Hearing about any type of fire safety failing in any building is always worrying. This incident relating to student accommodation in Leeds is particularly shocking – and one which the judge involved in the subsequent prosecution quite rightly pointed out had the potential for catastrophe.

The accommodation was opened to 27 students in September 2016 but parts of the building were still under construction at that point. The fire safety failings were only flagged up thanks to the vigilance of a concerned parent. He had gone to the premises to drop off his daughter and, horrified by what he saw, refused to let her stay. Instead, he contacted West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service to alert them to the state of the building.

That resulted in a prohibition order being rapidly issued and students quickly leaving the building. Had the father not chosen to intervene, it’s troubling to reflect on what the future consequences might have been.

The breaches in fire safety legislation were comprehensive

The breaches included failing to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment, failing to take precautions to make sure the premises were safe from the risk of fire, failing to provide appropriate fire detection and alarm systems and failing to provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits. There were no markings to show where fire escape routes were. Flammable materials were being stored on stairwells; the one fire escape available to students was unsafe as it was blocked by timber and other combustible materials.

In total, the breaches cost all those involved £670,000. The construction company was fined £450,000, the building owner received a fine of £160,000 and the managing and letting company was fined £60,000. In addition, the three companies paid a further £21,000 between them in costs.

The fact that the dangers were so glaringly obvious to a parent who was simply walking through the building makes you appreciate the magnitude of them. As the judge commented, the state of the building showed an incredible disregard for fire safety requirements and the wellbeing of the people using it.

Thankfully these kinds of extremes are relatively rare – but overlooking fire safety requirements can and does happen. Even if it is unintentional, it can have significant consequences.

Are you responsible for student sleeping accommodation?

Any form of sleeping accommodation presents heightened fire risks. And the student population, and their associated lifestyle, can contribute to that heightened risk. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of fire safety for anyone with any kind of responsibility for student accommodation. Fire safety must be given constant attention, and steps continually reviewed to make sure risks are minimised as far as possible.

The precise requirements depend on the specifics of the accommodation. Therefore it’s critical the responsible person ensures comprehensive fire risk assessments are conducted that identify all potential hazards in all parts of the accommodation and the level of risk associated with each hazard.

The assessments must lead to clear and detailed plans that identify all the necessary actions that must be taken, and then those actions must happen. They will include getting the basics right, like installing and maintaining suitable fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detection and warning systems. They will also include ensuring sufficient well-maintained fire fighting equipment is provided and the right people understand how to use it.

The plan must also include making sure that everything is physically in place (like emergency lighting and signage) to facilitate a rapid evacuation alongside having the right support processes established (such as fire wardens and regular evacuation drills). Attention must also be paid to the fabric of the building to ensure that all elements of passive fire protection, such as fire doors, are able to do the job they’re intended for if a fire breaks out. Fire safety awareness needs to be constant and fire risk assessments must be reviewed regularly; the cohort using the building can change, layouts can change and circumstances can change.

If you have responsibilities for fire safety in student accommodation and are concerned about ensuring it is fully compliant, we can offer you advice and guidance.  Please do get in touch with us to find out more about how we can support you.