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Why doesn’t my building have a fire alarm?

Why doesn’t my building have a fire alarm?

Why doesn’t my building have a fire alarm?

After every fire in a block of flats this question comes up.

Most people assume there is a fire alarm in their building and that it didn’t work and the media often pose the question further fuelling misunderstanding and concern.

It’s completely understandable that it’s asked though, we all grow up familiar with fire alarms and getting out of the building. In school we practice fire drills where the alarm sounds and we all get to skip lesson for an hour or so whilst we line up and get counted. Likewise at work, the alarm sounds and we all get out.

So if you’re wondering why your block of flats doesn’t have a fire alarm, or whether it does have one at all, you wouldn’t be the first… 

Evacuation Strategies

Blocks of flats are typically designed with either a:

  • “Stay Put” evacuation strategy
    • In simple terms this means people stay in their flats if a fire is in another part of the building, so long as long as they’re not affected by the fire

Or a

  • “Simultaneous Evacuation” strategy
    • In simple terms this means people are alerted to the fire and evacuate the building

We all grow up familiar with the latter, simultaneous evacuation. Like I said up above in schools and offices this is generally what you’ll have so it’s what we all know and understand.

But when it comes to our homes in blocks of flats there’s this other strategy called “Stay Put” that people are expected to understand and follow without really knowing much about it.

So why would we stay in our flat then?

“Stay Put” works on the basis of compartmentation. Compartmentation basically means sealing up a building or ‘compartments’ so that fire cannot spread. Compartmentation is designed to contain the fire long enough for the Fire Service to attend and put the fire out before it spreads to other compartments.

In a “Stay Put” building your flat is a compartment. If a fire starts in your flat, you leave, the door shuts behind you, and you alert the emergency services. They attend and put the fire out. Compartmentation stops the fire spreading to other compartments (flats) and because of this it’s usually safer for other people in other flats to stay in their flats.

This is why fire doors are so important. The front door to your flat is designed to separate, or compartmentalise, your flat from the communal area and the rest of the building. It must shut properly and have a door closer on it so it shuts by itself. In the event of a fire in your flat you’re unlikely to stop and make sure the door is nicely shut in an emergency so the closer is vital.

Please contact your building manager or housing association if you are concerned about your fire door.

Everyone has a role to play with fire doors for the safety of everyone.

Fire Alarms

Fire alarms alert people to a fire and instinctively they alert us to evacuate the building. Because of this a fire alarm system contradicts a “Stay Put” strategy as there is no need to alert people to a fire elsewhere in the building as they do not need to do anything (because the fire service will attend and put the fire out before it spreads).

So if a fire alarm is present alerting people to evacuate it would be achieving the opposite of the “Stay Put” evacuation strategy and causing confusion.

As a result, buildings with a “Stay Put” evacuation strategy (which is by far the majority) do not typically have fire alarm systems. 

But I have smoke detectors in my communal area?

You may well do yes, but they might not be a fire alarm system as you would expect. This confusion comes from other types of systems such as Automatic Opening Vent (AOV) systems. These are automatic systems that open windows to allow smoke to escape from communal areas. They have smoke detectors and panels by the entrance so to the untrained eye they appear to be a fire alarm system. However, they do not have sounders and so will not alert people to a fire as that is not their purpose.

Many buildings have these so there is a good chance you will have them in your building. Other than clearly not having any smoke detectors or fire alarm panels at all there is no easy way to tell if you do or don’t have a fire alarm system to alert you I’m afraid. You’ll need to ask your building manager or housing association if you want to know for sure. 

So what should I do?

There is a way for you to be clear on what evacuation strategy your building has and what you should do. That is to read and familiarise yourself with your Fire Action Notice.

Fire Action Notices are signs displayed throughout the building, there should be one at each entrance and exit and there might be more throughout the building. They’re usually A4 size, maybe A5, and they look something like this:

They will explain what you should do in the event of a fire. If you can’t find these contact your building manager / housing association asap.

Please note though that if you are concerned at all about staying in your flat, or have any smoke entering your flat you should leave. Whilst the strategy might be “Stay Put” you are free to do what you feel best.

What you should do right now:

Take 2 minutes now to go and find the Fire Action Notice in your building and read it. Make sure you know what to do should the worst ever happen.

These 2 minutes could save your life and the lives of others.

Jack Bernard