Fire Safety for Apartments: Colm Traynor

Published on: Mar 18, 2010

[This article is based on a talk given by Colm Traynor to the March meeting of the Apartment Owners Network. Colm was previously Assistant Chief Fire Officer with Dublin City Council and is now an independent fire safety consultant with CT&A Fire. The article is provided for information purposes only and should not be taken as a legal interpretation of the relevant statutory provisions.]

Fire safety is a vital topic for everyone living in apartments. As soon as you move in, you are jointly responsible, along with the other occupants, for the fire safety of the building. It is vital that owners, tenants and the board of directors understand what their statutory responsibilities are and that they know what to do to ensure fire safety on an ongoing basis.

Legislation

There are three different strands of legislation covering fire safety. One sets out procedures for getting approval for the fire safety design of the building (prior to construction), another sets out how persons constructing the building must do so in a safe manner and another sets out obligations on the owners/occupiers once the building is occupied.

Building Regulations

The Building Regulations are a set of technical requirements specifying how buildings must be constructed. One part of the Regulations (Part B-Fire) covers fire safety and sets out requirements in relation to the construction and fitting out of the building to ensure an adequate level of fire safety. Important elements of the Part B requirements include design of escape routes and exits, fire alarm systems, fire doors, smoke vents, fire protection of the structure and fire-fighting facilities for the fire service.

These Regulations apply principally to the developer or builder of the apartments and in most cases, the owner or occupier is not involved. The owners or occupiers may come under the requirements of the Regulations if works are carried out at a later stage in the life of the building.

Building Control Regulations

Before construction begins, the developer must submit documented proposals for the fire safety design of the building. The documents will include fire safety drawings and comprehensive specifications and other details showing that the proposed building will comply with the fire safety parts of the Building Regulations. If these are approved by the Building Control Authority they will issue a Fire Safety Certificate in relation to the proposed building.

It is important to note that the Fire Safety Certificate is an approval of the fire safety design (prior to construction) and is not a certificate stating that the building has been constructed safely. It states that the building will be considered as meeting the requirements of the fire parts of the Building Regulations if it is constructed as per the approved plans and specifications.

Fire Services Act

The Fire Services Act applies to occupied buildings. It applies to all buildings (except for private houses) regardless of whether they have a Fire Safety Certificate or not. Whereas the Building Regulations set out how the building must be constructed safely, the Fire Services Act sets out how a building might be considered to be deficient (in terms of fire safety). A building might have been constructed in compliance with the Building Regulations but lack of maintenance, for instance, might mean that the fire alarm system becomes inoperable, or fire doors may become damaged and not be repaired. These would be considered as deficiencies under the Fire Services Act.

Under the Fire Services Act the fire authority (usually but not always the local authority) may issue a Fire Safety Notice where they consider that significant deficiencies exist. This will require the owners/occupiers to carry out certain upgrading works in relation to fire safety. In very serious cases the fire authority may require that the building be vacated until the works are satisfactorily completed.

The fire authority is usually the local authority (the same as the building control authority) but in some cases another authority may carry out this role on their behalf. For instance, in the Dublin area Dublin City Council is the fire authority for all other Dublin local authority areas.

How can I verify that my block meets the relevant fire safety standards?

– Check the relevant paperwork. The original Fire Safety Certificate documentation (plans, technical compliance reports and Fire Safety Certificates) are held by the local building control authority.

– Ensure that the building as-constructed (and equipped) matches the relevant Fire Safety Certificate documentation.

– Ensure that any alterations made to the building (including inside individual apartments!) are also covered by Fire Safety Certificates.

– For large blocks, multiple Fire Safety Certificates may be issued, particularly where changes to the design have arisen since the original Fire Safety Certificate was issued. Each separate building should be covered by Fire Safety Certificates, although where different blocks are constructed over a common underground car park the entire would be considered as one building for the purposes of fire safety design.

– Check that the correct certification is provided for fire protection systems such as fire alarm, emergency lighting, smoke vents, fire doors, electrical installation etc. and that the systems are regularly serviced and tested in accordance with the appropriate maintenance schedules.

-The developer/builder should provide an Operation & Maintenance manual (this is a legal requirement). This will set out how future construction work can be safely carried out in the building (maintenance of fixed installations comes within the definition of ‘construction work’).

If you identify problems, talk to the developer. Request (in writing) a proposal and timeframe for rectification of any deficiencies. If you are making insufficient progress, consideration could be given to notifying the local authorities. It should be noted that, whereas the developer/builder is responsible for compliance with Building Regulations, once the building is occupied the owners/occupiers may become liable for carrying out a fire risk assessment or rectifying certain deficiencies under the Fire Services Act.