The lessons of Lakanal

  • 28 Nov 2013

Friday 3 July 2009 is a day that many people in the London Borough of Southwark will never be able to forget. The fire in Lakanal House, a 14-storey building on Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell, started just before 4:30pm in a ninth floor bedroom, sadly claiming the lives of three women and three children as well as resulting in over 980 families having to vacate their homes.

The subsequent effects of the fire have been far-reaching. Not only of course, for the victim’s families, but also for the fire service, building managers and local government officials, whom have since sought to revaluate the approach to safety in high rise buildings in the hope of preventing such an event occurring in the future.

Those attending the emotive inquest, which got underway at the start of this year, heard details that surrounded the incident, including the final desperate phone calls the victims made to fire service control. The inquest raised a number of questions as to why residents of the building that were known to be alive after the emergency services were told of their specific locations, could not be saved.

Perhaps one of the most concerning facts brought to light by the inquest, was that Southwark Council did not have a Fire Risk Assessment in place on the high-rise block. Astonishingly, The Fire Safety Order came into effect on 1 October 2006 – so by the time of the disaster, two years and nine months later – no Fire Risk Assessment had been done.

So, if anything is to be taken from the tragic events at Lakanal House, it is that complacency when it comes to Fire Risk Assessments is simply not an option. In addition, the event and subsequent inquest demonstrates the vital role played by compartmentation in protecting escape routes and slowing the spread of fire and smoke.

Moreover, it is vitally important that those employed to install and maintain fire protection systems are competent to do so and public sector specifiers must ensure that educated and well-informed decisions are made when it comes to the selection of building materials.

Lakanal House has become a catalyst for all those in the public sector responsible for high-rise, multiple occupancy buildings, auctioning a review of their current fire detection systems. To assist, the Government published a Fire Safety Risk Assessment Design Guide in 2006 that provides recommendations and guidance for use when assessing the adequacy of fire precautions in premises providing sleeping accommodation, which includes the common areas of houses in multiple occupation (HMO), flats and maisonettes.

In terms of fire detection and warning, the guide recommends an automatic fire alarm system, which should typically include the following:

• Fire detectors, e.g. smoke, heat
• Manual call points (break glass call points) next to exits with at least one call point on each floor
• Electronic sirens or bells
• A control indicator panel  

Existing systems should therefore be routinely reviewed against any change in the use or the structure of the building as this can impact the system’s compliance with BS 5839 Part 1: 2002. 

Those responsible for fire safety should also be drawing from the current Code of Practice for fire detection and fire alarm systems, as it covers everything from simple manual installations to networks supporting hundreds of detectors and devices. Crucially, it sets standards in terms of design, installation, commissioning and maintenance. Plus, any changes to the fire detection and alarm system should be discussed with the system or service supplier, fire prevention officers, insurers and building control.

With so much at stake, it is fair to say there is no room for complacency. It is vital that buildings have every possible precaution in place against potentially catastrophic effects of fire. This means implementing and managing a fire detection and alarm system that is appropriate to the level of risk identified

The good news for those embarking on a system upgrade, is that there has been a huge amount of technical innovation in recent years geared up to meeting the necessary requirements set out by the
Fire Safety Order (FSO) 2005.

The latest digital fire detection technology, for instance, now has even greater advancements that have improved the performance of fire detection systems considerably. These new systems offer functionality and additional benefits to provide speedier installation, more efficient programming and a superb detector lifespan between service changes.

Furthermore, this digital technology delivers superior detection performance, greater fault tolerance and improved environmental protection, enabling quicker and easier installation and reducing the overall cost of the system. Sophisticated digital signaling communicates with the fire control panel, providing a robust and secure fire detection network that is engineered to suit the requirements of the environment and application.

To conclude, fire detection systems represent one of the most crucial elements of risk reduction in terms of human safety. And, with the inquest into the Lakanal House disaster reminding us of the truly devastating effect of fire, more people should be looking towards the latest digital technology to ensure the best possible protection is at hand should the worst happen.

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