Hard wired for safety

I recently attended a joint fire services and trade seminar in Scotland, in part, to hear Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service’s (DSFRS) Fire Safety and the Private Rented Sector presentation. The presentation gave an update of their work in this area which was backed by Adrian Sanders’ MP Fire Safety (Protection of Tenants) Bill.

This update described DSFRS’s unique toolbox approach to fire safety in rented accommodation which followed their presentation back in May 2011 to the ‘All Party Fire and Rescue Group in Westminster. Their presentation called for the fitting of hard-wired smoke alarms in rented accommodation; it contained detailed compelling evidence gathered throughout the UK which indicated that the fitting of hard-wired smoke alarms in rented accommodation would save 20 or more lives per year. It also suggested that this was a cost effective measure to further drive down the annual number of fire deaths.

Indeed, Building Regulations require the installation of automatic smoke detectors to new dwellings, loft conversions and circulation spaces to extended dwelling. All dwellings are to be fitted with a fire detection and fire alarm system in accordance with BS5839-6: 2004-Grade D-category LD3 standards.

Fire safety bill
Adrian Sanders, MP of Torbay, sponsored the Fire Safety (Protection of Tenants) Bill which had its first reading in the House of Commons on 30th June 2010. The bill arose following a fire in October 2009 which killed two children in a housing association property located in Adrian Sander’s Torbay constituency.

However, the Government disagreed and the second reading of the bill was delayed on several occasions. Eventually, in March this year, the bill failed to complete its passage through the House of Commons and could therefore make no further progress. Had the bill received Government support it is likely that it would have eventually become law. I find it difficult to see any reason why the Government should have failed to support the bill, other than political dogma; the question of extra regulation and red tape problems for landlords.

At the time of the fire, a Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue (FRS) spokesman said, “There were no smoke alarms in the property. This is an absolutely horrific incident, the worst that I have been confronted with in 26 years.”

Fire deaths in rented accommodation continue to be a serious problem in the UK, earlier this year Penelope Schofield, Coroner for West Sussex, asked the Government for hard-wired smoke alarms be made a legal requirement for private rented accommodation. This request follows three separate fire deaths in West Sussex in recent years where battery operated smoke alarms were fitted but the batteries had been removed.

The West Sussex Coroner is quoted as saying, “We’ve got to remember the private rented sector houses some of the most vulnerable people in society.” Ms. Schofield went on to say, “You may have people who have alcohol problems, who would rather spend the money on drink than fitting a new battery; you’ve got elderly people suffering with dementia, they might not even realise that the battery is no longer working or that the battery has been removed.”

Now that Penelope Schofield has asked the Government for hard-wire smoke alarms in rented properties, perhaps they will think again and remove their dogmatic political stance on regulation for this life-saving measure. Indeed, it’s not as if the landlords are against the suggestion of hard-wired smoke alarms. Commenting in a BBC report in August this year, after the West Sussex’s Coroner’s actions, a spokesman from the Residential Landlords Association commented that making mains-connected smoke alarms a legal requirement of private landlords was a good idea.

In summary, the government could have done something about hard-wired smoke alarms in rented accommodation via Adrian Sanders’ proposed Bill but chose not to, meanwhile people are still dying unnecessarily. It is often said that the true test of any civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable.  The FIA believes that it’s now time for the Government to take a lead on this issue rather than hiding behind the extra regulation excuse that is often trotted out whenever there’s a serious (and in this case life-saving) decision to be made.

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