In March 2013 the inquest into the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, said that numerous opportunities to remedy botched renovation work which compromised fire-stopping between flats were missed. What are the implications in the future for those contractors involved in fire stopping services? Adrian JG Marsh reports.
“We have seen far too many tragedies in which the inappropriate installation and maintenance of passive fire protection has meant that the building has not performed as expected in the event of a fire, putting both the public and firefighters at risk,” says Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) chief executive Wilf Butcher.
Last month ASFP unveiled a new code of practice on fire stopping as part of a series of initiatives to raise standards since the damning inquest in to the Lakanal House tragedy. Wilf Butcher continues: “Fire stopping used to be a specialist package but now it’s being incorporated into bigger packages. The issue now is how do you define the competency of the operative doing the work? We found that there isn’t the expertise to deal with compartmentation. It’s not just one trade since damage can be caused by follow-on trades, and during refurbishments.”
Steve Halcrow, FPDC’s technical consultant, says: “All too often during inspections I’ve seen some trade contractors pulling fire stopping out without a care, and with never a hope of its being reinstated correctly, in order to finish their own work.
“An investigation at a major development in London to establish why smoke had spread where it should not after a small fire indicated that fire stopping had been inadequate, leading to the smoke travelling to areas it was never meant to permeate.”
Third-party certification schemes are an effective and independent means of confirming quality, reliability and safety, since products and installers are regularly audited by the certification bodies to ensure that standards are maintained.
There is a variety of international bodies, such as FM, UL, Certifire, iBMB, BM Trada and IFC Certification, which will certify products; often some clients will insist on using only certified products. Equally contractors can also become third party certified, by FIRAS, LPCB, BM Trada or IFC Certification, which means they can demonstrate that they work to agreed industry standards, employ trained operatives and are subject to on-site audits and inspection of work to ensure compliance with manufacturers’ recommendations and Building Regulations.
Chris Barlow, business development director at distributor Encon, says: “There’s a misnomer [when contractors talk about products], fit for purpose does not necessarily mean tested for application. There appears to be a lack of understanding among a lot of contractors about what does and what does not meet the regulations. There is real concern that in some circumstances standards and regulations are not enforced.
“In the past it was not unusual for passive fire protection to be let as a separate package. However now it’s often included in other packages such as structural steel or the drylining contract. It’s often not bid correctly as some contractors don’t appear to treat it with the priority they should be.”
Richard Blain from Hilti adds: “The main thing is to use products that have been tested for the application they’re intended for. If you’re installing fire stopping around plasterboard make sure the product has been tested or use with plasterboard. Contractors should double check manufacturers’ data to ensure that they’re using the right product. A product that’s designed for use on block work won’t achieve the right performance with plasterboard and if something went wrong there’s a huge liability.
“We’re also seeing more fire stopping work being incorporated into drylining packages. Some operatives are unfamiliar with installing products or finishing correctly. It’s important to check fire data of any product you use. For example be sure that fixings they can take the load should a fire occur.”
Dr Ali Arasteh, technical manager for plasterboard manufacturer Siniat, says: “You need to understand the different types of ratings for fire resistance. It’s important to note that system fire performance testing can be carried out using different test methods. The British Standard and the harmonised European methodology is slightly different for each, and you must ensure that the systems you use are compliant under the right standard.
“For example, the furnace temperature in the British Standard method is ramped up less aggressively during the initial stages of the test and as result the final outcome will be different from the European test method.
“Our advice on this is straightforward: don’t mix and match the standards. Identify which one you are working to and make sure you are consistent.”
Sarah Stevenson-Jones, chair of the Social Housing Fire Strategy Group, supports calls for better education about passive fire protection. She told the ASFP AGM: “There is a general lack of understanding by those involved in specifying and procuring construction work regarding the application and selection of passive fire protection products.
“The client must ensure the competence of designers and set specific material performance and installer competence requirements in the contract. They should stipulate requirements for third party certification and check on the work throughout the construction process.”
Gerry Dunphy, event director at FIREX International, the conference and exhibition dedicated to the fire sector, says: “Knowing that the right products are being used, and that the fire protection integrity in a building has not been altered, it is essential that installers, contractors and onsite managers are aware of the serious implications that can occur if regulations are compromised.”
Wilf Butcher states that: “A robust training structure is being developed with the specific aim of improving overall standards of passive fire protection installation and upskilling the existing workforce.”
The training programme, which is being piloted by ASFP, intends to target the three main groups across the sector: new entrants; contractors within specialist trades; and other groups that need a greater understanding of passive fire protection. There are also plans to roll out e-learning packages.
The Lakanal House incident has refocused the role played by fire stopping in helping to
protect buildings and stop fire spreading. There are concerns and the industry is taking steps to ensure that the correct systems are properly installed and maintained.
Contractors don’t want to make mistakes but as clients continue to drive down prices the danger is fire stopping integrity could inadvertently be damaged as cheaper products are specified and corners are cut. Education and training are key to making sure the interiors sector plays its part. Nobody wants another Lakanal House.
FIREX is the leading event for every professional involved in fire protection, prevention and detection. It offers a comprehensive selection of the latest thought-leadership alongside the best networking in the industry. FIREX International will also feature a range of free industry specific education seminars.