Fire safety - existing care homes: practical guidance

Guidance for those who have responsibility under the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 for ensuring fire safety in care homes in Scotland.

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Chapter 8: Fire Detection and Warning

256. It is essential that an outbreak of fire in a care home should be detected at an early stage so that the occupants are alerted and the emergency fire action plan implemented as soon as possible. The longer a fire continues undetected, the greater the risk to the safety of residents.

257. Care homes should be provided with a fire warning system which can be activated by a person using a manual call point and automatically by means of automatic fire detectors.

258. Guidance on the design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and warning system is contained in BS 5839: Part 1. The normal standard for a care home is a category L1 system. A category L1 system is a system designed for the protection of life and includes automatic detectors throughout the building (including roof spaces and voids). Information on maintenance and testing of fire warning systems is in Chapter 4.

Automatic Fire Detection

259. The choice of automatic fire detector type depends on the nature of the hazard and the balance between the speed of system response and the need to avoid false alarms. The common types of automatic fire detector are:

  • Heat detectors which operate when a fixed temperature is reached (and may also respond to abnormal rate of rise of temperature). Heat detectors have a good performance in respect of false alarms but are not appropriate where the detection of smoke is required (such as in escape routes).
  • Smoke detectors which detect the presence of smoke (either ionisation or optical type). They give a speedier response to most fires than heat detectors but have greater potential to generate false alarms. Smoke detectors within corridors and stairs should be of the optical type.
  • Combustion gas detectors which respond to the gases produced in a fire such as Carbon Monoxide. They can be sensitive to smouldering fires, respond to many fires faster than heat detectors and have a good false alarm performance in the presence of dust, steam and cigarette smoke.
  • Multi-sensor detectors contain a combination of heat, smoke or combustion gas detection. These sensors enhance system performance and have a low potential for false alarm actuations.

260. Some premises may have existing systems which include heat detectors in bedrooms. Where a corridor serves any bedroom for high or medium dependency residents, smoke detection should be provided in all the bedrooms served by the corridor, in preference to heat detectors.

Call Points

261. Manual call points, often known as ‘break-glass’ call points, enable a person who discovers a fire to operate the fire warning system and immediately raise the alarm to warn other people in the premises. Manual call points are normally positioned at exit doors. They should be conspicuous and positioned no higher than 1.4m from the floor, but this may be reduced to make them more accessible to wheelchair users.


262. Sounders are provided to alert building occupants. The type of warning signal and sound level should be appropriate for the premises and the characteristic of the residents. Where there is a progressive evacuation strategy with delayed evacuation, the sounder type is important because of the continuing occupation of the premises. Sounders which have a distinct tone of urgency or are strident and distracting may be inappropriate and be counter productive to the effort of staff. Some sounders may cause anxiety for residents, particularly those who depend on staff assistance. Some sounder types may trigger difficult behaviour in some residents with mental health issues. A coded staff alert may be desirable in some circumstances to warn only staff.

263. An appropriate sound level will vary with the nature of the premises, the fire action plan, and staffing arrangements. Where staff sleep on the premises there should be a suitable sound level at the bed-head in staff bedrooms to waken them.

264. Fire warning systems that incorporate a sounder base unit in each detector head may be appropriate since they can provide a more even and tolerable sound level throughout than the peak sound associated with the use of separate point sounders.

265. Where there are residents or staff with hearing impairment to the extent that the sounders cannot be perceived, then it will be necessary to consider whether there is a need to provide tactile and/or visual alarm devices for those persons.

266. As an alternative to conventional sounders, a voice-alarm facility that provides an automatically broadcast verbal warning of fire, may be suitable for some premises. Voice alarm systems can provide significant benefits in terms of reduced response time by residents and improved information dissemination. Where a voice alarm system is installed then it should comply with the guidance in BS 5839: Part 8. In considering the areas of the care home to be provided with a voice alarm system, the desirability or otherwise of providing residents with information regarding the fire and factors such as background noise levels need to be taken into account. The wording of the message on a voice alarm system needs to be clear and precise.

System Information

267. The control and indicating panel provides the facility for indication of fire or fault signals and manual controls such as silencing and resetting. The control and indicating panel should be sited at a location which is appropriate both for staff and for the arriving Fire and Rescue Service.

268. The provision of a suitable fire detection and warning system should be accompanied by suitable staff training so that staff know how to operate the system and how to respond to system operation. When the system operates, the source of the actuation needs to be quickly identifiable to allow staff to investigate the location. A schematic plan should be displayed adjacent to the control panel to allow staff to quickly identify and locate the source of an actuation. If the fire warning system has detection zones, these zones should be shown on a zone plan in a simple and unambiguous way.

269. The building should be divided into detection zones so that the actuation can be located quickly. The allocation of detection zones needs to take into account the layout of the building and should facilitate the emergency fire action plan. Detection zoning should comply with the recommendation in BS 5839-1, zones should not be determined purely for the convenience of the system installer.

270. An addressable fire warning system is one where individual detectors and call points can be identified at the control and indicating equipment. Addressable systems are of great advantage in care homes as they reduce the time taken to identify the location of a fire. Even in the case where an addressable system is installed, zone indication is also a necessary feature.

271. Certain fire safety measures are designed so that they operate when the fire warning system operates, for example:

  • Automatic release of door hold-open devices.
  • Automatic closure of self-closing doors which are fitted with swing-free arms.
  • Automatic opening facility disabled on swing doors with automatic opening.
  • Electronically powered locks on doors returning to the unlocked position.
  • Automatic opening of some exit doors.

272. If an automatic life safety fire suppression system is installed, the fire warning should actuate if the suppression system operates.

Remote Monitoring

273. With remote monitoring, the actuation of the fire warning system causes a signal to be transmitted automatically to a remote alarm receiving centre (ARC). On receipt of a signal, the ARC then calls the Fire and Rescue Service. An ARC arrangement is particularly suitable for care homes with high and/or medium dependency residents due to the competing demands on staff in the event of fire.

Reducing False Alarms

274. False alarms from automatic fire detectors are a major problem causing disruption to the running of premises and many unwanted calls to the Fire and Rescue Service. If frequent false alarms occur in the premises, members of staff may become complacent and may not respond correctly to a warning in the event of a real fire. False alarms should not be seen as inevitable: each false alarm should be investigated to try to establish the cause. Remedial action may be needed, such as re-positioning a detector head or changing a detector to a different type. A fire warning system should not be disabled; if it is posing a problem, specialist advice should be sought.

275. Where any residents have a predisposition to operating a call point, as may be associated with some dementia-related behaviour, steps should be taken to discourage inappropriate call point use such as by the provision of a hinged cover on the call point with or without a tamper alarm.

Replacement Systems

276. When a fire warning system needs to be replaced due to age or condition or because dutyholders wish to improve reliability or functionality, dutyholders should consider technological advances. A replacement fire warning system should be an addressable system, other than in small or simple layout premises with 10 or less residents and where identification of actuation will be obvious. Dutyholders should also consider the benefit of incorporating multi-sensor detectors as part of a replacement system.



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