If a fire detector isn’t installed correctly, it might work when tested, but might not actually activate in the event of a fire. The Fire Industry Association explains what you need to know
The problem with smoke detectors is that it can be difficult to tell just by looking at them whether they have been correctly installed.
If you’re the average individual, you’re likely to believe that a smoke detector is much like any other detector. Fire happens, and it activates the alarm – and hopefully, all the children and staff are safely evacuated from the building. At least, you’d hope that’s what happens.
Perhaps it might shock you to know this, but it’s vital to know: if a detector isn’t installed correctly, it might work when tested but might not actually activate in the event of a fire. Why? Because a detector in the wrong location – for example, too close to a wall (feel free to look up at the ceiling and check where yours are now) – might not pick up the plumes of smoke as they rise and then curl back towards the floor, totally missing the detector.
The other thing to know is that there are different types of detectors – and they all function in different ways and are more sensitive to different types of fire and smoke. If you have the wrong type of detectors installed, then these could be more prone to either failing to activate, or perhaps just as bad – activating all the time from things like steam, dust, aerosol sprays (think about the aftermath of the average PE lesson!), or heat from the school kitchens.
False alarms and unwanted alarms are a real problem in schools – especially around exam time. Even just an unexpected false alarm in the middle of a lesson can be hugely disruptive – leading to teachers having to repeat the lesson after getting everyone to line up and march (quietly) out into the playground and back after a roll call and a check to see if there really was a fire. We all know how much time that can waste – time that would be much better spent on learning rather than standing in the cold.
Both incidences, where either the alarm fails to activate when there really is a fire through a poorly installed alarm, or where the alarm activates but there is no fire (a false or unwanted alarm), are best avoided.
Sadly, schools are common targets for arson, so it is vital to ensure that the fire detection systems in place are correctly installed and maintained regularly.
In a school setting, having the right fire protection is vital because legislation dictates that all public buildings such as schools, nurseries, or any other education facilities should have adequate fire protection.
Failure to provide adequate fire protection can lead to fines and prosecution. In recent years schools failing to provide adequate protection have been fined anywhere between £7,000 and £70,000 – though it’s worth noting that the figure could easily be hundreds of thousands of pounds if the failings are bad enough.
In England and Wales, the legislation is called the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, different legislation applies: Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and the associated Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006 for Scotland, and The Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010 respectively for Northern Ireland. Each sets out what employers, business owners, and landlords must do to comply with the legislation. They are referred to in the legislation as either the ‘Responsible Person’ (England and Wales), the ‘Duty Holder’ (Scotland), or the ‘Appropriate Person’, (Northern Ireland). To simplify things, we will only refer to the Responsible Person in this article.
In order to ensure compliance with the legislation, it is vital to have a good understanding of what the duties of the responsible person or duty holder are. One of those duties is to ensure that the people hired to carry out any work related to fire protection are ‘competent’.
There’s a real issue with competency in the fire industry right now that responsible persons should be made aware of.
Are your fire alarms installed correctly? Well, you might not be able to tell, but a competent fire detection and alarm technician should be able to.
The trouble is, the law doesn’t define what competency is – nor does it give any guidelines about how to select a company, or a technician, who is truly competent. Additionally, there are no real barriers into the industry, so just about anyone with a van and a set of tools can claim to be a professional fire detection and alarm technician (even if they have no training and have never done the job before).
So how do you sort through the different companies and decide who should be installing or maintaining your fire alarm system?
There are a couple of things that you can check. First of all, you can see if the company holds Third Party Certification.
Third Party Certification is when an independent certification body assesses a company against a strict set of criteria. If the company meets those criteria, then the company will be awarded Third Party Certification status. This audit is usually completed annually – so ask the company to see their certification records.
Helpfully, all FIA Member companies hold Third Party Certification status.
Another thing to look out for is the training held by the individual technician that the company sends out to you. Most companies that hold Third Party Certification will have had their training checked as part of the process of certification.
However, it may be interesting to know that the FIA has recently rolled out qualifications for those that work with fire detection and alarm systems. At the moment, the first few hundred people have gained the qualification and it is expected that eventually this qualification will become the norm over the next few years.
Whilst holding a qualification alone won’t tell you if a technician is competent (experience is also necessary), it may help you in your decision about which company to hire to install and maintain your fire detection and alarm systems.
The key thing to remember when making those initial enquiries is just to make sure you ask lots of questions and ask to see their certification and training records.
After all, in a school setting, the safety and wellbeing of all staff, children, and visitors is paramount.
The Fire Industry Association, the largest trade association and non-profit for fire protection in Europe, has developed a page on its website to help you get a better understanding of your fire safety responsibilities. Because the advice has been developed by industry experts, you can be assured of the accuracy of the information.
On the page you’ll find more in-depth information about Third Party Certification, a best practice guide, further information about fire safety law, and lots of advice and useful information on fire detection and alarms.
Just go to www.fia.uk.com, hover over the ‘Resources’ tab, and then click ‘Fire Safety Advice’.