Fires in blocks of flats can be lethal, as is well known from the Grenfell Tower disaster. As is also known from Grenfell Tower, the fire began in one of the flats there on the fourth floor with a faulty fridge freezer. It is a fact that most fires in blocks of flats start within one of the flats themselves. The main cause of such fires is overloaded power sockets.
Another very common cause of fire is cigarettes which have either not been extinguished properly or perhaps the butt has been thrown out of a window and falls through the window of another flat below. Still another problem is chip pans and frying pans which have been left on the hob and someone has forgotten to turn it off. Other causes include people who leave fragrance candles burning.
Owners of flats – even a single home that has been converted into two flats to let – are required by law to undertake a landlord fire risk assessment. This is sensible enough, but the landlord can only undertake a fire risk assessment for the communal areas. He cannot know what is going on in each individual flat.
One of the most effective ways of preventing fires is the use of smoke detectors. If something is smoking and the detector goes off, it gives you warning, and you may well be able to do something about whatever it is that is smoking before it bursts into flame. It also gives extra time to escape if a fire should break out.
If you don't have smoke detectors you should approach your landlord. The best types of smoke detectors are those which are hardwired, but a battery operated one is better than nothing at all. A battery detector should be checked weekly to ensure that the battery is working, and the battery should be changed once a year. The smoke detector itself should be changed every ten years.
Now let's look at doors. The landlord fire risk assessment includes the front doors to every individual flat as well as the communal areas. A solid wood front door gives about 20 minutes of safety if a fire should break out beyond it. You should always keep the front door to a flat closed. In fact, current fire safety advice suggests that your front door should be fitted with a self-closing device. Even altering a letterbox or fitting a cat flap can have an effect on the overall fire safety of the building. As regards internal doors in the flat you should never wedge them open and they should always be closed at night.
Where flats are purpose built today, or conversions carried out, they are done with fire safety in mind. Each individual flat is built as a kind of fire resisting box and the chance of fire spreading beyond the flat where it started is quite low. The fire risk in communal areas is also low. So, in fact, the advice given by the fire brigade in the case of Grenfell Tower followed best practice. However, they could not have been aware of the danger of the exterior cladding of the building.
The fire risk assessment for flats should be repeated at intervals by the landlord. However, there are no legal requirements on what the intervals between assessments should be. Nonetheless, there are certain guidelines. For modern blocks that are low rise it is recommended that the assessment should be reviewed every two years, and a new assessment be carried out every four. For high rise blocks these are reduced to a review every year, and a new assessment every three years.
Bear in mind that these guidelines apply to modern blocks of purpose-built flats. For older properties or conversions, the circumstances will vary, although there are still no particular guidelines because there can be so many different variations in the way that the blocks were either built or converted.
In any blocks of flats, the landlord is required to provide emergency lighting in communal areas, including corridors, stairs, and any plant and service rooms. Plant and service rooms should also have fire extinguishers fitted, but there is no requirement for them in communal areas.