Blog: Caring about Fire Safety

Fire safety is a major concern in sheltered accommodation and retirement homes, as they are occupied by many vulnerable people and those with limited mobility.

Here, Richard Sutton of Horbury Property Services, looks at the important role that passive fire protection plays in sheltered housing and retirement homes.

Last summer, following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Government ordered more than 17,000 care homes, private hospitals and hospices to carry out checks on the fire safety of their buildings. A number of buildings were found to have serious breaches, whilst some had failings in basic fire standards and others were warned that a failure to properly compartmentalise areas was putting patients at intolerable risk if fire broke out (source: Health Service Journal).

Like hospitals, care homes are occupied by vulnerable and immobile people and the fire strategy for the building therefore needs to be given careful consideration. Thirty minutes’ fire protection, for example, which may be sufficient in some other buildings may not give enough time for occupants to be evacuated in a care home.

Fire Compartmentation inspection
Buildings 10 years old or less will have been built in accordance with Building Regulations Approved Document B, which requires that they be sub-divided into a number of discreet compartments or cells. Within each cell, the dividing walls are filled with specialist materials that prevent the passage of fire from one cell to another for a given period of time.

Compartmentation aims to contain fires, based on the premise that large fires are more dangerous to occupants, fire and rescue services and people located nearby. It has also been found to limit damage to a building and its contents.

One of the main benefits of compartmentation is that it protects ‘means of escape’ routes from a building. This feature is particularly important where there is minimal fire separation, other than the means of escape, for example, a small care home served by a single flight of stairs.  In this case, the floor area may be open plan, with no partitions, however, the stairs should be enclosed by fire walls (and fire doors) to ensure a fire within any part of the accommodation cannot pass through to the stairway.  Spaces that connect fire compartments, such as stairways and service shafts, known as ‘protected shafts,’ play an important role in restricting fire spread between the compartments. For care home operators, it is equally important to ensure that fires do not start in the common parts or communal facilities, as in individual resident’s rooms.

Escape routes should be designed to ensure that any person faced with fire anywhere in the building should be able to turn away from it and escape to a place of reasonable safety. From there they will be able to go and be taken directly to a place of total safety away from the building. Escape routes need to be protected and it may be necessary to upgrade the construction of floors, ceiling linings and walls to be fire resisting, to avoid having combustible walls and ceilings lining an escape route.

Larger buildings, such as hospitals, obviously have greater reliance on fire compartmentation. The compartments can withstand a fire for a specific amount of time, either inside that space or externally. This fire protective barrier gives a chance for occupants to be evacuated and for emergency services to arrive and extinguish the fire, or for the fire to extinguish on its own.

Regulatory Reform Order
Sheltered housing or care home operators must comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which requires that a duty holder (a competent person within the organisation or external specialist) carries out a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment on all sleeping accommodation in England and Wales. The fire risk assessment should be detailed and rigorous, covering many aspects, one of which is ensuring the integrity of fire compartmentation, including fire doors.

Guidance on carrying out fire risk assessments in a care home identifies a number of key areas: firstly that the building fabric needs to be considered in terms of its fire safety, this includes effectiveness of fire doors and fire compartmentation and any breaches to this; secondly fire risk assessments should identify any hazards that may cause a fire and thirdly, the needs of those being cared for and employees should be carefully considered.

Fire risk assessments should be carried out regularly and form part of a fire action plan. This plan should contain any remedial work that has been identified within the risk assessment and a timetable for rectifying it. It should identify any fire hazards, reduce the risks of hazards causing harm and thirdly the building owners/managers need to decide what physical fire precautions and management arrangements are necessary to ensure fire safety.

The fire risk assessment will consider the needs of people who are unable to leave the premises quickly, residents or visitors who are elderly or with disabilities, also parents with children and people who may panic in the event of a fire.

Assessing the integrity of a fire compartment is a vitally important part of any fire risk assessment. This includes checking whether there are any holes in the walls, floors or ceilings. These could have been caused by accidental damage, but equally likely is the fact they could be as a result of service works, such as IT, telephone or television systems being upgraded. This could compromise the integrity of the fire compartmentation, so it is essential it is assessed regularly.

Fire risk assessments should be carried out by a competent person within the building, but the issue in the majority of cases is that this does not extend to inspecting the integrity of the fire compartmentation.

Research shows that in general, compartmentation and fire protection of escape routes are successful in containing fire. In the last 20 years there have been very few cases where residents of a care home have died as a result of a fire in another person’s room. In response to this, many care homes operators are looking into increasing fire detection methods and adding sprinklers within a building in order to keep fire risk to a minimum. However, it is just as important to prevent fires breaking out in the first place as to provide measures to protect people should a fire occur.

Assessing the risks
There are very serious considerations when inadequate fire risk assessments are carried out as it could compromise the safety of the whole building and its occupants. Fire risk assessments should include a review of a building’s fire compartmentation by a competent person or external fire inspection company, thus minimising the risks to occupants and a building. When fire compartmentation is regularly inspected and well maintained, there is no better form of fire protection.”

For more information about fire compartmentation, fire stopping and fire door inspections, contact the Horbury Property Services team on 01709 917555 or visit the website

Richard Sutton is the general manager at Horbury Property Services