and can also lead to confusion.

‘This was a “fire safety” issue governed by the [The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005] and so should have been quoted as the reason why fire extinguishers, door mats and wall signs were not present.’

So in future, it seems, housing providers need to be clearer when giving residents reasons for making changes. However, given the serious nature of the topic, the HSE’s myth busters might also want to look again at the way they word their statements. It might not be a health and safety issue, but it could be a matter of life and death.

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