Fire alarm systems: What you need to know, Construction Manager – August 2015

Construction sites need robust, proven fire alarm systems that are tested to EN 54, explains Paul Henson, Sales & Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics.

Fires on construction sites are far more frequent than most people realise, with Zurich Insurance estimating that there are around 104,000 each year, costing around £400m. In light of these worrying statistics, the industry is making concerted efforts to tackle this issue and as a result, construction sites are covered by a number of laws, guidelines and codes of practice around fire safety, all of which say that an appropriate fire alarm system should be used:

UK laws:

  • The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (2005)
  • The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations
  • HSE Fire Safety Guidelines for Construction Sites (HSG168)
  • The Fire Protection Association Joint Code of Practice
  • BS5839 – Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. Code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of systems in non-domestic premises
  • The Structural Timber Association’s 16 Steps to Timber Frame Construction

European laws:

  • The Workplace Directive – which is translated into UK law as the Fire Safety Order.
  • The Construction Products Regulation – which is directly applicable in the UK, though it is also partly translated into the UK Building Regulations. This law has effect over product approvals.

The Construction Products Regulation, which came into force in 2013, states that fire alarm products sold in the European Union must be independently tested and certified against Europe-wide standards where these exist. In the case of fire detection and fire alarm products, that standard is EN 54 fire detection and fire alarm systems, which sets benchmarks for design, operation, production, testing and manufacture.

With an ongoing focus on personnel safety and increased attention to benchmarking risks by the insurance industry, there has been greater emphasis on fire safety on construction sites recently. The law itself now requires that construction sites are protected with a suitable fire alarm system and EN 54 is the standard against which fire alarm systems should be measured. EN 54 does not make an exception for whether a project is temporary, for example, a construction site and clearly states that fire detection and alarm systems are for use in ‘buildings or other construction works’ (EN 54 Part 1, Section 2.1).

Fire practice
The reality is that construction sites often rely on a nominated fire officer sounding an alarm (it could simply be blowing a whistle or shouting) when a fire is detected. The issue with this is that remote areas of a site may not hear the alarm, for example, the upper floors of a partially completed building, where the risk of a delay evacuation can make all the difference. In the vital minutes before everyone became aware, the fire could have spread and seriously limited escape routes.

Conversely, a properly planned, interlinked wireless fire alarm system overcomes this issue. A good system (EN 54 compliant and CE marked with the four digit reference of Notified body that carried out the test clearly visible) includes manual fire alarm call points that are installed on site in accordance with the project’s Fire Plan.

Because the call points are interlinked it creates a completely secure mesh network so that a single call point triggers all the other points across the site, which means everyone is alerted to evacuate at the same time, including those on upper floors. Where automatic heat or smoke detectors are incorporated into the system, it provides automatic cover 24/7, ensuring that the site is protected even when personnel are not present.

At the same time, a base station allows fire officers to identify quickly which fire point or heat/smoke detection unit has been activated, allowing emergency services to be deployed to the exact source of the fire. Modern wireless fire alarm systems are able to provide reliable site wide coverage, whether it’s a multi-use redevelopment project or a large and complex demolition.

There are definite benefits of investing in an EN 54 compliant wireless fire alarm system as the call points and heat/smoke detectors have to be continually moved as construction work progresses. A wired system requires specialist trades and/or electricians to carry out this process. There are other benefits of a wireless system in terms of easy of set up, too.

Site manager’s responsibility
As a responsible construction manager, you want to be certain – and be able to satisfy your insurers – that the products you use to protect your workforce and assets from fire are effective, reliable and compliant with the appropriate legislation.

If the fire alarm system you are thinking of specifying for a construction site has been tested by a notified body to the standards set out in EN 54 you’ll see a four digit test centre number after the CE mark. To be absolutely sure, ask your supplier for their Declaration(s) of Performance (DoP). If the certificate you are presented simply covers, for example, an individual part within a larger unit, it does not follow that the whole unit meets EN 54 requirements.
To comply with EN 54, the complete unit – and every unit in the system including the base station, fire call point or smoke and heat detection unit – should have been tested in accordance with the relevant section(s) of EN 54.

The need for wireless fire alarm systems is likely to grow, especially with the move to timber framed buildings and high rise developments. Both present their own specific dangers from fire and we are seeing more clients and their contractors take proactive steps to ensure their sites include a fire alarm system that is fully compliant with EN 54 requirements.

This article was published in Construction Manager magazine, August 2015

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