The Apollo Fire Alarm System is fully compliant with NFCC guidance

Government advice

The 2017 Grenfell tragedy brought to light multiple fire safety issues in residential high-rise buildings.

From December 2018, in line with Government Advice note 14, all buildings over 18m had to be assessed for combustible material in their external walls. In January 2020, Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings was published, advising that “the need to assess and manage the risk of external fire spread applies to buildings of any height”.

EWS1: External Wall Fire Review

The assessment of the presence of combustible materials in cladding is recorded in Form EWS1: External Wall Fire Review and is often referred to as the “EWS1 assessment”. It was created by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in collaboration with fire industry experts and mortgage and housing market trade bodies. The EWS1 form is established as an industry-wide process to aid property evaluations in tall residential buildings. The form is used to assess the external wall systems of residential apartment buildings where the highest floor is 18m or more above ground level and, following the January 2020 update to government advice, buildings below 18m that have “specific concerns”.

If the EWS1 form confirms the presence of combustible materials, the building has fire safety concerns that must be addressed by remediation works and temporary fire safety measures should be introduced while the cladding is being removed. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) guidance provides advice on fire strategy and supporting safety measures that need to be followed in these circumstances.

NFCC guidance

The presence of combustible materials in external walls means it may no longer be safe for residents to follow the Stay Put policy, which relies on each flat to contain any fire for at least one hour, and ensures that the residents are secure in their own apartments. 

The NFCC advises: 

  1. Due to the risk of rapid fire spread from external wall systems or other identified building defects, Stay Put must be temporarily replaced by a simultaneous evacuation strategy until the building has been remediated.

  2. Temporary protection measures must be introduced to ensure the safety of residents; either a 24/7 Waking Watch or a common Fire Detection & Alarm system designed to BS5839 Part 1 category L5 specification.

All measures rely on the decision made by a responsible person* in conjunction with competent person**, determined by the fire risk assessment process. The key purpose of temporary protection measures is:

  • early detection of a fire and warning of building occupants

  • management of the evacuation.

If the cladding removal is expected to take more than 12 months:

“…the NFCC strongly recommends installation of a common fire alarm system as a more reliable and cost-effective way to maintain a sufficient level of early detection than a Waking Watch.”

* Responsible person defined by The Fire Safety Order as person(s) responsible for fire safety in the building. Could be the building owner, the landlord, the occupier or anyone else with control of the premises.
** Competent person defined by The Fire Safety Order does not require to have any specific academic qualifications but needs to understand fire safety legislation, have sufficient knowledge and training in fire safety, understand fire risks, hazards and human behaviour during fire and have training or experience in carrying out risk assessment.

Waking Watch

A Waking Watch is a surveillance system carried out by trained fire marshals or wardens. Their responsibility is to patrol the building 24/7 and alert residents in the case of a fire and assist their evacuation. Although Waking Watch measures can be introduced quickly, ongoing charges are applied for the duration of a service.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, conducted research into the costs of a Waking Watch. According to their data, the charge for a Waking Watch can vary between £116 to £499 per dwelling per month based on the hourly charge per warden across different parts of the UK. Additional charges for equipment, facilities, accommodation and services can also be applied. The same research states:

“The cost of employing one person/individual undertaking Waking Watch duties exceeds the average cost of installing an alarm system in 3 to 6 months.”

Fire Alarm System

BS5839 Part 6 Code of Practice governs the use of fire detection and alarm systems in domestic premises. The NFCC advises that best practice for individual apartments within a block of flats is to have mains wired smoke alarms with a tamper-proof battery back-up (grade D). These devices provide an alarm for the flat in which they are located. Communal areas do not usually incorporate a fire alarm system but can sometimes be protected by a commercial system in line with BS5839 Part 1. This type of fire alarm system supports the Stay Put policy.

When a change from Stay Put to the simultaneous evacuation is required, NFCC recommends the installation of a common area fire alarm system throughout the building, designed to meet BS5839 Part 1 category L5, while still maintaining existing protective measures in individual flats. This means the fire risk in individual apartments continues to be managed by existing Part 6 devices in each flat. The Part 1 common area system is installed to provide additional cover for communal areas and individual apartments, with the aim to create single detection and alert system for the management of fire risk from external wall systems.

The BS5839 Part 1 system requires the use of components approved to EN54 standard. The L5 category means the system is designed to meet specific fire safety objectives, in this case the early detection and alert of fires caused by external wall systems.

The NFCC recommended fire safety system should be:

  • Designed in accordance with BS5839, Part 6, category L5 (except that the sound pressure level of the fire alarm signal within flats need only be 85dB(A) at the open doorways of every bedroom in each flat).

  • Heat detectors should be installed throughout the building (in individual flats and other locations) next to the windows that overlook an area of external wall. An immediate evacuation signal should be triggered by the operation of any single heat detector.

  • Smoke detectors should be considered for the protection of communal areas. They should not be used to trigger general evacuation and may only give a warning to the evacuation management team.

  • Installation of a new common area fire alarm system should not cause any further damage to the compartmentation or have an adverse effect on other provisions in the building.

Future considerations

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Report indicated there was no clear method of communication established between the Fire & Rescue Service and the residents to manage evacuation. In buildings with a Stay Put policy, the normal practice was to manage it “by hand”, meaning that fire-fighters would physically knock on the door and ask residents to evacuate.

As an outcome of the Grenfell Inquiry, strong recommendations were provided for ‘all high-rise residential buildings to be equipped with the means for fire and rescue services to send an evacuation signal to the whole, or a selected part, of the building by means of sounders or similar devices’. Supporting this guidance, since November 2019, the BS8629 code of practice became mandatory for use in Scotland and has been strongly recommended in England.

BS8629 recommends the installation of Evacuation Alert Control and Indicating Equipment (EACIE) which should be independent of the fire detection systems and designed to support any evacuation strategy chosen by the fire and rescue service.

Last updated: 26 November 2020


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