Where there’s smoke, Fire Risk Management – August 2015

With over 100,000 fires on construction sites reported each year there is an ever present danger to life and loss of assets. Here, Paul Henson, Sales & Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics, looks at why that makes it imperative that fire alarm systems have independent third party certification.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), the construction sector has one of the worst occupational health and safety records in Europe. Set against this background is the fact that the cost of fire on site can be immense as well as having far reaching consequences for a business and its shareholders.

The Home Office quantifies this by estimating that construction firms in England and Wales are affected by 104,000 fires each year. These figures were backed up by the RISC Authority, which revealed that more than 40% of all construction sector fires are lit deliberately, equating to 11 fires every day. In light of this, insurers are placing greater emphasis on fire safety on construction sites – RISCAuthority itself is an annually funded research scheme supported by a significant group of UK insurers.

The serious nature of fires on construction sites means that this area is covered by a number of laws, guidelines and codes of practice. All of these are designed to set out fire safety requirements in relation to their particular focus, and each specifies that an appropriate fire alarm system must be used. In combination, these guidelines form best practice indicators for the use and installation of fire safety systems in the construction industry:

UK laws:

  • The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (2005)
  • he 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 build
  • ings. 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 products sold in the European Union must be tested and independently 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. EN 54 sets benchmarks for the design, operation, production, testing and manufacture of fire detection and fire alarm products.

Effectively, the law and best practice guidelines require you to protect your construction site 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, or a permanent, completed building. And quite rightly, because a fire alarm is indeed a fire alarm whatever kind of facility it is installed on – the importance of safety of personnel on a construction site is no different to that of people who occupy a completed building. Indeed, EN 54 clearly states that fire detection and alarm systems are for use in ‘buildings or other construction works’ (EN 54 Part 1, Section 2.1).

In essence, the Construction Products Regulation states that:

  1. Fire safety products must be CE marked.
  2. To obtain a CE mark for fire detection and alarm products, a Declaration of Performance (DoP) must be produced. It is important that you ask the supplier of a fire alarm system for these documents. The Declaration of Performance is your proof that the product you’re considering has been tested to the appropriate standards. You should expect a full fire alarm and detection system to include references to different sections of EN 54, as each unit type should be tested against its corresponding section(s) of the standard. For instance, a wireless call point with a sounder should be tested against sections 3 (sounders), 11 (manual call points) and 25 (radio links). If the certificate you are presented simply covers an individual component – for example, the detector head – within a larger unit, it does not follow that the whole unit meets EN 54 requirements.
  3. To obtain a DoP, fire safety products must be tested by an approved, independent external agency, known as a notified body (If the product has been tested by a notified body you’ll see a four digit test centre number after the CE mark).
  4. The notified body must be involved in inspection, testing and factory production control.

If the fire alarm system you specify meets all these criteria and the DoP supports this, then it provides you with the added confidence that it is a high quality, properly tested system. That means that you can have confidence that you are doing the utmost to protect your workforce and assets to the best of your ability – and why would you not want to do that?

Wireless in practice
One of the weaknesses of a manual fire alarm system – which could simple be a nominated person sounding a standalone fire bell – is that not everyone on site may hear it. That is a real concern on larger sites where people are working in remote areas and may be on upper floors, where not hearing an alarm can seriously limit their escape routes. Conversely, an interlinked, wireless system overcomes this issue because if just one manual call point is triggered it automatically activates all the other call points in the network so that everyone on site receives the same audible and visual alert signal.

This technology-based approach creates a completely secure site-wide web, and alarms can be manually triggered by personnel from any call point. To provide 24/7 automatic cover it is possible to incorporate heat or smoke detectors into the system. At the same time, the base station allows fire officers to instantly identify which fire point or heat/smoke detection unit has been activated, allowing emergency services to be deployed to the exact source.

The type of wireless technology used in an EN54 compliant system is important too and here the European Standard covering the use of radio technology in emergency equipment is (ETSI 300-220-1). It requires the use of highest level Category 1 receivers in ‘human life inherent systems’ – those in which any failure may result in physical risk to a person. That means all compliant fire alarm systems should use Category 1 receivers to ensure maximum signal reliability.

Historically, personnel safety on construction sites tended to operate wholly independently with each project having its own set of manually-based procedures. In recent years, with an ongoing focus on personnel safety, there has been a drive towards harmonisation. Latest legislative updates appear to be focused on creating a common safety platform across Europe.

When it comes to emergency preparedness, wireless technology provides an effective way forward for ever more complex construction projects. Ultimately, these innovations improve all round safety leading to an enhanced probability of all personnel evacuating the site to safety.

This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to ask which standard the fire alarm system you are about to specify has been tested. For fire safety products, you should expect references to EN 54 and even then you should double check that each complete unit – and every unit in the system including the base station, fire point or smoke and heat detection unit – have all been tested to the relevant part(s) of EN 54. The only way of knowing this for certain is to look in detail at the Declaration of Performance certificate. An EN 54 compliant fire alarm system should have been tested by a notified body and include a four digit test centre number after the CE mark.

Investing in wireless technology that is EN 54 compliant can make commercial sense too. By taking a planned approach to health and safety and protecting assets, both employees and investors will have the confidence that this area has been taken seriously. With heightened awareness of the risk to personnel on site and the introduction of ever more stringent legislation and increased scrutiny by insurers, businesses are realising that investing in safety simply cannot be ignored. And, as with all things involving risk, the best time to act is before it is needed.

This article was published in Fire Risk Management magazine, August 2015

Categorised in: ,