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A return to ‘normal’: Your fire safety checklist

This week will go down in history and come as a huge relief to employers, as non-essential businesses re-open for customers after a long period of closure and uncertainty.

As we embark on ‘step two’ of prime minister Boris Johnson’s cautiously laid-out roadmap back to some form of normality, it’s worth reminding that while businesses will do everything necessary to ensure COVID-secure premises and the safe and comfortable return of staff, it’s not the time to neglect fire safety duties and provisions.

Here, we discuss how nothing has altered in terms of fire safety law – it’s actually more vital than ever that business owners meet their obligations – and highlight the key fire safety considerations as businesses re-open their doors.

Fire risk assessment review

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies at all times and businesses must comply. For the owner of a returning business (named the ‘responsible person’ and to whom fire safety duties fall), a high-priority task is to revisit the building’s fire risk assessment. Many premises will have experienced changes in risk during the last year or so (whether they’ve been closed or not) and if you’re now using the building differently to manage COVID-19 safety precautions, the previous fire risk assessment will be affected. The fire risk assessment accounts for a broad range of variables, including fire escape routes or assembly points and the need for social distancing, or specifying fire extinguishers in regards to any building layout changes, for example. Where businesses have five or more regular occupants in the building, findings of the fire risk assessment – and actions put in place – must be written down. Read our fire risk assessment guide to understand what’s expected and the risks of not complying.

Testing fire warning systems

The RRFSO requires that premises have ‘measures in relation to the means for detecting fire and giving warning in case of fire’. The type and size of the building, how it’s used and its fire risk assessment will determine what is required in terms of fire detectors. For example, in a small shop, one person yelling a warning of fire may be sufficient. In larger premises, smoke alarms are required – and their regular testing is crucial to ensure they remain in good working order. We support the #TestItTuesday social media campaign, which cleverly serves as a reminder to homeowners and business owners that everyone benefits from testing smoke alarms at least once a week.

Review escape routes and emergency exits

As is the case with the fire risk assessment, every business’ emergency plan will need reviewing to assess the impact of COVID-19 preventative measures. Staffing levels, operating times and businesses processes may have changed – and this could have a knock-on effect on evacuation arrangements. It should be ensured that social distancing control measures do not directly impact means of escape. Emergency escape routes must be unobstructed at all times and fire escape signage should be accessible and visible. Assembly points mustn’t be compromised either. It should be carefully considered how, if at all, newly introduced one-way systems, temporary structures or longer queues, for example, may impact the point of assembly – and alternative arrangements should be made if this is the case. What’s more, new exterior assembly points musn’t compromise access for firefighting services. The importance of a fire escape plan should never be underestimated – especially at this time. The government has made it clear that altering premises to reduce COVID-19 risk must only happen if it doesn’t compromise fire safety so wedging fire doors open, for example, which many are tempted to do to remove the need to touch door handles, is not permitted.

Fire extinguisher maintenance and inspection

The RRFSO requires that appropriate firefighting equipment, including fire extinguishers, must be provided where there is a risk of fire. However, it’s not enough to simply install fire extinguishers and forget about them. They require regular maintenance and inspections like any other piece of equipment to assure they’ll work as expected in the event of a fire. As businesses return after a period of inactivity, it’s wise to carry out visual checks on all existing fire extinguishers and, if due, arrange for their annual service by a qualified technician. A basic service will, among other things, check fire extinguishers are in date and haven’t been tampered with or misused, as well as ensure the right signage accompanies them. If the way in which a building is used or staffed has changed, the results of the reviewed fire risk assessment may highlight the need for additional fire extinguishers. It’s advised that fire extinguishers are replaced every five years (CO2 fire extinguishers every 10 years). Is this deadline approaching for your business? Our buyer’s guide to fire extinguishers can help inform any decisions.

Revisiting general fire safety best practice

For returning businesses, it would be wise to re-familiarise with the day-to-day fire hazards in the premises and ensure every step is taken to reduce any risk. As well as conducting all that’s required by law, implement a few common-sense measures. For example, if certain areas aren’t in use for the moment, make sure electrical equipment is turned off and unplugged. Remove waste and other flammable materials frequently to avoid a build-up and it becoming a fire risk. Make sure that in every area of the building, the three elements needed for a fire to occur – fuel, oxygen and ignition source – aren’t at risk of coming into contact with one another. All potential ignition sources should be identified in the fire risk assessment and steps must be taken to keep them well away from any combustible materials.

Communication is key in saving lives

Following review of the fire risk assessment and its changes and updates, all staff and occupants of the building must be made aware so they’re absolutely clear on what’s expected of them and where they should go in the event of a fire. It’s recommended that soon after their return (and once new measures have been communicated), businesses conduct a fire drill and record its success or any problems encountered in the fire risk assessment.

All staff – and anybody who works on or uses the premises – should be made aware of what’s required in the event of a fire. This might mean thorough re-training for the responsible person or a quick session for anybody who’s been furloughed and may now be unfamiliar with the fire safety programme. It will depend on an individual’s role and level of involvement in fire safety as to how much training they require.

If business owners have any doubt whatsoever about new measures put in place or what’s required to make a space COVID-19 secure while remaining in compliance with fire safety regulations, the advice of a competent person should be sought. And it’s worth bearing in mind this is an evolving situation and there will be further changes as the government continues to relax restrictions. For now at CheckFire, we’re simply focused on helping to keep businesses on track as we ease out of lockdown.

The content of the CheckFire blog is for general information purposes only. While we make every effort to ensure accuracy at the time of publication, under no circumstances should it be considered professional advice. Any reliance you place on the information is at your own risk. Always seek the advice of a fire professional for your particular circumstances and requirements.
  • by Amy Moseley

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