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Why there is never a fire without smoke

The most significant change in fire safety legislation in England and Wales in recent decades is the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (commonly referred to as the RRO), which came into force in October 2006.

The RRO replaces previous legislation and introduces the principle of the “responsible person”. Previously, it was not always possible to identify who was culpable if something went wrong.

The “responsible person” has many duties under the RRO. Key among these are:

  • They must carry out a risk assessment;
  • They must appoint competent persons to carry out preventative and protective measures;
  • They must ensure that the premises and any equipment provided in connection with firefighting are maintained by a competent person and are in an efficient state and good repair.

It is a safe bet that most people in building/property services and facilities management have an understanding of why they have fire alarms, sprinklers, etc and how they contribute to building safety.

However, since smoke ventilation systems are often hidden away in the fabric of a building, responsible staff in all sizes of organisation are frequently unaware of their function, operation or even existence!

In simple terms it allows smoke and heat to be vented from a building, primarily to protect means of escape; it is well documented that most injuries and deaths in fire incidents are as a result of smoke not fire.

If smoke is not effectively vented, contained or controlled it will rapidly fill a building space, resulting in reduced visibility, confusion and panic, and compromising escape.

Smoke ventilation also provides improved firefighter access and asset protection.

Understanding the system

Smoke ventilation systems vary greatly in complexity.

Some systems comprise of just a few natural vents, while others are very complex and include powered ventilation, shafts, dampers, pressure control systems, fixed or retractable smoke curtains and pressure control systems.

There may also be a dual function to provide day-to-day ventilation as well as smoke ventilation.

Worryingly, it is often the case that organisations have the components of fire systems tested and certified but never test the integrity of the overall package or even know what it should do - in the case of shopping centres, testing should be carried out weekly.

Using specialist or accredited contractors is a sound way of showing that systems have been serviced and maintained by competent people as required by the RRO, and is one step along the road to compliance.

Ian Doncaster is fire engineering manager of Airvent