Practical fire safety for existing specialised housing and similar premises: guidance

Guidance for those who are responsible for specialised housing and for those who provide care and support in such premises.

Part 2: Premises Based Fire Safety Risk Assessment

Chapter 2: Fire Safety in Specialised Housing

Key Points

  • Fire safety design of specialised housing comprising blocks of flats is based on the same principles as general needs blocks of flats.
  • Each flat is a fire-resisting “box” designed on the “stay put” principle. 
  • In shared group homes, it is normally necessary to evacuate all residents simultaneously, some of whom may have significant assistance requirements.
  • Evacuation generally takes longer in specialised housing than in general needs housing.
  • Design of means of escape and fire detection and alarm systems should take account of occupancy characteristics and support the evacuation strategy.

General Characteristics 

93. Specialised housing is residential accommodation which facilitates varying degrees of independent living for people with specific needs. The fire safety design of these buildings should take account of the residents’ vulnerability in the event of fire.  

94. Much of the specialised housing stock comprises sheltered and extra care housing in blocks of flats.  Sheltered housing schemes, in particular, vary in size, design, use and complexity. They can range from a collection of self-contained bungalows or flats, with no additional on-site facilities or staff to manage the building and support residents, to larger complexes that provide communal facilities such as kitchens, laundries and lounges, with on-site scheme managers or other staff.

95. Sheltered and extra care schemes are not generally staffed at a level to assist residents to evacuate. The basic design assumption is that residents are able to escape unaided from their own flats and make their way to a place of safety, using the common means of escape. It is recognised that, for some residents, their vulnerability may make this difficult and certainly slower. In some schemes, there may be an on-site scheme manager although many rely on social alarm (“Telecare”) systems linked to alarm receiving centres to provide support to residents.  There may be limited day time cover with no on-site staff during the night to provide assistance to the residents in the event of a fire. Even in extra care housing schemes, with higher staffing levels and carers on-site, there is limited assistance that can be provided to residents in the event of fire. 

96. Sheltered and extra care schemes are usually designed along similar lines to purpose-built blocks of flats.  Communal facilities might be provided but this does not alter the fact that people are living in their own private flats.  A ‘stay put’ strategy is usually adopted in the event of fire where the design and construction of the building satisfies the fire safety principles applied to blocks of flats.

97. In supported housing and small care homes that are more akin to single-family dwelling houses, a different approach is adopted, particularly in relation to the evacuation strategy. Many premises are former dwellings which have been converted or extended.  Residents will have their own rooms and will normally share common facilities in an environment that resembles a domestic house. As a result, fire protection features will not normally support a “stay put” approach and a simultaneous evacuation of all residents will be necessary.  Staff may be needed to assist with evacuation.  In premises where fire safety law applies, such as small care homes and some forms of supported housing, it is a legal requirement to have a sufficient number of nominated staff to ensure appropriate evacuation procedures can be implemented effectively.

Escape in the Event of Fire

98. In a fire situation, it should be possible to escape without external assistance before being affected by fire or smoke. Smoke reduces visibility and is toxic, causing incapacitation. Heat from the flames will also hinder escape. Recognising these hazards and providing safe escape routes underpins fire safety design in all buildings. 

99. In sheltered and extra care schemes, mobility and health issues may slow a person in their escape. Consequently, the distance from a flat entrance door to a place of relative safety such as a protected stairway, protected lobby or even to a sub-dividing corridor door should, ideally, be shorter than in general needs blocks of flats. 

100. While the design of means of escape and other fire safety measures is not based on external rescue, some residents may have difficulty in evacuating without a degree of outside assistance.  

Evacuation and Rescue  

101. It is important to distinguish between evacuation and rescue.  In sheltered and extra care housing, only the flat of fire origin needs to be evacuated, at least initially. Rescue by SFRS may, ultimately, be necessary if a resident is unable to self-evacuate due to infirmity, reduced mobility or mental health. This is no different from the situation in a general needs block or a bungalow and does not imply a failure of the emergency plan for the premises. 

102. Widespread evacuation of general needs, sheltered and extra care housing in the event of fire is not normally required. If it does become necessary, this may reflect a failure in fire separation between occupancies (or some other catastrophic fire safety failure).

103. In supported housing and small care homes, if assistance is required for evacuation, this should be provided by staff on the premises.  This is a management responsibility and rests with whoever has control of the premises.  

104. SFRS may need to rescue people from affected accommodation. They may also assist with any ongoing evacuation.

Suitability of Accommodation

105. Due to changing circumstances, a resident may become so vulnerable that they are no longer suited to their accommodation.  For example, it might be more appropriate to be accommodated in premises where staff can provide assistance in the event of a fire. The vulnerable individual, family/friends, service commissioners, care providers and housing providers should jointly explore options and plan appropriately.

106. Those responsible for the safety of the residents (commissioning groups and care providers) should consider whether additional fire safety measures are necessary before offering a placement or whether the premises are actually suitable in the first place.

107. The use of a person-centred approach (see Part 1 of this Guidance) will determine what measures should be put in place for an individual in their own accommodation to reduce this vulnerability. 

Fire Separation to Restrict Spread of Fire and Smoke

108. Fires are most likely to start within private accommodation.  In blocks of flats, each flat is built as a fire-resisting enclosure.  It is bounded by non-combustible separating walls and floors that will resist the passage of fire and smoke for a period of time. There are also separating walls and floors between individual flats and between flats and other parts of the building, helping to contain the fire and smoke to the flat of origin. 

109. Fire separation is key to the ‘stay put’ strategy (NB separation is a term used in Scottish building standards.  It is often referred to more generally as ‘fire compartmentation” in the UK).  Separation normally ensures that a fire will not spread to other parts of the building although this can be affected by factors such as abnormal fire loading within a flat, combustible wall cladding, unprotected voids/ducts in the building, or defects in separating walls or floors. 

110. The building’s structural elements must also have sufficient fire resistance to prevent fire spread and structural collapse for a reasonable period. 

111. In supported housing and small care homes which are akin to dwelling houses, the level of protection provided to escape routes is likely to be lower than that of separating walls and floors in a block of flats. However, those escape routes should be adequately protected to allow for a complete evacuation to take place.

Evacuation Strategies – Stay Put vs Simultaneous

112. Blocks of flats are designed to facilitate a “stay put” strategy - only residents at immediate risk need to escape while those in flats remote from the fire are normally safe to stay where they are.  The principle applies equally to sheltered and extra care blocks of flats. 

113. ‘Stay Put’ is the following approach:

  • When a fire occurs within a flat, the occupants alert others in the flat, make their way out of the building and summon SFRS.
  • Residents in the common areas should not return to their flats if the communal fire alarm system operates.  They should make their way to a place of safety and summon SFRS. This may be an external assembly point or, to avoid exposing vulnerable residents to inclement weather, a relatively safe area, such as a communal lounge on the ground floor with an exit to open air.
  • All other people in the building not directly affected by the fire would be expected to ‘stay put’ and remain in their flat unless directed to leave by SFRS or the Police.
  • Any person not directly affected by fire or smoke can leave the building if they wish, although doing so could place them at greater risk.

114. Occupants evacuating a flat where there is fire may alert their neighbours so that they can evacuate if they feel threatened.

115. SFRS will give initial advice over the phone to residents who dial 999.  Upon arrival, firefighters will take control of the incident and may advise further, as necessary. There may be fires where, for operational reasons, SFRS decides that a partial or total evacuation is necessary. These uncommon situations include where a fire spreads beyond the flat of origin as a result of failings in the construction.

116. In supported housing and small care homes, there is usually inadequate separation to support a ‘stay put’ strategy, and so a “simultaneous evacuation” of all residents is needed. This requires a common fire detection and alarm system and a suitably protected means of escape to allow all residents to hear the alarm and escape safely.

117. Simultaneous evacuation is sometimes advocated in sheltered and extra care housing schemes where there are doubts over construction, particularly fire separation.  Resolving concerns and addressing deficiencies is usually more appropriate than changing the evacuation strategy.  However, on rare occasions it may be necessary to temporarily adopt a simultaneous evacuation strategy until major deficiencies can be remedied (such as the use of inappropriate external cladding systems or widespread failure of fire separation). Where this is the case, specialist advice should be sought and SFRS consulted.

Fire Detection and Alarm Systems

118. Early warning of fire is essential to ensure that residents can evacuate safely in the event of fire. Domestic smoke alarms have been particularly effective in reducing fire casualties. Smoke and heat alarms should be provided extensively in all new specialised housing and should be an objective for existing schemes. Additional protection may be identified for an individual as part of a person-centred fire safety risk assessment. 

119. If a fire occurs, early attendance by SFRS will help ensure early extinguishment of a fire, reducing the likelihood of the need to evacuate other residents where a “stay put” policy applies. If wider evacuation is necessary, it also enables SFRS to initiate this at an earlier stage, so compensating for the slower response of some older and mobility impaired people.

120. Fire detection within flats is important in this respect. Early attendance by SFRS is achieved by remote monitoring of the detection at an alarm receiving centre, normally via a social alarm (“Telecare”) system, which ensures a call is made to SFRS without delay.  Social alarms normally allow for 2 way communication which also helps to filter out false alarms from individual flats.

121. Sheltered and extra care housing often have a separate communal detection system for the common areas because they have shared facilities, such as lounges and laundries. These systems should also be monitored remotely.  They provide warning to those in the common parts who should then leave the building immediately (its purpose is not to alert the occupants of flats who should continue to “stay put” if unaffected by fire or smoke).  

122. In sheltered schemes without common facilities, a communal system may not be required.  This is why such systems are not normally required in general needs block of flats, although there may be a need for detection to operate automatically-opening vents for smoke control purposes (these do not raise an alarm).

123. A single fire detection and alarm system could be configured to provide a local warning for residents in flats, warning in the common areas of a fire in those areas, and early summoning of SFRS by an alarm receiving centre. However, as the system would include smoke detectors in flats, filtering arrangements would be required by either an on-site scheme manager or an alarm receiving centre to prevent the summoning of SFRS to false alarms.  

124. A communal fire detection and alarm system will always be necessary in supported housing to support a simultaneous evacuation strategy.

125. There should also be appropriate management arrangements in place.  Residents should not normally be required to silence and reset a system. They must understand how to respond to fire alarms, and should have a means to contact someone who can respond quickly if the system is activated when there are no staff on site.  This information should be displayed prominently next to the fire alarm control panel.   In some supported housing, there will be reliance on carers to respond to alarm signals.

126. More information on fire detection and alarm systems and other fire safety measures can be found in Chapter 5.



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