Two important changes to the fire regulations coming into force this year will affect the duties and responsibilities of designers and owners of commercial buildings. John Tebbit reports

The latest figures from 2004 show there are about 500 deaths a year in the UK from fires, of which 375 are in dwellings and 55 in other buildings. This is a 45-year low.

Fire is the most emotive of all the regulated issues. Changes historically tended to be reactive after every fire disaster and this has produced less than optimal regulations. It is encouraging therefore to see two pieces of planned change to regulation - the regulatory reform order, which deals with buildings in use, and the revision of Part B of the Building Regulations covering the design stage.

The RRO is welcome as a planned simplification of the maze of ad-hoc regulation of commercial buildings in use. Once this comes into force in October this year, owners and/or employers become responsible for assessing and managing fire risks in their buildings. The fire and rescue authorities will be the enforcing authorities. This change will require education and training for owners and employers and trade associations have been involved in developing guidance documents.

For new buildings, Part B of the Building Regulations is under review and the government is considering responses to the consultation document produced last year. This was noteworthy for its clarity, with proposed changes to the 2000 edition indicated in coloured text with redundant sections struck out. Sections were marked as firm proposals or "minded to" where further evidence was sought. This was effective and appreciated by users - a model for future consultations.

There are still concerns over the age of some of the research used to support the regulations in particular areas. In addition, there are problems over the UK's requirement for large-scale facade testing, which the European commission does not want to accept. Given that other countries including Germany have such tests, it seems strange that the commission will not allow a single European method.

As for all approved documents, Part B offers general guidance on ways to meet the regulations and there are two documents from BSI giving alternatives. DD9999 is a draft for development and represents an advanced approach halfway between Part B and fire safety engineering as set out in BS7974 and its supporting documents. Fire safety engineering is used for large and complex buildings. It is essential to use a single approach in any one building.

The Code for Sustainable Homes does not as yet include fire safety but the Construction Products Association is arguing that enhanced safety for occupants and property would be a sensible addition to the voluntary elements. Part B does not address property protection.

Finally, whatever the design and regulation, it is imperative that the products and systems are properly installed and maintained. Third-party accreditation is rarely mandatory under Building Regulations but for life-safety-critical areas such as fire it is strongly encouraged. There are several certification schemes, but make sure they are accredited by UKAS (or their European equivalent).

Regulatory reform order

Fire safety engineering offers the experienced designer greater flexibility in meeting the requirements for fire safety. DD9999: Code of practice for fire safety in the design, construction and use of buildings is designed eventually to replace BS5588: Fire precautions in the design, construction and use of buildings. It is based on fire safety engineering principles particularly for means of escape. It is not yet a full British Standard. BS7974: Application of fire safety engineering principles to the design of buildings. Code of practice is the standard to use for full fire safety engineering. These standards are available from BSI.

Further information:
Office of Deputy Prime Minister
Passive Fire Protection Federation
Fire Industry Confederation

Regulatory reform order

Intended to simplify fire legislation and in particular to remove the overlap between the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997. The central aim of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 is to ensure that, in the event of a fire, the occupants can evacuate the premises safely, and the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 require employers to identify risks and take steps to remove or reduce them.

Key objectives of the RRO are to:

  • Create a single regime, which can be better understood and administered by businesses and the relevant authorities
  • Create a regime clearly based on risk assessment and fire prevention and mitigation measures
  • Increase compliance
  • Focus resources for fire prevention on those premises which present the greatest risk
  • Ensure that fire safety facilities and equipment (including fire alarms) are well maintained.