Since the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, the Hackitt review and Building Safety Act 2022 have identified high-rise residential buildings as higher-risk environments that require dedicated fire safety measures.
Yet while the design, construction and operation of such buildings is changing in many ways, provisions for evacuating people who are more vulnerable in the event of an emergency – for example, those with physical or mental disabilities – remain largely unchanged.
This leaves anyone who cannot escape via stairs at a significant disadvantage – a point brought home at Grenfell Tower, where a disproportionate 41% of residents with sensory, mobility or cognitive disabilities died during the fire.
Fire safety measures in blocks of flats in England follow the stay-put evacuation strategy described in Approved Document B on fire safety, which 'is based on the principle that a fire is contained in the flat of origin and common escape routes are maintained relatively free from smoke and heat. It allows occupants, some of whom may require assistance to escape in the event of a fire, in other flats that are not affected to remain'.
This approach is supported by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC): 'If there is a fire inside a flat or maisonette[,] the advice is to alert all the people in the flat and leave the property and close all doors. They should follow a pre-determined escape plan and[,] if there is a lot of smoke within the flat, people should crawl along the floor where the air should be clearer and the temperature cooler. They should always use the stairs rather than the lift and call 999 as soon as they are in a safe place.'
However, neither the NFCC nor Approved Document B describe how a resident should evacuate if they aren't able to manage the stairs.
In addition, Approved Document B has no requirement for the lift evacuation, evacuation chairs, on-site management assistance or personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) that are found in most other types of building.
For years, the assumption has been that a stay-put strategy and the fire safety measures needed to enable it would be sufficient to protect people as the emergency services fought a fire elsewhere in the building. If the fire was in a particular flat, the occupants were deemed able to escape safely into the protected common corridor or staircase and wait to be rescued by the emergency services.
As a result, almost all the existing blocks of flats in the UK have little to no provision for anyone who can't escape by the stairs to evacuate safely should they need to. Yet as the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated, a stay-put strategy can fail.
In the five years since then, there have been numerous other occasions where fires in blocks of flats have spread significantly; for example, those at Samuel Garside House in Barking in 2019, and at New Providence Wharf in London in 2021. These both resulted in high numbers of people being put at risk and needing to evacuate.
So, why has equity in residential fire safety been overlooked?
When it comes to evacuating disabled people and others needing step-free egress, it's unclear how to comply with the Building Regulations when following the guidance in Approved Document B.
The Building Regulations applicable at the design and construction stage require 'appropriate means of escape in case of fire from the building to a place of safety outside'. Approved Document B makes no mention, though, of how to design residential buildings to achieve this, beyond flagging up that 'some people's specific needs might not be addressed. In some situations, additional measures may be needed to accommodate these … on a case-by-case basis'.
Residential buildings thus tend to be handed over for occupation with little or no facilities for equitable evacuation. This means the building owner or operator cannot meet their duties under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to ensure that 'in the event of danger, it must be possible for persons to evacuate the premises as quickly and as safely as possible'.
There is also conflicting advice in other government guidance documents that support the 2005 Order. While the Fire safety risk assessment: sleeping accommodation guide asks for 'particular attention to be paid to those at special risk', the government's Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats guide said, until recently, that it is 'unrealistic to expect landlords to have special arrangements in place' in these circumstances. Significantly however, this part of the guide has now been redacted pending the outcome of the PEEPs and Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing + (EEIS+) consultations, with explanatory notes stating 'The Home Office is working on a revised version of this guide which we intend to publish in 2023'.
Such contradictory advice often leaves anyone who can't use the stairs to fend for themselves in the event of fire and wait to be rescued by the emergency services – an approach that was shown to be so tragically inadequate at Grenfell Tower.
This places disabled people at substantially greater risk, making it impossible for residential building operators to comply with the Equality Act 2010, which 'makes it unlawful for a person who manages premises to discriminate against or victimise someone who occupies the property, or by otherwise treating the person unfavourably'.
Indeed, in her closing statement to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Stephanie Barwise KC – representing a group of bereaved families, survivors and former residents – specifically called out the designers, fire engineers Exova and architects Studio E, for failing to apply 'principles of inclusive design' to the refurbishment.
She added to her list the responsible persons, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, for failing to prepare plans for disabled residents, and the government for failing to ensure that its guidance was sufficient on this point.
There is an urgent need for the government to develop a single set of authoritative guidance, containing clear, consistent and unambiguous advice specific to the needs of disabled occupants in the event of fires in residential buildings.
This needs to cover the design and operational stages, as well as addressing the broad range of disabilities people may have beyond those relating to mobility. It is likely to be informed by the three government commissions currently researching updates for Approved Document B; though there is no clear indication when these research findings, or the updates themselves, will be available.
The prospective guidance should also draw on the recent publication, Evacuation from fire in high-rise residential buildings: a rapid evidence review, research commissioned in response to recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that the government should develop national guidelines for carrying out partial or total evacuations of high-rise residential buildings.
In the meantime, other policy and guidance has tried to fill the gaps. The London Plan 2021, for instance, incorporates policy D5 on inclusive design and D12 on fire safety. It expects all buildings to 'be designed to incorporate safe and dignified emergency evacuation for all building users'. All new buildings in the capital containing lifts also need to have at least one of these designed to be suitable for the purpose of evacuation.
This is a positive measure: but it will only apply to buildings going through the planning process in Greater London, and will do nothing for hundreds of existing tall residential buildings across the country.
Similarly, a new draft of BS 9991 Fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings – an alternative design guide to Approved Document B – was issued for consultation in August 2021, and is currently at comment resolution stage before publication which is anticipated later this year.
This proposes new provisions for residential buildings of at least 18m or seven storeys tall, including:
Although these recommendations are still only at draft stage, the intention is clear – there is a need for equitable evacuation from the building. This will help bring high-rise residential buildings more in line with most non-residential premises, where the provision of refuges and two-way communication have become common practice, having been prescribed for many years.
But the positive measures taken by the London Plan and the draft BS 9991 need to be adopted by Approved Document B to ensure they become the norm in new buildings across England.
Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry also recommended PEEPS for disabled people in high-rise residential buildings, and the government ran a public consultation in summer 2021 on mandating provision of a tailored level of protection for anyone not able to evacuate by the stairs.
However, although 83% of respondents were in favour of this provision, the consultation found that most existing residential buildings do not have the features to enable equitable evacuation, such as dedicated lifts or protected refuges, and no on-site staffing to manage it. There was also concern about who would be liable should disabled residents fail to be evacuated. It was therefore deemed not to be proportionate, practical or safe to mandate such plans.
This was widely seen as a major missed opportunity, and a U-turn by the government on its commitment to implement the phase 1 recommendations in full coming in for criticism from the Fire Brigades Union, Disability Rights UK and the Local Government Association.
As an alternative to mandating PEEPs, the government has since consulted on a different approach called EEIS+. This would make the fire and rescue service responsible for having a plan in place to evacuate any disabled residents who have previously self-identified as needing help.
However, the London Fire Brigade questioned this approach, stating that firefighters 'are not an emergency evacuation service and should not be relied on to provide this'.
Furthermore, this new process would only apply to residential buildings with a so-called simultaneous evacuation strategy rather than a stay-put one. The former are in place, for example, where all flats are alerted to a fire at the same time so all occupants can evacuate together, although this is typically only the case at buildings where major fire safety defects such as cladding flaws or compartmentation issues have been identified.
For the vast majority of higher-risk residential buildings in England, a stay-put policy will remain, meaning that there would in any event be no change to the way disabled occupants can evacuate, maintaining the reliance on rescue by the fire brigade.
With this in mind, during a second reading of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill in November, levelling-up, housing and communities secretary Michael Gove suggested that the government should look again at the issue of PEEPs for those with disabilities.
The average age of the UK's population is increasing, and as a result, there are more people with mobility issues living in cities, and more people living in tall buildings that have lifts.
If we want everyone to be able to live safely in such buildings, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.
We are living in a society with an increasing proportion of older and less able people who have changing physiological needs. The Grenfell Tower tragedy clearly showed that the population of higher-risk residential buildings is likely to be diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, and disabled and non-disabled occupants.
If we want this diverse mix of people to continue to live in such buildings, we need to change the way those buildings are designed and operated so all occupants can evacuate safely should they need to.
BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL
Jen Lemen FRICS 28 March 2023
Mike Appleby 22 March 2023
BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL
Sam Piplica MRICS 21 March 2023