As you prepare to restructure your building or office, you could inadvertently affect its fire safety and be swapping one hazard for another. Whether a building is changing its use or layout, including temporary constructions you must consider whether you need a new fire risk assessment.
In the last 2 years, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many offices had to alter how their employees moved or were stationed in the office. Commercial building owners had to think about how they were going to use their space to keep both employees and the public safe. For many, this led to a change in both the layout and how people moved through the space.
Building regulations typically state that if you alter the property, you must reassess your current fire risk assessment. Kenya has building regulations that prescribe a code of practice for fire safety in the design, management, and use of buildings. These regulations include a guide on fire safety and speak to the building design’s role and importance, which can often lead to fire hazards or reduced protective structures.
As such, as building layout changes, including many temporary internal and external structures such as protective barriers and screens, organizations and building managers need to think about key fire safety tools including fire detection and alarm, exit signage, and emergency lighting layout.
Compromised fire safety measures in buildings lead to increased risk of harm or injury to the people inside the building and the owner who does not consider it. Over the last few years, Kenya has seen businesses face losses worth millions of shillings due to fire damages. In some cases, there has been a loss of life and long-term injuries. We have also seen company owners or building managers face large fines and in extreme cases even imprisonment for failures in meeting basic fire safety requirements or because of a lack of fire safety planning. With far-reaching effects, it is crucial that buildings have the statutory and necessary measures inbuilt to prevent fire or reduce the exposure of risk to fire-related harm.
Take a look at retail and hospitality outlets for example. Most have organized one-way traffic through their premises either with arrows showing the direction of travel or in some cases by blocking off passages with barriers, rope, or tape.
Having proper escape routes is key for simple and safe evacuation and building managers should have this in consideration as they redesign buildings. This also includes the presence of necessary tools such as fire extinguishers on each of these escape routes.
Warning segregated people
In addition, if you are constructing new rooms, partitioning off areas, or changing the layout to segregate people, you need to check that there are fire detectors installed in each new space and that people can hear and /or see fire alarms when they are in them and that they are still compliant. Some of these partitions will also cause a fire safety hazard, whether because they create a tunnel that funnels smoke or in many cases because they are plastic, which would create a lot of smoke if there was a fire. Such partitions may also alter the effectiveness of sprinkler systems. Going back to our retail outlet example, many of the checkout areas are partitioned off with a temporary structure of wood and clear plastic or Perspex to keep people separated from one another, yet these checkouts are generally near the exits. If the worst were to happen and a fire broke out then you could potentially be blocking or inhibiting one route of evacuation, and if this structure were to catch fire it would create thick and toxic smoke.
While organizations have had to implement many of these measures in a bid to be pandemic-proof, it is still our duty as building owners and employers to consider all the risks that employees and the public may face in the spaces that we are responsible for. It means that we may need to adapt or change our fire safety systems so that we can mitigate the risk from these new measures.
A well-designed fire safety system will have 20% extra capacity and allow some flexibility within its system, but sadly most do not. Even those that do will not have considered the extent of change we need to make to our buildings.
For new build and refurbishment projects, it is sensible to plan fire safety systems with flexibility in mind. It is increasingly likely that we will need to make buildings more flexible and regularly change their use and layout in the future. Even if we don’t face another pandemic, the way that we work and spend our leisure is likely to change and adapt.
By specifying and installing fire safety systems with flexibility in mind, and considering adaptive evacuation technology, you are safeguarding the future of your building, yourself, and most importantly the people inside. If we make buildings more adaptable and modular, we need to do the same with all the elements of a fire safety system.
By Parag Mendiratta, Eastern Africa Regional Manager at Eaton Electric Ltd.