Sounding the Alarm, Health & Safety Matters – January 2015

The difference between simple compliance and adopting a benchmark approach to safety can make all the difference when it comes to fire on construction sites. Here, Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics, looks at how a recent fire at the University of Nottingham focussed attention on the business case for investing in wireless fire alarm systems that comply with new legislation.

Fire on construction sites is an ever present danger. The very fact that they have flammable materials and presence of hot-working methods makes them vulnerable to these kinds of events.

Another factor to consider is that, according to Zurich, construction sites are often targets of vandalism and other criminal activities, including arson. In fact, arson accounts for 40% of all fires on constructions sites at a cost of £400 million per year. The Home Office has quantified this and estimates that construction firms in England and Wales are affected by 104,000 fires each year.

The resulting damage does not just extend to property loss. A major concern for firms that are working to strict schedules is that they suffer from business interruption and lost man-hours, which means that the cost of the initial fire can multiply considerably.

Of course, the real issue is the that there is human tragedy in all this, which sees approximately two people die and 53 injured every week in arson attacks.

These worrying statistics have resulted in the introduction of more stringent legislation with the latest being the CPR (Construction Products Regulation) introduced on 1st July 2013. This gives clear guidance on the performance of all construction products and to comply, fire detection and alarm systems must be specifically engineered – and independently tested and approved – to comply with EN54 and therefore with the new Construction Products Regulation (CPR).

Human intervention
Human nature in a real emergency is difficult to predict at best. It is a fact that people under extreme stress, emotion or fear can become irrational. Any site fire evacuation procedure that relies on human intervention to work during a real incident may therefore be considered unreliable at best.

Consider the scenario where a fire occurs on a construction site. Personnel evacuate the immediate area to a muster point. However, what would happen if the fire started on the first floor of a high rise building and no personnel were in that area. By the time the fire had been detected it may have become out of control and restricted escape routes.

The first response by those closest to the fire, rightly, is to get away from it before alerting others. However, when seconds count, not instantly sounding an alarm may further restrict exit routes to personnel on upper floors. An automated fire alarm, which is capable of immediately detecting heat and smoke and alerting the whole site, could make all the difference in this scenario.

These kinds of well planned, automated procedures based on technology results in reduced risk of human error and improved decision making in a real crisis.

The need for robust, EN54-compliant, automated fire alarm systems has become more pressing recently as a result of two factors. Firstly, the trend towards low carbon, off-site timber frame structures, which can be susceptible as was shown when the £20m partly-completed laboratory at the University of Nottingham was destroyed by fire. Alongside this, the desire for taller buildings has created a number of safety concerns with evacuating personnel quickly to a muster point, particularly if they are working on upper floors.

Wireless technology
As a business we have been developing radio frequency technology for over 25 years, which means we are able to help contractors identify best practice in terms of regulatory-compliant wireless fire alarm systems. These have been developed in collaboration with some of the top 100 UK construction firms and our latest technology, WES+, brings all these factors together to create an advanced emergency evacuation system that is suitable for use in the most challenging construction environments.

Whether the system specified is wired or wireless, it must still comply with EN54 and the new CPR. However, wireless fire alarm systems have the distinct advantage in that they avoid the need for specialist trades required with wired versions, both during set up and subsequent repositioning of the units. Technology of this kind, therefore, not only provides a cost-effective and easy route to compliance, but enables the number and location of units to be easily tailored to each site, depending on requirements.

There are also clear efficiency reasons why a wireless system demonstrates best practice. For example, because latest EN54-compliant units are fitted with Category 1 wireless receivers, they are the most reliable currently available.

Our WES+ wireless emergency systems comprise fire points and heat detection units or dustproof smoke detectors, linked to a monitoring base station. In the event of a fire, the system triggers a high volume 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 detection unit has been activated, allowing emergency services to be deployed more effectively to the exact source.

The Base Station can also provide SMS text alerts in the event of an alarm being activated allowing personnel to keep tight control on fire safety when they are off site, providing 24 hour protection. The fire at the University of Nottingham occurred on a Friday night when no one was on site, which again highlights the limitations of fire procedures that rely on human intervention.

Once the project is complete, the system, which requires no cables and is battery-powered, can be moved to the next project and reconfigured via the app.

EN 54 and CPR compliant wireless fire alarm systems set the benchmark when it comes to protecting personnel and assets on construction sites. At the same time they are easy to fit and operate, have no cables and therefore zero installation costs and, with some systems, a battery life of over three years.

With 104,000 fires on construction sites each year, the industry is starting to embrace wireless technology, whilst new legislation sets a clear framework on what type of system should be specified. Over the last 25 years, we’ve seen more construction companies willing to invest in this kind of technology and in doing so they demonstrate to staff, clients and shareholders that they place safety and protection of life and property above all else.”

This article was published in Health & Safety Matters, January 2015

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