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The impact of COVID-19 on health and fire safety for buildings and their residents

The arrival of COVID-19 has raised questions about how we go about doing almost every task in our daily lives.  For some people in the emergency services, essential work has continued since the 24th March and this includes firemen and Fire Safety Officers as well as frontline ambulance crew and paramedics. Maintaining social distancing and preventing the spread of Covid-19 is a paramount concern for everyone but people remain vulnerable to other threats to their personal safety and this should not be overlooked or forgotten about.

Changing the way we work

Even during the lockdown, some key safety work is still being carried out; Health and Safety inspections and fire safety are still as relevant and crucial to public health, safety and wellbeing despite the Coronavirus pandemic. People need to feel reassured that other areas of their life have not been overlooked due to COVID-19 and that they are no more at risk from and vulnerable to other potential hazards like fire because of COVID-19.

Feeling reassured

Those who work in fire safety, such as risk assessors, fire safety officers and fire alarm engineers installing and testing essential equipment, have all been categorised as key workers which means they are permitted and legally able to work to continue to maintain safety measures and ensure public safety. Social distancing measures have been implemented to help these workers fulfil their ongoing duties whilst protecting their health and the health of those around them. Fire is no respecter of COVID-19 and there is no point trading one life-threatening risk for another.

How is essential public safety being maintained during the Coronavirus outbreak?

The enforcement of regulations to protect public health is live and current and has not been diminished by Coronavirus. What may have changed is how businesses fulfil their Health and Safety and fire safety obligations due to a change in staffing numbers, different working patterns and the requirements for social distancing.

There has been much detailed guidance from enforcement agencies given to organisations and businesses about how they can manage and balance the challenge of both hazards. The legal requirements and obligations which existed before Coronavirus concerning fire safety remain in force and undiminished.

  • Fire safety risk assessments remain a legal requirement and should reflect the changing nature of the occupation of premises both residential and commercial
  • Fire alarm testing – protocols with regard to the type and frequency of testing remain unchanged
  • Risk reduction is even higher on the agenda than ever to avoid putting additional strain on emergency services and to reflect the changing nature of people’s lives, i.e. fewer people in the workplace
  • Emerging risks – changes to working lives and some residential properties have meant that risks have altered and new risks are emerging as a response to the COVID-19 situation, for instance, propping open fire doors in communal buildings to avoid the need to touch door handles
  • Vulnerable people are they still receiving the support that they need and have their requirements changed due to the Coronavirus outbreak?

Businesses and organisations are being encouraged to review their fire risk assessments more frequently than before. This is not only because their legal obligations remain unchanged and undiminished but because the nature of life has changed so significantly that new and previously unseen risks are becoming more commonplace and existing protocols and procedures may no longer be fit for purpose. At the very minimum, processes have to be reviewed to observe the new and ongoing requirements of social distancing but safety measures have to remain relevant and if necessary, adjusted to maintain adherence to safety legislation.

Here are how some operating procedures may have altered because of Coronavirus:

Evacuation plans remain in place with the requirement to ensure requisite staffing levels often with the challenge of reduced staff numbers or split working shifts. Plans have been reconfigured to take account of social distancing as far as is practicable in an emergency situation and at communal assembly points. These plans need ongoing review to reflect changes to working practices announced by the government

Fire alarm actuation and emergency procedures ongoing reviews are in place to understand the risk to residents of premises who may need to be ‘shielded’ from exposure to external personnel such as firefighters but who are in a potential emergency situation

Fire alarm and other essential fire safety systems – fire alarms and smoke control systems and sprinklers must be maintained in good working order and normal testing regimes remain with the addition of the correct observation of social distancing. Delaying the visits of engineers in order to limit the number of visitors to particular premises can only occur if this is recorded as a significant finding in the fire risk assessment with a corresponding highlighting and possible increase of the regular tests undertaken to ensure the system is fully functional. Earlier on in the lockdown period, there were reports of safety-related contractors refusing to go on-site due to increased risks from COVID-19 but this is not likely to be the case now that the government has eased restrictions. In any event, there are protocols in place which can protect safety systems in the absence of contractors and some maintenance safety schedules may be safely extended with the consultation and support of a qualified fire safety system engineer

Buildings put to a temporary use – for example, university halls of residence being used to house key NHS staff because they are located within walking distance of a hospital or hotel accommodation being used as temporary accommodation for the homeless. Any building that is being used for a different purpose for which it was intended has been the subject of official guidance to ensure the safety of occupants.  An appropriate Fire Risk Assessment is carried out by a designated competent person and the application of Fire Safety Guidance appropriate to the new situation is implemented and applied. All aspects are reviewed including emergency exit provision, the suitability and safety of fire alarms and relevant staff training.  Temporary staff and volunteers are included in the new procedures and given any training

Fire and general safety works are all still perfectly possible during the Coronavirus outbreak. It is easy to focus on staying safe and overlook other hazards which are just as serious such as fire. During the current lockdown, there has been no relaxing of the procedures which were in place before the pandemic started and operators with the support of regulatory agencies have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure that fire and other health and safety requirements continue to be adhered to.

The Coronavirus might have suspended much of our normal everyday lives but it has not suspended fire safety or common sense. The care of buildings and their occupants is still a top priority. As the situation changes and lockdown relaxes, those key regulations will remain unaltered; the only thing that will change is how they are observed and the measures which are taken to ensure both their compliance and maximum protection against COVID-19.