Social housing must ‘put out’ fire risk

Social housing executives are always conscious of safety, and when it comes to fire they agree there is no room for complacency writes Richard Wood, Head of Housing at Zurich Municipal.

Zurich Municipal’s latest Social Housing Risk Ranking, which surveyed 79 board level chief executives and directors from the sector, sought to establish the risk priorities for social housing. The data found that Registered Providers (RPs) have a number of concerns, but one of their key priorities is the significant threat that fires and arson pose to life and property.

The risk of fire is well recognised across the industry and housing providers, owners, landlords and agents are already legally required by The Housing Act to maintain appropriate levels of fire safety and to carry out fire risk assessments on their properties. Importantly, this legislation places responsibility for fire safety on a ‘responsible person’, who must manage the implementation of fire precautions, and carry out appropriate risk assessments.

These mandatory checks can go a considerable way in reducing the potential impact of fire or arson attacks. For instance, sprinkler systems can play a key role in mitigating the impact of a fire and should be given early consideration in all significant new build schemes. The same can be said for hard wired automatic fire detection, which can reduce the risk of a serious incident. In addition, portable fire extinguishers should be accessible and evenly distributed throughout the premises, and have suitable signs provided.

Mandatory checks aside, there are several other simple measures that can prevent fire incidents occurring. For example, waste should be removed regularly and not left inside buildings. Residents should be advised to restrict the use and storage of any highly flammable liquids and combustible material within housing units. Proper letterbox openings are also important, as they can help lower the risk of arson by making it more difficult to pour in an accelerant or push fireworks into the property. Residents should also be instructed never to wedge open fire doors, which are particularly important within multi-storey and high-rise blocks for stopping fires from spreading.

To ensure these measures have maximum impact, social housing providers need to put in place strict protocols and procedures to ensure all relevant parties are aware of the steps that need to be taken. The ‘responsible person’ has a key role to play. Typically a member of the housing or estate management team, it is their duty to ensure that the fire-risk assessment is carried out by a competent person; someone with sufficient training, knowledge, equipment and experience to take into account the size of the premises and the specific hazards involved.

Staff co-operation is also crucial. Employees should be made aware of the fire risk as part of their training and encouraged to report hazards or, in the case of arson, to report anything suspicious. It is also best practice to carry out regular inspection regimes, and to ensure that records of assessments and any maintenance are kept. Only by conducting such assessments will risks be fully identified, leading to the implementation of appropriate control measures.

Social housing providers are under pressure from ongoing public sector cuts and housing reforms, which are putting further pressure on the sector and driving a trend towards diversification of services. While it is crucial that the sector deal with, and adapt to these emerging developments, there is no room for complacency when it comes to long-held threats such as fire. Most providers already have strict protocols in place to protect their residents, but those lagging behind must be encouraged to ‘put out’ the risk of fire.

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