Fire Alarms in Residential Care Premises and British Standard BS5839-1:2013

In 2013 a new British Standard was issued - 5839-1 - which was predominantly driven by the Rosepark care home fire in Scotland in 2004, where 14 elderly residents tragically lost their lives. There were some other drivers to the changes, but these were not specific to care homes.

Some of the main problems at Rosepark were:

  • Staff did not understand the newly installed fire alarm control panel and zone descriptions, which caused a delay in locating the fire.
  • Staff did not call the fire service for nearly 10 minutes after the first alarm and it was not linked to a remote alarm receiving centre (such as BT Redcare, Tunstall, ADT, for example).
  • Staff did not fully understand their role in the evacuation procedure (although this is not specifically related to the fire alarm issues).

Changes to the British Standard BS5839-1:2013 (part 1 is for fire alarms for non-domestic premises)

The main new recommendations for care homes are as follows:

  • The Fire Service should be called immediately upon any activation of the fire alarm system, day or night. It is no longer acceptable to have a staff delay for investigation before summoning the Fire Service.
  • Fire alarm control panels should be addressable (this means that the panel gives an exact location description of the activation) for homes with more than 10 residents.
  • An adequate and accurate zone plan should be fitted next to the control panel.
  • The standard now says that automatic transmission of fire alarm signals is necessary in the case of residential care premises. Automatic transmission is a requirement under Scottish building regulations.

These new recommendations are for new systems or systems having a major upgrade or overhaul. They are not retrospective to existing systems, but existing systems should be subject to a thorough fire risk assessment to ensure they are suitable for the building and the life risk within it.

Things that fire alarm engineers might say

  • “You must have a new fire alarm system, the law has changed” – British Standards are not Law, they are guidance documents. Your system must be sufficient for the risk in the property and be maintained in good working order; this is determined by the fire risk assessment.
  • “All the smoke detectors require replacement because they are over 10 years old” - This is simply a sales ploy or bad advice! If smoke detectors are passing the annual testing and are not showing faults, they do not require replacement. Most manufacturers will only guarantee smoke detectors for 10 years, but this does not mean they need changing. If you think of our cars, the manufacturers warranties run out after 3, 5 or 10 years, but providing it passes its annual MOT test, the car is still safe and effective to legally use on the road, you wouldn’t throw your car away and replace it just because of its age.
  • “You have had too many false alarms, the detectors need replacing” – There are many reasons for false alarms occurring, it is not necessarily a fault of the detectors. All fire alarm activations should be recorded in the fire logbook and the exact device or location of the activation recorded if possible. This will help to build up a history that can be examined in the future if persistent false alarms occur. It may be that most false alarms on a system are being caused by one detector or in one area of the building, and could be due to incorrect positioning of the detector or the incorrect type of detection for the room.

Changes to British Standards are not retrospective, however, under the Fire Safety Order 2005 the Responsible Person for the Care Home must demonstrate they have carried out a “suitable and sufficient” fire risk assessment and have sufficient fire precautions in place to protect the risk to life. In a care home a high level of automatic fire detection will be required, alongside good fire safety management, staff training, sufficient protection of escape routes, effective and robust evacuation procedures, as well as other fire safety measures.

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