High rise buildings - firefighting arrangements: report

HM Fire Service Inspectorate (HMFSI) report assessing the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service's (SFRS's) arrangements and readiness to fight fires in high rise buildings in Scotland. It contains areas of good practice and recommendations where there is scope to improve performance.

Fire Safety in High Rise Buildings


21. High rise[2] domestic buildings in Scotland have fire protection and firefighting features which assist and influence the way that the SFRS fights fires in these buildings. Requirements are imposed by building regulations and these have changed over time. Buildings may have features that reflect their age of construction and whether any upgrading has been carried out.

22. Fire safety measures within high rise domestic blocks may include the following:

  • fire-resisting construction between adjoining dwellings and between dwellings and common parts (fire separation) and protecting escape routes
  • lift wells enclosed by separating walls with fire resistance
  • elements of structure capable of supporting and retaining the fire protection to floors and escape routes
  • a firefighting shaft within a fire-resisting enclosing structure, the shaft comprising a firefighting stair, firefighting lobbies, rising main and a firefighting lift:
    • a firefighting stair assists firefighters to access the fire and if necessary escape from the fire in relative safety. The firefighting stair is at least 1m wide (a firefighting stair can also be used as an escape stair)
    • a firefighting lift[3] allows firefighters to travel and transport equipment; the lift control and communication system is capable of being controlled by the FRS
    • a firefighting lobby provided between the firefighting stair and the flats on each level allowing firefighters sufficient room to lay out hose and connect hose to the riser outlet
    • a rising main (wet or (dry): this is a pipe installed in a building which is, or can be, charged with water and provides firefighters with a fixed means of providing water for firefighting on upper floors; riser outlets possibly located in a protected lobby, protected corridor or open access balcony, depending on the age and design of the building
  • smoke ventilation arrangements in escape stairs, firefighting stairs, protected lobbies, firefighting lobbies and protected corridors. The smoke ventilators are capable of being opened, closed or shut off by the FRS. The ventilators are actuated automatically by means of smoke detectors in the common space
  • an evacuation alert system (EAS)[4] for use by the FRS which would enable the FRS to initiate operation of evacuation alert sounders within each dwelling on any single floor, multiple floors and the entire building
  • storey and dwelling numbering to allow firefighters to orientate themselves within the building.

23. Where there is fire-resisting construction to internal walls, this should include self-closing fire doors with the same fire resistance duration as the wall.

24. Since 2005, the provision of an automatic fire suppression system is a requirement of building regulations for relevant new work within the building standard high rise criteria.

25. In some older blocks, an automatic sprinkler system has been installed within the bin store space.


26. From a firefighters' perspective, the standard of lift changed in 1986 when lift design was altered to enhance firefighter safety, though there was a lag before these measures became mandatory under building regulations. One of the improved lift features is a facility, whereby, in order to fully open the lift doors, firefighters must maintain pressure on the door control until such time as the door is fully open. If pressure is released before the doors fully open, the travel of the doors is reversed.

27. This type of door system is incorporated for the safety of firefighters, by enabling them to be protected by the lift doors, simply by removal of the sustained pressure on the door control if, for example, firefighters are faced with a fire or smoke as the lift doors begin to open.

28. The SFRS is a joint sponsor for the development of a guide by a leading fire safety consultant. The guide will explain the different lift standards which are relevant to the use of lifts by firefighters. There is good information on these lift standards in the SFRS's PowerPoint training presentation for the Operational Assurance Visit (OAV).

Fire warning systems

29. In blocks of flats, it is normal for there to be a self-contained smoke alarm system in each flat designed to alert the flat occupants. During the course of our inspection, legislation was introduced in Scotland to require a separate system of interlinked smoke and heat alarms in each dwelling. While this legislation is in place, compliance levels in domestic high rise buildings are unknown.

30. During our inspection fieldwork we came across some domestic high rise buildings operated by social housing providers that had a 'stay put' arrangement in place, but had been fitted with a fire warning system in the communal areas. These fire warning systems comprise automatic fire detectors and sounders.

31. Some of these systems have been installed after the Grenfell Tower fire and at a time when new Scottish Government guidance on fire safety in high rise domestic buildings was available as a draft document for public comment. In 2020, after that public consultation, the Scottish Government issued the fire safety guidance[5] which is relevant to domestic high rise buildings. (the guidance was further revised in 2022). Within the guidance there is a statement "Rarely will a communal fire detection and alarm system be appropriate for a high rise domestic building".

32. We believe that this general statement in the Scottish Government guidance regarding communal fire warning systems is sensible and consistent with the guidance in British Standard 9991:2015[6] and the technical handbook for the Scottish Building Regulations. Guidance in other British Standards also advises that communal fire warning systems are not appropriate for buildings with a 'stay put' arrangement.

33. In the event of a fire occurring in the common areas, the actuation of sounders might cause residents to leave the comparative safety of their flats and venture into a hazardous environment. The anecdotal evidence in Scotland is that within these buildings in the early post-installation period, it was commonplace for some residents to vacate their flats when the common area fire warning system actuated, but that this practice by residents had reduced with the passage of time.

34. An advantage that we have noted where there is a communal fire warning system, is that there can be an early call to the SFRS. And where the housing provider operates an on-call concierge system, then concierge attendance can be prompt and this can assist the SFRS crews in attendance.

35. The use of evacuation alert systems (as described in para 22) in high rise domestic blocks is now mandatory for new buildings in Scotland, though there are few new-build high rise domestic buildings[7] constructed each year in Scotland and we did not identify any evacuation alert systems in place[8].

36. The Scottish Government fire safety guidance anticipates that housing providers will assess the fire risk in their buildings and it seems obvious that retrofitting an evacuation system is something that might be considered as part of the assessment. Having a communal fire warning system with sounders could be a barrier to retrofitting an evacuation system due to resident uncertainty of response where there are multiple systems in place.

37. Fire station crews inspect domestic high rise blocks regularly. The inspection guidance (which we consider later in this report) contains no guidance on what to do where there is a communal fire warning system installed, though the SFRS training material does make reference to fire alarm systems.

38. The Service's fire safety policy for domestic high rise would benefit from some further development in line with recommendation number 1.

Recommendation No. 1

The provision of fire safety measures in domestic high rise buildings is of course the responsibility of building owners and others in control of buildings. However retrofitted fire systems may result in implications for the SFRS.

We recommend that the SFRS firms up its policies and internal guidance on fire safety standards in high rise domestic buildings with a view to influencing a standard risk-based approach in the provision of:

a. fire warning systems, and

b. SFRS controlled evacuation systems.

This should take into account the suitability of these systems and potential problems and interactions.

Community safety activity

39. The SFRS is proactive in its approach to community safety delivery visits and advice. The Service embarked on fire safety reassurance campaigns after the Grenfell Tower fire in partnership, including leaflet campaign activity. We also saw evidence of ongoing advice being delivered to residents of high rise blocks.


40. Fire safety arrangements in non-domestic high rise buildings are similar to those in domestic buildings. There may be compartmentation, and fire separation if multi-occupied, and with evacuation arrangements that will be specific to the premises. Evacuation might be simultaneous, phased or otherwise staged.

Figure 2: Small domestic high rise building
The image is a photograph of a small domestic high rise block of flats

Source: HMFSI


Email: HMFSI@gov.scot

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