Fire Fighting – Who is Responsible?

The requirement to provide adequate fire fighting equipment in buildings is a long standing obligation under fire safety legislation. This requirement is now embodied within the Regulatory Reform (fire safety) Order 2005, which in detail requires that, where necessary:

a) The premises are, to the extent that is appropriate, equipped with appropriate fire- fighting equipment; and

b) Any non-automatic fire-fighting equipment so provided is easily accessible, simple to use and their location indicated by signs.

Determining the person or persons with responsibility for using this equipment has always been less clear and more contentious. Traditionally many fire officers advised that, if fire occurs, occupants should evacuate the premises and leave fire- fighting to the professionals. Hence the apparent contradiction, that if occupants of a building are not expected to tackle a fire, why is there a requirement to provide the building with fire extinguishers, hose reels and other fire fighting equipment.

Certainly the equipment is not provided for use by the fire and rescue service as they do not use fire fighting equipment other than their own. Government guidance on the issue has always been ambivalent. For example, guidance in support of the Fire Precautions Act concentrated on the provision of equipment, rather than arrangements for its use, although it was recommended that staff required training in location and use of fire extinguishers.

Much of the uncertainty has now been eliminated since, within the new fire safety order, there is the requirement to, where necessary, “take measures for fire fighting and nominate competent persons to implement those measures”, ensuring the number of such persons, their training and the equipment available to them are adequate “, taking into account the size of the specific hazards involved in the premises concerned -determined by means of a fire risk assessment.

Although this requirement is imposed “where necessary”, in practice there is an expectation that at least a proportion of staff should be trained in the use of fire extinguishers so they are able to tackle a small fire. Government guidance on the fire safety order reinforces this. For example, the guides advise that fire- fighting equipment can reduce the risk of a small fire developing into a large one; they advise that the safe use of an appropriate extinguisher to control a fire its early stages can also significantly reduce the risk to other people on the premises by allowing people additional time to assist others who are at risk.

Employers are advised that all staff should be familiar with the location and basic operating procedures for the equipment provided.

This is sensible, as it is unrealistic to expect all occupants to leave a small fire to grow whilst waiting for attendance of the fire and rescue service. Moreover, the benefits of fire extinguisher appliances are not necessarily reflected in the published statistic’s regarding fires to which the fire and rescue service were summoned. Trade surveys have indicated that 75%-80% of fires on which extinguishers and/or fire blankets were used were not even reported to the fire and rescue service, but were extinguished by occupants. A number of those reported to the fire and rescue service were also extinguisher before the arrival of the fire and rescue service.

Nomination of staff to use fire extinguishers should be considered in every fire risk assessment. While not all staff need be nominated it is unlikely that, other than in the case of very small, low risk premises, a fire risk assessment will validly conclude that no staff should ever use a fire extinguisher. Equally an instruction that anyone discovering a fire should tackle the fire with a fire extinguisher appliance if safe to do so, satisfies the legal requirement, provided staff are suitably instructed in the use of the appliances. All staff are effectively then “nominated” as the persons to use the fire extinguishing appliances.

Do Hose Reels have a future?
Portable fire extinguishers or hose reels and often both, may be provided in buildings. However Hose Reels are arguably only supplementary to extinguishers. Fire extinguishers can be deployed and activated quickly, whilst hose reels take more time to run out and activate. Fire extinguishers are fully transportable whilst hose reels have a fixed anchor point and finite deployment length.

However, hose reels once deployed provide an unlimited volume of water thereby allowing a greater degree of fire fighting. This benefit also has a downside in that it can encourage occupants with limited fire fighting experience to remain in the building for longer than desirable. Also hose taken through a fire door will prevent full closure of the door, possibly permitting spread of smoke & fire. An awareness of this type of issue underlines the need for proper training in their use.
Some fire departments now advise against hose reels for these reasons.

Interestingly, although there is generally a move away from hose reels, government guidance still recognises that they may have a place. The Guides on the Fire Safety Order describe hose reels as “an effective fire fighting facility” As with all safety equipment, the key is training in their use, to avoid the problems described