Fire safety in high-rise blocks

Since the fire in London I am worried.  Am I safe living in a high-rise block?

We work to the highest standards of fire safety and have always made safety a top priority.  There are a wide variety of safety measures in each and every one of our tower blocks.  These are all checked and serviced regularly, we inspect blocks every week to check fire doors and other safety features are working and not damaged and we carry out a detailed fire safety assessment  at least once a year.  If these identify any work we need to do to improve safety we will do it.  So you can be confident that you are safe living in your block.

I have heard a lot about building cladding causing some of the problems at Grenfell Tower.  My block has some cladding is it a problem?

The Government has set up an investigation to establish  the reasons why the fire at Grenfell Tower spread in the way it did, in the meantime there has been a lot of speculation that the cladding on the building was part of the problem.

The cladding materials used on Grenfell Tower included an Aluminium Composite Material or ACM.  This is very different to the materials we have used on our tower blocks.

We have 40 high-rise blocks in Coventry and Birmingham.  16 of these are fully clad, 14 in Birmingham and 2 in Coventry and another six blocks in Coventry have some limited areas of cladding mainly on the corners or as a central panel.

All of our blocks in Birmingham are clad using mineral wool – which does not burn – covered with a cement based render – this gives a combined system that meets the highest standards of fire safety available.

In Coventry one fully-clad block (Alpha House) has mineral wool covered with a solid aluminium panel.  This is a totally different material to the ACM used at Grenfell.  That panel had  a  polyethylene core with low fire resistance.  The   Mineral wool used in our blocks is fire proof and will not burn,.

The other fully clad Coventry block uses  phenolic fire proof insulation   behind  a terracotta tiles external finish.  These tiles do not burn and the phenolic insulation also carries the highest fire safety rating.

As you can see the materials we have used are much safer than those used on Grenfell Tower and the way we have clad our buildings has also preserved fire safety.

What other fire safety measures are there in high-rise blocks?

In your block we have the following measures in place to help keep you safe.

  • All of our fire doors, including your flat’s front door, provide at least 30 minutes of fire protection and are sealed with special strips to help make sure that smoke does not get into areas such as fire escapes or your home.
  • Every flat has a smoke alarm which is powered from mains electricity to warn you if there is a fire in your flat. There is also a battery back-up.  You should test your smoke alarm weekly by pressing the   test button and if there are any problems please tell us and we will deal with it urgently.
  • There is emergency lighting on every floor in your block which means that, if there is a fire, you will be able to see if the building is evacuated on instruction from the fire service. This lighting will be on even if the mains power has failed.
  • All fire exits are clearly marked on every floor and signs are luminescent which means that even under emergency lighting conditions the exits remain clearly marked to make sure, if the fire service decides to evacuate the building, you can make your way safely to the fire escape.
  • Every block has a ‘dry riser’ which is accessible to the fire service. That means that in the event of a fire the fire service can gain access to the building and fight the fire from inside.  One of the reported problems at Grenfell Tower was that this was not easy for them to do.
  • Your bin stores are also equipped with sprinkler systems to ensure any fire in a bin store is extinguished quickly. Your bin store also has an automatic fire shutter which will close the chute in the event of a fire.
  • The bin chutes all have fire proof linings, the doors to the chutes are also 30 minute fire-proof doors with fire seals. The door leading to the bin chute is also a 30 minute fire door.
  • All walls in the communal areas have been treated with fire resistant paint to prevent fire spreading.
  • We carry out annual inspections and safety assessments in every block to make sure our fire safety measures are up to date and meet the highest standards of safety. We also have all fire equipment independently tested regularly.
  • Every week we inspect your block to make sure the fire doors are in working order and that communal areas are free from obstructions.
  • There are also fire instructions in the main entrance area to your block. Please read these and make sure you are aware of what to do in the event of a fire; including where all fire escape routes and exits are.

If there is a fire in my block what should I do?

Ensure you have read and understand the fire safety guidance for the block in which you live.  If you live in a high rise block then all have a stay put policy.  For our low rise blocks some are stay put, some are get out and stay out.

For stay put policy blocks: Unless the fire started inside your flat,  is directly affecting your flat or you consider that you are in immediate danger from the circumstances you are witnessing, you should stay inside and not attempt to evacuate.  Keep windows and doors closed.  We recognise this may seem a strange thing to do, especially when you see fire engines outside.  The reasons we ask you to do this, which is in line with advice from the fire service, are:

  • Your flat is protected from fire for at least one hour, this is enough time for the fire service to arrive, assess the situation and then either put out the fire with people inside their flats or order an evacuation.
  • It is an important part of fire safety that people ensure the secure compartment of each flat is not breached. If people start leaving their flats without the fire service telling them to there is a possibility that people won’t close doors properly and so there is a greater risk of fire spreading.
  • Normally the fire service will arrive within a very few minutes of them being told of a fire. If they arrive whilst people are trying to leave the building in a disordered way, there is a possibility they will be unable to get to the fire to put it out and that could put lives at greater risk.

So if you discover a fire in your flat, or a fire is directly affecting your flat, then leave the building by the fire escape and call 999.  If you are not directly affected then stay in your flat and wait for the fire service to arrive, if there is a need to evacuate the fire service will tell you this.

Why are there no fire alarms in my block?

All of the flats that we own have smoke detectors that are powered from mains electricity with a battery back up.  We do ask that you test these regularly and ideally every week.  These will warn you if there is a fire in your flat.

We also have fire alarms and sprinklers in bin stores, where there is a higher risk of fire, these activate in the event of a fire although you will not hear the alarm.

Elsewhere we do not have fire alarms.  This is also in line with fire service.  The reason is to prevent people evacuating when they don’t need to do so and potentially making the situation more dangerous.

Why aren’t there any fire extinguishers in my flat or communal areas?

The best people to tackle any fire are the fire service.  Different fires need to be put out in different ways and using the wrong fire extinguisher can make things much worse and not better.  For example if you use water on an oil fire then rather than putting the fire out it spreads it.  So rather than run the risk of creating greater danger we do not provide fire extinguishers.

Fire extinguishers are generally provided in commercial buildings only to protect the means of escape not to fight fires and employees also receive the proper training in their use. The last thing we would like is for residents to grab extinguishers from the communal area and run back in to their burning flat, the best advice is to get out, stay out and call the fire service out, not forgetting to close all doors behind you.

I heard there was a fire in one of your tower blocks in Birmingham.  What happened?

Somebody left an old sofa in a communal area which somebody decided to set light to, causing a fire.  Given the tragic events at Grenfell Tower this was a senseless and highly dangerous act.  To prevent this happening we ask everyone not to leave rubbish or store things in communal areas.

The good news is that the fire service arrived less than five minutes after the fire was reported and put the fire out very quickly.  The fire was contained within a very small area, no flats were damaged and nobody was injured.  This shows not only the effectiveness of our fire safety measures but also that staying put is a safe approach and enables the fire service to deal quickly and effectively with a fire.

What fire checks do you do?

We carry out an annual fire safety assessment in every single block.  Since the fire in London we have visited each of our blocks at least twice to check on fire safety measures.  We have also asked the fire service to visit all of our blocks independently and tell us of any concerns they may have so we can put them right.

Every week we check each block to make sure fire doors are working properly and fire notices are in the right place.

Fire safety equipment is also tested regularly.

Is there anything I can do to improve fire safety?

There are several things you can do too to help improve and maintain safety:

  • Never leave your flat door open and unattended.
  • Close all doors in corridors and on stairwells behind you and never prop them open. If you see a communal door open then please close it. If the doors do not close properly, report it.
  • Do not leave rubbish or items in communal areas. These can be a fire risk and, if there is a fire, prevent people from escaping easily. If you see rubbish or items left in the communal area,  report it.
  • Do not charge a mobility scooter in the corridors or communal areas.
  • Always report any damaged fire doors, blocked rubbish chutes or broken windows to us immediately. Please also tell us if people are blocking fire escapes or propping doors open.
  • If you see missing fire safety signage, report it.

Check your smoke alarm regularly.