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The devastation caused by the fire at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay

With several high profile fatal fires last year, questions are being asked about the effectiveness of the Regulatory Reform Act. Here, Alan Cox, who last autumn featured in a BBC undercover investigation into fire safety in hotels, says a stronger direction from government and transparency in enforcement is needed to minimise the chances of further disasters. are the penhallow, atherstone on Stour and Royal Marsden fires indicative of how fire safety is heading in the future or just a minor set back? Have we just been unlucky or is this symptomatic of something far more serious in how we manage fire safety in the UK? All of these incidents have brought the subject of fire safety into the spotlight recently for one reason or another and while it is too early to go into the causes, I believe the time is right to question how we all address the problem. It would be nice to think these fires that that we have recently experienced in very diverse occupancies are just a minor setback. But I feel that this may not be the case and I will be focusing on

hotel fire safety later in this article to illustrate the point, because I believe it is a good indicator of how we manage fire safety overall. While it is very easy to blame others for these failings, I think that we first have to look closer to home. In my experience, we are not very good ambassadors for our own profession, and I include under this heading local authority fire officers, consultants, fire

safety companies and the myriad of other job titles that earn a living in this sector. I am also including the ubiquitous safety officers who now find themselves involved in the fire safety process. Clearly we all have an important role in making our buildings safer from fire and protecting those who occupy them, so we need to be more open, honest and more transparent in our dealings.

“I have direct experience of investigating fires where the official reports did not necessarily tally with what I found out was actually the case on the ground� FSE 15

I have direct experience of investigating fires where the official reports did not necessarily tally with what I found out was actually the case on the ground. I do believe that if we are to truly learn from these tragedies, our investigation and reporting procedures need to be more open, independent and transparent. In the USA, many serious fire investigations are carried out by the National Fire Protection Association and because they are independent from the enforcing authorities, they produce results that are more credible. I have never believed in the police investigating their own mistakes, and my experience certainly doesn’t favour the fire service doing so with theirs.

Transparency needed

For some years I worked for a major global financial institution and the way that fire safety was managed was very poor, even though they had experienced a fire with several deaths in one of their branches. It was not uncommon to find problems such as: ● fire suppression systems that had not been switched on for years ● sprinkler systems with no water ● fire exits bricked up and fire doors and walls removed ● discharged fire suppression systems. When I raised these defects with the group fire and safety manager, I was told that we couldn’t mentioned them because we would be shooting ourselves in the foot, as one of our team had visited previously and it wasn’t raised as an issue then. So in many instances things never improved, and in many cases I was not even allowed to notify the occupants of the problems.

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It’s very easy to think that just because a company employs their own fire and safety staff that they are doing a good job. Unfortunately, however, just like any other organisation there are strong political pressures that can sometimes dictate the results. Neither is the fire trade exempt from criticism. I was recently carrying out an undercover investigation into hotel fire safety for the BBC TV programme Inside Out, following the Penhallow Hotel fire in Newquay. One of the hotels that I was due to stay in was the subject of a conversation with someone from a local fire safety company, who informed me that their trade association had held their annual conference there and it was a ‘death trap’. But if this was the case and they were aware of the problems, why didn’t they do something about it? A couple of years ago I visited a fairly large fire company to assess their capability to provide fire extinguisher maintenance for a client with about 2000 locations. I was welcomed by the MD who started to tell me all about how good their company was, how they had expanded into a new prestigious HQ six months ago, and that business was now so good they were now carrying out fire risk assessments for their clients – even their sales manager was doing them! When I asked to see the fire risk assessment for their new building, he looked very embarrassed and admitted that they hadn’t had enough time to complete one. I then looked around the building and I discovered that it had no fire alarm system, one of the fire exits was deadlocked and no one could find the key, and the paint spray area was one of

the most dangerous that I have seen for a long time. Needless to say they did not get the contract. It is perhaps very easy to blame these companies for situations like this. But if there is a lack of control and guidance from central government, they are going to take opportunities when they arise. In another example, I recently visited an event at a venue which previously had a fire. Even there, I witnessed obstructed fire exits and self-closing doors, fire doors wedged open and electric cables trailed under fire doors. The management of the venue should have known better!

A smoke detector ‘bagged off’ (left) and flammable materials with an open fire door (above)

Serious hotel fires

We all stay in hotels at some point in our lives. But do we ever bother to practice what we preach? When we stay in a hotel and notice a fire door wedged open or an obstructed fire exit, do we complain to the manager or do we just pass by and think that someone else will put it right? Until the Penhallow fire last year, the UK had not had a serious hotel fire in recent years but around the world, the situation is different, as you can see from the table. Have we been lucky in the UK or was our approach better than some of these other countries? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this difficult question because if you look at our prescriptive legislation that existed for many years, there were good and bad points. If we use statistics as a measure we can fairly confidently say that this approach achieved the desired result. So why change something that wasn’t broken, and will the risk assessment approach be any better? There are nearly as many



“A fire trade association had held its annual conference at a hotel that was described as a ‘death trap”

views on this as there are types of risk assessment so instead of getting involved in a no-win situation, I will outline some of my recent experiences in hotels in the UK. This, I feel, will give an interesting overview of how things are working out in practice. This first example is a hotel in Harrogate, where I stayed while attending – of all things – a fire safety exhibition in the town. As usual I had a walk around my hotel to check the escape routes and this is what I found: ● numerous fire doors wedged open, and/or damaged or not up to standard ● fire doors removed ● storage of combustible items on the staircase and poor housekeeping ● obstructed escape routes ● poor fire exit signage ● smoke detectors bagged off I wrote to the owner and pointed out the problems but as I did not receive a reply, I referred it to the fire authority to investigate. I’m informed that they visited and prepared an ‘action plan’ of remedial fire safety work. I wonder how many other visitors from the fire profession stayed here and ignored these serious problems? The next hotel in Torquay was one that I stayed in while carrying out the undercover investigation into hotel fire safety for the BBC programme I referred to earlier. My usual walk around the fire exits revealed the following: ● fire escape door locked with no means of opening ● external fire escapes with serious exposure risks (adjacent to kitchen) and corroded external fire escape ● escape routes through bedrooms with access by keys in glass fronted boxes

and obstructed exit routes high risk areas on dead ends with no fire doors ● incorrect fire signage ● fire doors not closing or ineffective ones with no smoke or intumescent seals As I felt there was a serious threat to life here, I notified the fire authority of the problems. They carried out an immediate inspection and agreed a number of improvements with the owner. They also found that staff areas were not suitable for sleeping in and these were taken out of use. Following the broadcast of the programme in September last year, another fire consultant visited one of the Penhallow Hotel’s sister establishments and found that fire doors did not have fire and smoke seals. The fire authority visited and issued an enforcement notice. During the course of the investigation I visited 14 threestar hotels, 13 of which were not up to the required standards. ●

No escape?

The next is a set of self-catering apartment which to all intents and purposes is a hotel that goes by the description of holiday flats. I include these premises, where I stayed in July 2006, because it was one of the building uses that escaped the previous legislation. Here are some of the problems that I wrote to the owner about: ● Virtually no horizontal or vertical fire separation ● Fire doors removed ● No protected escape routes ● Combustible furniture on escape

routes High risk areas opening onto escape routes ● Incorrect fire procedure. ● Poorly maintained fire equipment As I did not receive a reply I forwarded my concerns to the local fire authority, building control officer and the tourist office. I only received one reply, from the fire authority, which said: “As the fire service does not have any legislation covering this type of premises I have passed your letter to the health and safety section of the Council’s Environment Services Department. If they are able to act on this information they will respond to you directly.” I wrote back informing them that even if they didn’t have any powers at the present they soon would have – as a result of the impending Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order) – and that in any case they had a responsibility to inspect a property when someone had informed them that it was a threat to life safety. As I did not get a reply I sent copies of my letter to all the members of the fire authority, which produced an instant response they were sending ●

2005 2001 2001 1999 1997 1995 1993 1986 1980 1977

An unprotected fire escape passing a kitchen (left) and a blocked escape route

15 people died and 50 injured in a hotel fire in Paris 70 people died in a hotel the Philippines 70 people died in a hotel the Philippines 20 people died in a hotel in Changchun, China 91 people died in a hotel in Thailand 30 people died in a hotel in Anshan, China 20 people died in a hotel in Illinois, USA 97 people died in a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA 84 people died in a hotel in Las Vegas, USA 302 people died in a hotel in Brussels

Table 1: Fatal hotel fires. The above only represents a small proportion of the hotel fires where fatalities and injuries have occurred.

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The future

‘Holiday flats’ with no protected escape routes and a fire door removed

officers out immediately to inspect the premises. It was also interesting that the fire service admitted they had not been to this building since it was built about 20 years ago, and they had not thought about their new responsibilities for this type of building under the forthcoming legislation.


To their credit, some fire and rescue services are working hard to bring hotels up to speed with modern requirements but some have missed the point about fire risk assessments – it’s up to the building owner to carry out the risk assessment. If a fire service is not happy with it, it should say so and give reasons, not simply dictate a list of work that the owner has to comply with. A determined hotel owner could make a very good case for not installing an automatic detector in a bedroom with no smoking, a fire door, PAT tested extinguishers and trained staff – where is the risk now? Last September I stayed in a hotel on which the local fire authority had already served an enforcement notice which stated that the fire detection system was inadequate. But in addition, I found: ● numerous fire doors were wedged open and some without self-closing devices ● numerous fire doors did not have fire or smoke seals or with excessive gaps ● poorly sited fire detectors I wrote to the owner about these and received a reply indicating that these items would be rectified. Incidentally, to see a graphic illustration of the huge gap

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that needs to be closed by premises owners in complying with current legislation, look at the public register kept by the Cornwall Country Fire Brigade at:

Legacy issues

In my own experience, I find that about 80% of buildings in this category have significant failings in public areas alone. While some of these problems have arisen due to inadequate fire risk assessments, many have been there for a long time. The guidance under the Regulatory Reform Order states: “If a Fire Certificate has been issued in respect of your premises or the premises were built to recent building regulations, as long as you have made no material alterations and all the physical fire precautions have been properly maintained, then it is unlikely you will need to make any significant improvements to your existing physical fire protection arrangements to comply with the Order.” While this is probably the case with recent buildings, it may not be so for older ones, for which fire certificates may have been issued several years or more earlier when standards were lower. But in many cases, owners and consultants look at the guidance under the RRO and believe that, as the building previously had a fire certificate and hasn’t changed, it must be OK. But isn’t this the time for the fire authorities to bring them up to today’s standards? Clearly, many are doing just that but I feel that both they and the hotel industry have missed the point of risk assessments.

So what does the future hold for us? Certainly there is confusion, misunderstanding, inconsistent enforcement, a lack of information and a situation that, I believe, can only get worse. At least under the previous system, when you checked into a hotel you could assume that an establishment had a fire certificate or had applied for one. Now a guest knows nothing at all. If you look at the hotel that was featured on the BBC programme, for example, the management had decided to create a fire exit through a bedroom but had not provided a means of opening it from the outside. How long would that have been before it was discovered or a fire occurred? Many of the tourist organisations would have you believe that they look at fire precautions but what training do they have and are they effective? My experience leads me to believe that they have very little impact on fire safety at all. But it is unlikely that we will move away from a risk assessment approach, so I feel that the introduction of a credible, independent third party accreditation scheme for our buildings is one solution that could work. The system would have to cover all buildings – both old and new – and should be carried out by professionals to a recognised standard. If the regime under the RRO can be run effectively, then it can be a very good thing for both the community and the fire service. We don’t want to go back to the days of the fire and rescue service dictating to businesses how to run their operations safely, because fire safety has to be a team effort in which we all have an important part to play. After all, there are often several ways of ensuring people’s risk to fire is reduced, or if one does break out, at least that it is reasonably contained. Alan Cox is a fire and safety consultant. He has held senior fire safety posts in the public and private sector.

“During the course of the investigation I visited 14 three-star hotels, 13 of which were not up to the required standards” FEBRUARY 2008

RRO - Order or Chaos  
RRO - Order or Chaos  

An article that I wrote for the FSE Journal on how the new fire legislation was working in practice.