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September 30, 2019

Facilitating Means of Escape

Under Article 12 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the designated ‘responsible person’ must ensure that “routes to emergency exits from premises and the exits themselves are kept clear at all times.” The provision of a clear and straightforward means of escape is vital for life safety, any failure to do so can prove to be immensely costly – in every sense of the word.

The importance of effective escape routes is highlighted by British engineer and civil servant Dame Judith Hackitt in her Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. “One of the significant risks created by these emergency situations,” observes Dame Judith, “is the possibility of panic resulting in crowding in escape routes and at exits where people may be put at risk of significant harm – emphasising the importance of ensuring that routes and exits have been designed, specified and constructed with this risk in mind.”

The Independent Review’s final report – published in May last year – was commissioned by central government following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 in order to make recommendations on the future regulatory system. In addition to a new regulatory system, Dame Judith also outlined the need for clear responsibilities (a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities when it comes to buildings’ safety was, according to Dame Judith, one of the circumstances that realised the Grenfell Tower disaster), more rigorous enforcement powers for monitoring building safety, more effective product testing and better procurement practices.

Dame Judith Hackitt.

All emergency routes and exits must lead as directly as possible to a place of safety and be adequate for everyone to escape quickly and safely, but far too frequently it appears that escape routes are becoming makeshift storage areas, while fire safety is itself becoming something of an afterthought.

A disregard for fire safety regulations can have dire consequences. Back on Tuesday 8 May 1979, a fire ripped through Manchester’s flagship Woolworths store opposite Piccadilly Gardens. A number of fire safety failures caused the death of ten people inside the premises and left 47 individuals with injuries.

It’s believed that the fire was started by a damaged electrical cable, which had furniture stacked in front of it. An inquiry showed that, although the store’s fire precautions met all legal requirements, the spread of the fire and the number of casualties were in part due to the absence of measures such as a fire sprinkler system to stop the spread of the fire from the Furniture Department, and the use of polyurethane foam in the furnishings – a material which is highly toxic, but cheap and at that time legal for use in items of furniture. The blaze would have consequences for later legislation.

Emergency exits were poorly marked; some exit doors required a key, while others had been locked to prevent shoplifting. Those attempting to flee the toxic smoke were unable to escape through the very doors that were there to save them. People died within touching distance of the emergency exits.

Manchester’s flagship Woolworths in the days after the fire.

As we’re all well aware, tragedies involving flawed fire safety are not confined to the history books. Some 40 years later lessons have seemingly not been learned, escape routes and exits continue to be misused.

One popular High Street retailer was ordered to pay almost £70,000 after an escape route inside one of its stores was reduced to just 30 cm by the ‘dumping’ of crates and stock, while a care home in Somerset was hit with a £100,000 fine after fire doors and escape routes were found to be blocked.

Preventing Misuse

In addition to emergency lighting and dedicated signage, extra precautions can be taken to prevent misuse. Door alarms may be fitted to vulnerable emergency exit doors. The alarmed devices are a highly effective way in which to alert the management team of any unauthorised exits or entries through emergency exit doors.

Text and symbols act as an additional deterrent to misuse, with the unit serving as an inexpensive security device helping to guard against theft, safeguarding escape routes for real emergencies and eliminating the temptation to lock emergency exits to discourse would-be thieves.

To comply with current regulations and ensure adequate means of escape, emergency egress must not rely on the operation of an access control system that requires the use of an electronic key or other means.

In case of emergency

In case of emergency, appropriate override arrangements must be in place to maintain a clear means of escape. This is particularly important in the case of fail-secure locks. The provision of such a device is normally found in the form of a green break glass unit. This is in accordance with BS 7273-4 which requires a green break glass call point that provides a reliable override control and a secure route to safety.

Re-settable green break glass unit.

Even in those instances where a fail-safe lock is employed – whereby an emergency door is wired such that, when a fire alarm sounds, the door automatically opens – it’s still best practice to install a break glass call point next to the exit in case of any failure with the fire alarm system. This is also important for emergency scenarios not related to fire.

Opening an access control-monitored door through the operation of an emergency door release break glass unit will result in an alarm event. This is useful in a real emergency, but can create nuisance false alarms when the unit is confused with a non-emergency switch for releasing an electronically locked door.

BS 5839 and call points

Additionally, BS 5839 recommends that fire manual call points should be located on all final exits. Due to this proximity, some false alarms occur when an individual fails to distinguish the difference between the two.

This was just one of the findings noted by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in its research into the cause of false fire alarms, which cost the UK an estimated £1 billion every year. The BRE’s research project entitled ‘Live Investigations of False Fire Alarms’ revealed that: “Some false fire alarms arise from accidentally trying to use a manual call point to release an electronically locked door, rather than the normal control provided for this purpose, or the emergency override.”

The latest Home Office figures reveal that there were a total of 14,600 false fire alarms in 2018-2019 caused by a person ‘accidentally or carelessly’ activating apparatus. That’s the highest figure for over five years and demonstrates an increase of 491 on the previous year.

Break glass units are particularly vulnerable to accidental activations in high volume areas such as busy corridors where a stray bad or a misguided trolley can easily knock and activate a call point. Manual call points with a re-settable element that mimics the feel of breaking glass without the need to replace sensitive broken parts help to save both time and money.

Appropriate signage 

BS 7273-4 recommends that, in situations where the break glass unit is likely to be used by persons other than trained staff, appropriate signage must be provided and should read: “In emergency, break glass to open door” thus distinguishing it from a fire alarm call point. However, signage is often ignored or easily overlooked, meaning that the threat of accidental activation persists. In these situations, a more robust approach to tackling false alarms is required. Polycarbonate covers can retrofit over a break glass call point, in turn protecting and preventing the emergency door release from being used in non-emergency situations.

Polycarbonate protective cover.

Fitted with an alarm, the tough covers can prevent accidental and malicious activation while acting as an additional pre-alarm in a real emergency. Covers can even be embedded with a ‘Glow Guide’ making it easier to locate the break glass unit in unlit areas, this embellishes any existing emergency exit lighting.

Maintaining a balance

In regards to fire safety, a recent revision to BS 5839-1:2017 recommends: “All manual call points should be fitted with a protective cover which is moved to gain access to the frangible elements.” It’s advisable that the same recommendation would be suitable for an access control application.

Anchored by legislation, technical standards and research, emergency exits and escape routes are fundamental to life safety. Although maintaining a balance between security and fire safety can be difficult, green break glass units provide a solution.

While the use of such apparatus can contribute to unnecessary false alarms, options are available to negate misuse, allowing for an effective partnership between access control and means of escape, and helping to save lives.

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