Up In Smoke, Refurb Projects – November 2014

Here, Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics, looks at the far reaching consequences for refurbishment contractors unprepared for a fire on site.

The recent fire at the University of Nottingham provided a stark reminder of the risks associated with fires on construction sites. The blaze destroyed a partially completed £20m laboratory. Fortunately, it started late on a Friday night when there were no workers on site.

Incidents such as this highlight the vulnerability of construction sites to fire, particularly those undergoing major refurbishment where existing services such as gas and electric, normally commissioned in the latter phases of construction, are present from the outset. It is compounded by the fact that if a building is undergoing a phased refurbishment, it may mean that many of the building’s occupants remain in-situ while the work is carried out.

The Nottingham incident has helped raise awareness of the risks of fire on sites and more companies are now looking at the benefits of installing a wireless fire alarm system.

Wired vs wireless
Traditionally, wired fire alarm systems have needed to be installed by electricians or specialist contractors. That meant it could be a lengthy process, at a time when most contractors are, for obvious reasons, keen to progress with work on site.

Worse still, wired systems require the extensive network of electrical cables and fire points to be moved on a regular basis as refurbishment progresses. The consequence of this is that some companies take the decision not to install a fixed-wire system because of their cumbersome nature. All too often, that means they rely on manual emergency evacuation procedures, which could simply mean a nominated fire officer sounding of an alarm, for example, ringing a bell, after a fire had been detected!

This kind of outdated approach is far from ideal especially as it may mean a fire going undetected for crucial minutes or even longer if it is on an isolated part of the site. Companies that embrace wireless technology find it much easier to install, avoiding the need for specialist trades during set up and subsequent repositioning. And if the system includes heat or smoke detection it will act as a pro-active system, meaning that it can provide automatic cover even when the site isn’t populated, overcoming the issue of call points relying on someone pressing the button.

Siren call
Latest wireless emergency systems comprise fire point and heat detection units, linked to a central, monitoring base station. In the event of a fire, the system triggers a siren and a visual strobe light, alerting personnel to evacuate the site.

At the same time, the base station allows the fire officer to instantly identify which fire point or heat detection unit has been activated, allowing fire and rescue teams to be deployed more effectively to the exact source of the fire. Once the refurbishment is complete, the system, which requires no cables and is battery-powered, can simply be moved to the next project.

There are clear efficiency reasons for choosing wireless technology, too. For example, latest wireless fire alarm systems are able to virtually eliminate false alarms – another issue on site – because the units are fitted with Category 1 wireless receivers, which are the most reliable currently available (category 1 receivers are a requirement of European legislation ETSI 300-220-1). Dust detection features also reduce false alarms – a common issue and a problem with some systems is that they sense dust as smoke, which triggers a false alarm.

The CPR (Construction Products Regulation) was recently updated in an effort to address the issue of fires on sites in the construction industry. CPR offers clear guidance on the performance of all construction products and to comply, fire detection and alarm systems must meet the European harmonised standard EN54.

Testing to this standard must be carried out by an authorised certification centre and refurbishment contractors should check that their fire safety technology complies with this legislation; to do that it must carry the CE mark.

We responded to CPR by updating our wireless technology from the ground up, engineering and manufacturing it for full compliance with EN54, whilst offering an unlimited number of fire point and heat detection units to link with one base station. It utilises an active RFID technology and the battery in each unit is able to broadcast a signal, like a mobile phone, without being affected by walls and other obstacles found on construction sites.

Refurbishment projects have a significantly higher risk of fire than a completed building, because of the combination of various ignition sources, extremely hazardous techniques, such as welding structural elements and hot melt on roofs, vehicles and electrical installations as well as the increased volume of combustible materials.

The fire at the University of Nottingham is a reminder of just how much of a threat fire is on site. Thankfully, no one was harmed although the fire caused irretrievable loss of assets and property as well as disrupting businesses and residences in the vicinity. Set against this is the fact that wireless fire alarm systems are typically a fraction of a percentage of the whole refurbishment cost of a project.

This article was published in Refurb Projects, November 2014

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