false alarm
It’s very likely you saw the recent news reports about the fire that devastated privately owned flats used by students at the University of Bolton. Residents had to be evacuated from the building (known as The Cube) after a fire broke out on the evening of Friday 15th November. Over 200 firefighters tackled the blaze which took more than nine hours to get under control. Two people sustained minor injuries. The investigation into the cause of the blaze is ongoing at the time of writing. Student accommodation’s certainly an environment with many fire risks associated with it: they include candle use; overheating chargers; using portable heaters; socket overload and plugging in too many extension leads; not paying attention while cooking; and, even though it may be prohibited, smoking. The situation can be compounded by a tendency of residents to be less likely to consider the consequences of actions, particularly when judgement’s been impaired by the effects of alcohol. Whether any of these factors will be linked to the Bolton University fire remains to be seen. As well as establishing how it started, the fire is raising other urgent concerns too. It’s been confirmed that the cladding used on The Cube is not the same type as Grenfell Tower, but the speed with which the fire spread has raised concerns about whether it played a role. There are real worries about how the building reacted to the fire and once again, questions are being asked about the flammability of cladding. The consequences of false alarm complacency One of the other issues that’s extremely concerning is the stark reminder this fire has given us of what can be the consequences of an environment where false fire alarms are prevalent. Many students who lived in The Cube didn’t initially evacuate when they heard the fire alarm go off. Why? Because, as one of them commented, fire alarms go off ‘almost every day’. When it was activated in response to the fire, the instinctive reaction of residents was not to quickly leave the building; it was to assume it was yet another false alarm. The assumption was that the alarm was ‘acting up as usual’ and to just ignore it. It was only when students heard screaming, they started to realise the seriousness of the situation. False alarms are by no means a problem restricted to this kind of accommodation. They are a huge problem across numerous industries and sectors. They’re disruptive and costly. But it’s the complacency they can cause towards real alarms that’s been so dramatically illustrated here. If the technology and education isn’t in place, it’s not that hard to trigger fire alarms. Cooking fumes, burning food, steam, heaters and aerosols being used close by can all trigger sensitive alarms and of course deliberate acts can cause them to go off. But there are solutions available to address false alarms. Regular maintenance and testing, sensitivity adjustments, detector positioning and using detectors with multi-sensor technology can all minimise the problem. Alongside that should be educating building users about the steps they can take to help, including the consequences of misusing fire detection and fire fighting equipment. Are your alarms loud enough? Another of the comments reported from students immediately after the fire was this one: “The fire alarms in the corridor went off but they aren't particularly loud, especially if you're asleep.” This is a serious reminder to anyone responsible for any form of sleeping accommodation that they must make sure they have an alarm system that’s loud enough to wake people who might be in a deep sleep, as well as make provision for hearing-impaired residents by using visual or vibrating alarm devices. If the fire alarm at The Cube had gone off a few hours later (it sounded at around 8.30pm) when more people were asleep, it’s very sobering to reflect on what the outcome could have been. In this incident thankfully no one was seriously injured. Ultimately, a full evacuation took place and everyone managed to get out in time. The emergency services were praised for their rapid response and management of the incident. But it was, and still is, an incredibly upsetting and disruptive experience.  Students and the emergency services alike commented on how shocked they were at the speed at which the fire took hold. A lot of the residents have lost all the possessions they had with them. And there remains a sense of how easily this could have turned into a situation that was far worse. If you have concerns that your fire safety plans and detection equipment are not as robust as they need to be, please don’t hesitate to contact us straight away for assistance.