Fire safety - appreciating the potential for disaster

2017 IHEEM Conference hears from experts as spotlight falls on fire safety following Grenfell Tower tragedy

The Grenfell Tower blaze has thrown the spotlight on fire safety in hospitals

Fire safety came under the spotlight at this year’s IHEEM Conference following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Crucial to ensuring trusts meet their regulatory requirements is an accurate risk assessment, said speaker, Gary Lewis, of law firm, Squire Patton Boggs.

“If the risk assessment is wrong, the whole structure is wrong,” he told the conference.

“This is the right place to start, and where possible it’s about eliminating the risk; and where you can’t do that, you try to mitigate the risk.”

Appointing a competent qualified risk assessor is the first step, he told the conference.

When it comes to fire, you do not have to think very hard in order to appreciate the potential for disaster

“If you have a risk assessment that’s old, you need to update it,” he added.

“We see a lot of old risk assessments that are no longer relevant.”

With 1,800 fires at UK hospitals every year, and a particularly-vulnerable population of patients, the potential for harm if a fire does spread is huge, Lewis said, giving some examples of significant fines laid down by courts for companies which have overlooked fire risks.

“When it comes to fire, you do not have to think very hard in order to appreciate the potential for disaster,” he said.

“It’s a very emotive issue and courts take a dim view in terms of sentencing.

“Getting it wrong is very costly because, on top of the fine, is the adverse public reaction.”

Common issues leaving organisations open to prosecution, he revealed, include inadequate risk assessments, a lack of training or no training updates, faulty or inadequate fire safety equipment, and obstructed fire routes and escapes.

Also speaking at the conference was Dr Aofie Hunt, a healthcare evacuation specialist at Movement Strategies.

She warned that one area being routinely overlooked in risk assessments is the issue of vertical evacuation.

Hospitals primarily rely on what is know as ‘progressive horizontal evacuation’, whereby people are moved sideways into zones away from the source of a fire until the fire brigade arrives.

This means secondary vertical evacuation methods – from floor to floor – are often overlooked.

But Dr Hunt warned against this approach.

She said: “A lot of planning is focused on horizontal evacuation, but anyone who says vertical evacuation will not be needed is wrong.

“Every month we see this happening in reality and there is an absolute lack of focus on this in risk assessments.”

Hospitals are highly-complex spaces with patients with various disabilities and live drills and continuous training are impractical, she added.

This means risk assessments need to be based on calculations and probability, although little reliable data exists to help with this.

Dr Hunt said: “Hospitals are very-unique and challenging environments to plan.

“In HBN 05 02 it talks about door widths and stair widths, but it does not take into account the number of people using the stairs, only the requirement for a single mattress.

“It does not consider modern-day flows and modern-day, larger equipment or larger people.”

Evacuation times within current guidance are based on a theatre fire in Edinburgh in 1911 where the band played God Save The Queen while 3,000 people were evacuated. The 2.5-minute duration of this piece of music is still how evaluation times are calculated.

To address this, Dr Hunt has been developing a new piece of software that will provide additional forecasting abilities to ensure future risk assessments are informed by more up-to-date scientific evidence.

A lot of planning is focused on horizontal evacuation, but anyone who says vertical evacuation will not be needed is wrong

London Fire Brigade spokesman, Phil Gibbs, also spoke at the conference, outlining the brigade’s response to Grenfell and ongoing BRE fire tests which will explore any issues with cladding on NHS buildings.

He revealed that the Grenfell tragedy had let to a review of cladding types, particularly brands made from aluminium composite material (ACM).

“This sort of cladding is two pieces of aluminium with some kind of material in between,” he said.

“This material can be of limited combustibility, or not!”

While cladding is covered in building guidance, the recommendations are limited, other than to say that material used in tower blocks of over 80m should be ‘of limited combustibility’.

“Most of the guidance is not that helpful,” Gibbs said.

Samples have been taken from hospitals and are undergoing tests, but Gibbs warned that cladding must be covered in risk assessments moving forward.

He added: “You can’t just close buildings down or rip cladding off, but at least we will know about it.”

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