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Key Insights from Petworth Court Fire Incident and Fire Safety Recommendations


Introduction and Background

Fire Incident - Petworth Court, Wembley

You will likely have seen the news about the fire in a block of flats at Petworth Court in Wembley at the end of January. Following on from our previous articles relating to fire safety, it is important to take the time to look at the incident and identify any lessons that can be learned from it. Incidents such as this can prove useful in helping other organisations to improve their own practices and stay at the forefront of fire safety management.


The fire broke out at the property, owned by Octavia Housing, and caused damage to half of the external side of the building, all of the roof and four external balconies. Luckily, no one is reported to have been killed or injured by the fire. The fire involved the external cladding, which you will likely have seen the news about the fire in a block of flats at Petworth Court in Wembley at the end of January.


It is important to take the time to look at the incident and identify any lessons that can be learned from it. Incidents such as this can prove useful in helping other organisations to improve their own practices and stay at the forefront of fire safety management. of the same type as that present at the Grenfell Tower blocks, and highlights the importance of addressing issues relating to cladding timeously. Further, due to the presence of the combustible cladding, the building’s Stay Put policy had been changed to a simultaneous evacuation policy. This is still not a common approach in modern fire evacuation strategy within the UK, with Stay Put being the preferred policy to adopt in an emergency. Careful consideration of existing fire evacuation policies to ensure that they are appropriate for individual properties is crucial to keep residents safe. Finally, particularly where a simultaneous evacuation policy is in place, it is important to ensure that fire and smoke alarms in communal areas are subject to regular maintenance, inspection and testing to ensure that they remain in good working order.


Cladding

The properties at Petworth Court had “Grenfell Style” cladding on the outside of the buildings. The cladding was identified as being flammable more than three years ago, though it remains in place at the moment. Octavia Housing have reportedly been warned on multiple occasions about the risks posed by the cladding remaining in place, but no works have yet been commenced to remove it. Octavia Housing stated that they are working with the building developer and their insurer to have the cladding removed but this process is still ongoing. Reportedly, these discussions have been delayed pending a decision as to where liability for the costs of the remedial works lies.


It is known that there is some anger from residents and MPs local to the area in Wembley around the delay in dealing with the cladding issue. It is understandable that dealing with these issues is not necessarily a straightforward and quick process. The outcomes of any investigations or claims relating to the fire at Petworth Court should be followed to determine what repercussions, if any, there are for Octavia Housing associated with the delay in dealing with the cladding issue. However, it is clear that where properties are known to have dangerous and combustible cladding in place, organisations should deal with it timeously as it may present a significant risk to the safety of tenants should a fire occur.


Evacuation Policy

One of the key points to take away from the incident in Wembley is Octavia Housing’s departure from the Stay Put policy that is still popular in housing blocks across the country. Originally, the properties at Petworth Court did have a Stay Put policy in place whereby if a fire occurred in one of the individual flats, the residents in all the other flats are advised to stay in their home and not evacuate. Indeed, Stay Put has been, and continues to be, the dominant policy in place in most housing blocks in the UK. This was based on the fact that properties should be built with adequate compartmentation in place. This means that each individual flat is built as a self-contained compartment and fire should not spread from one flat to the rest of the building.


However, as has can be seen from incidents including the fires at Grenfell, Lakanal House and indeed the fire at Petworth Court, this is not always the case and a number of different factors can cause the compartmentation to fail and fire to spread throughout the building. However, at Petworth Court, Octavia Housing had departed from the Stay Put policy and implemented a simultaneous evacuation policy. This change was likely to have been made due to concerns regarding the combustible cladding, though there may have been other issues present at the property that also contributed to this decision. The simultaneous evacuation policy was of key importance in ensuring that people were kept safe while the fire spread throughout the block. This shows that, although Stay Put remains the dominant emergency policy recommended by the government and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, it may not be suitable for all buildings. It is important that the emergency procedures and evacuation policy in place are suitable for the construction and characteristics of each individual building.


Fire Alarms in Communal Areas

It has been reported by residents at Petworth Court that communal fire and smoke alarms in the affected building and adjacent buildings did not activate during the incident. However, Octavia Housing deny this and have stated that the alarms did go off and the on-site fire marshal that monitors the alarms then alerted the fire brigade and assisted residents to evacuate the building. Octavia Housing further claims that it is not part of the emergency plan to activate fire alarms in adjacent blocks which are not subject to a fire. Ultimately, the concern here is not specifically whether the alarms did or did not go off. That is a matter to be determined by the investigation into the incident. However, it does show the importance of ensuring that communal fire or smoke alarms, where present, are subject to regular testing, maintenance and inspection to ensure that they are in good working order and will work as intended during an emergency.


Conclusion

As can be seen from the above, there are number of important lessons to be taken

following the fire at Petworth Court. Specifically, building owners should ensure that

where combustible or dangerous cladding is in place at their properties, this is dealt with

in a timely manner. Further, building owners should ensure that emergency procedures in

place at housing blocks are appropriate and suitable for the property’s individual

construction and characteristics. Finally, where fire or smoke alarms are present in

communal areas, these should be subject to regular maintenance, inspection and testing

to ensure that they remain in good working order.


If you would like any advice on any of the above issues or other fire safety matters, please

do not hesitate to contact our Health & Safety Consultant at aimilia@acsrisk.com.






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