Friday, March 16, 2012

Report on Fire Safety Meeting

A small number of residents attended the Fire Safety meeting called by Lewisham Homes on 6 March. Larger numbers were obviously anticipated since it was held in the new Studio space upstairs at Deptford Lounge.*

The meeting was convened by Malcom McBride, one of three new Fire Safety Advisors, who has previously notched up 30 years working for the London Fire Brigade. Malcolm explained that the meeting was by way of introduction to the measures Lewisham Homes was obliged, by law to implement (The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005) in order to safeguard its residents.

Lewisham Homes, as the responsible body, must ensure that routes to emergency exist from premises and the exits themselves are kept clear at all times. We were shown six photos of various cluttered balconies on the estate, and Malcolm attempted to explain which items could be considered allowable and those which are verboten. However, we were all still rather unclear as to exactly what is allowed.

For instance, we had recently been issued by the council (not Lewisham Homes) with some handy but very large green recycling bags. Their size makes them too big to store in our tiny kitchens, so many people keep them outside. Malcolm pointed out that, filled up with paper and plastics, they were combustible and therefore a major fire hazard (thanks, Lewisham council!). Bicycles (and kids' tricycles) tied up outside homes were also considered obstructions – but where, we cried, were we supposed to put them, when LH itself was refusing to managed any of the storage areas on the estate? Malcolm was also unable to give us a maximum width and height for any plants and furniture we might be permitted to keep outside.

He told us that his fire safety team will be visiting the estate over the next couple of weeks and, where necessary, having a chat with those residents who are causing obstructions or storing combustible items. People who have installed grills at the entrance to their balcony may be asked to provide a spare key to let in the fire brigade, or asked to remove them. Parking in front of stairwells (obstructing access for the fire brigade) will also be looked at.

He also announced that Lewisham Homes will be fitting new front doors which comply with the latest fire safety standards to every home in the borough under its management. We were under the impression our front doors (relatively new) were already compliant, and it was not clear how fully this programme will be rolled out. According to guidance issued in 2011, front doors which open onto balconies which serve as the main fire escape, must be "self closing". Ours are not. In this matter (which may have cost implications for leaseholders) and all others, we await further news.

In the meantime, why not do your bit for yours and others' safety and clear your balcony of obvious trip hazards, obstructions, and inflammable materials. (Bikes, however, may remain a contentious issue).


People might remember that in January last year, LH sent a team round the estate to politely help us clear our clutter, but stuff wasn't removed without residents' approval, and the team didn't manage to get round all the blocks in the time allotted. Then in May, we got a letter threatening to remove items "stored in communal areas" within 14 days or else. By June 2011, on a walkabout on the estate with the TRA, CEO Andrew Potter declared he was considering a "zero tolerance" policy of balcony clearance in order for Lewisham Homes to comply with the law. Perhaps because this suggestion was met with complete horror by the residents present, it appears LH now seem to be pursuing the alternative, which is "managed use".

According to the guidance issued in 2011 by the Local Government Group regarding Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats, "a 'managed use' policy might permit residents to:
• place pot plants and door mats outside their front doors
• have framed pictures and notice boards on walls
• store bicycles, prams and mobility scooters in places that are out of the way and not likely to cause obstruction."

44.4 Sometimes residents see the common parts as communal amenity areas, where, for example, they can store bicycles, dry clothes and sit on furniture. Some landlords encourage this, particularly in sheltered schemes, in an effort to avoid the block having the appearance of an institution. The presence of, for example, door mats, pot plants, pictures and seating is seen as part of making the block homely for the residents.
44.5 However, many landlords battle with problems that can arise from this, particularly of residents taking matters to extremes (eg holding barbecues on access decks and escape balconies). A further problem is one of abuse, such as dumping unwanted belongings and rubbish in the common parts. Not only can this result in people potentially putting their own lives at risk, it could also endanger the lives of others.
44.6 The inappropriate actions of residents in this regard could also be exposing landlords and others who manage the common parts to liability under fire safety law.

'Managed use' involves ensuring there are clearly defined 'do's and don'ts' that residents can easily follow. However "it is more difficult for landlords to ‘police’, and for enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors to audit" and "it is likely to require more frequent inspections by landlords". But, "it should be recognised that residents may be put at significant inconvenience and resort to infringements of the policy through frustration. Consideration of the needs of residents in ways that encourage them to follow the constraints of such an approach can contribute significantly to fire safety. Providing suitable communal storage facilities...can greatly assist."

General points from the guidance that might pertain to us and which we can expect to see implemented might be:

• never allow storage of combustible material – where appropriate, make arrangements for residents to have communal facilities for storage
• never allow items to be left awaiting disposal, not even in chute rooms – even short term presence poses a risk
• only allow basic furniture and not upholstered seating
• if storage cabinets are appropriate, only permit lockable metal cabinets to be used and never timber or plastic sheds or lockers
• never allow residents to store hazardous chemicals, gas containers or flammable liquids in storage cabinets or dedicated storerooms and cupboards
• only allow scooters, bicycles, prams and so forth, if there are suitable areas, that will not pose an obstruction, where they can be kept.

The guidelines also state that a fire risk assessment need not always be carried out by specialists, such as consultants (point 33.2). Needless to say, LH have appointed some consultants (SANTIA) as well as their own Fire Team.

The guidelines also say (point 21.2) "fire exit signs might need to be displayed to assist in the use of an escape route with which people are unfamiliar. In a single stairway building, there is rarely a need for such signs. It is not usually considered necessary to signpost the route that residents normally use to gain access to their flats." Of course, Lewisham Homes, ever keen to throw money at sign-makers or spend money in the wrong places, have already seen fit to plaster the stairways with unnecessary fire exit signs. Doh!

Click here to download the Guidelines (and thanks, Bill).

*The lovely new studio space can be hired from £45 p/h. For smaller meetings, the Pink Palace is a bargain at £10 p/h.

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