Where did the stay put policy come from and where do we go now?
BY PETER APPS
“Stay put had become an article of faith and to depart from it was unthinkable.” These are the words of Grenfell Inquiry judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Peter Apps looks at where the idea came from and where we go now.
The idea of ‘stay put’ developed in the UK in the early 1960s. British Standard Code of Practice 1962 was introduced as the first national standard for tall residential buildings. It required all blocks taller than 80 feet to provide one hour’s fire resistance to enable firefighters to battle flames inside the building.
The aim of the code was to ensure that each flat in a building would act as an individual compartment that would contain any fire for at least an hour. This principle of ‘compartmentation’ would enable firefighters to put out one fire in one flat rather than face a whole building ablaze.
But to work, the principle has two key requirements. First, the building must have the necessary ‘passive fire protection’ to withstand the spread of flames. Second, access to the building must be clear enough that affected residents can escape and firefighters can get in quickly.
Partly because of this second requirement, the code considered fire alarms to be undesirable. The fear is that they could trigger unnecessary evacuations that impede firefighters’ access or even put residents in danger by exposing them to smoke.
There are many advocates for stay put, who point to data that shows it is successful in the vast majority of fires. National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) data shows that there were more than 57,000 fires in high rises between 2010 and 2017, but that only 216 (0.4%) required the evacuation of more than five residents.
But this confidence was first challenged on 3 July 2009. A fire in Lakanal House, south London, spread externally and internally in a serious failure of compartmentation. It killed six people, including three children. They had all been told to ‘stay put’.
Nevertheless, after this fire, stay put remained the default strategy – the Local Government Association published a guide in 2011, commissioned by government, written by fire experts and supported across the sector, that concluded it remained the safest option.
This guide took a strong line on stay put, advising building owners to “seek a second opinion” if risk assessors felt that stay put should not be adopted until the safety of the building had been proven.
It said: “Some enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors have been adopting a precautionary approach whereby, unless it can be proven that the standard of construction is adequate for ‘stay put’, the assumption should be that it is not. As a consequence, simultaneous evacuation has sometimes been adopted, and fire alarm systems fitted retrospectively, in blocks of flats designed to support a ‘stay put’ strategy.
“This is considered unduly pessimistic. Indeed, such an approach is not justified by experience or statistical evidence from fires in blocks of flats.”
However, further guidance to fire authorities – Generic risk assessment 3.2 – published by government in 2014 did warn that stay put “may become untenable due to unexpected fire spread”. It added that “if necessary”, building owners should “have a suitable emergency evacuation plan”.
The fire service faced heavy criticism in Grenfell Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report for not acting on this guidance. But, the truth is that the responsibility for developing a specific evacuation plan lay with the building owners, and in accordance with the official advice, most high rises owners did not create one.
Only a small percentage of fires in high rises spread beyond the flat of origin. But it does happen. The government says there have been 8,025 fires in buildings taller than four storeys since 2016/17. Of these, 156 affected at least two floors, with 72 affecting more than two. This is a rate of around one per week.
Why is this happening? Sometimes, it is likely to be an unavoidable consequence of the size of the fire. If a big fire bursts out of a window, ‘the Coanda effect’ means it can lick up the building and smash through the window of the floor above.
But fires also spread because compartmentation fails. Buildings now have much higher volumes of combustible materials on their external walls than they did in 1962 when stay put was established. As well as cladding, this material may include insulation systems, infill panels and balconies, all of which can provide a route up the building for a fire.
Compartmentation is also easily compromised inside a building: defective fire doors, vents, poorly installed pipes or damaged firebreaks can all enable smoke and flame to spread.
There is evidence of widespread problems with these features. Housing association Hyde conducted intrusive assessments of the fire risks in its 86 high rises, and it found problems in all of them.
One industry source says: “We have had 30 years of people throwing up buildings cheaply and quickly. That has created issues with fire performance that are pretty widespread.”
One of the concerns raised about stay put after Lakanal House was that the call handlers had applied it as a mantra. The victims were advised to stay put, even when they said smoke and flames were in their properties.
But this has never been what ‘stay put’ means. The advice is not stay put until the fire kills you – it is to stay put unless you are being affected by smoke and flame.
However, this means people must have an escape route – and that is not always a given.
High-rise residential buildings in the UK, such as Grenfell, have only one staircase. This is the result of the absence of any regulations requiring architects to include a second.
Paul Bussey, fire lead at AHMM Architects and a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Regulation and Standards Group, explains that official guidance only requires a building to have ‘alternative exits’. This has left room for interpretation.
Developers are reluctant to include second staircases in high rises. Staircases are expensive to build, remove from the ‘net lettable area’ (the parts of a building that can be sold) and act as a drag on profit margins. Developers have therefore taken the guidance to mean that a second door to a single staircase is an acceptable ‘alternative exit’.
But this creates a serious problem during a fire – firefighters will have to use the same staircase to tackle the blaze as the residents who are escaping it.
Phil Murphy, a former firefighter and a high-rise residential building management consultant, says this can be particularly dangerous if the stairway fills with smoke. This can happen due to breaches of compartmentation, but also because firefighters typically wedge open doors to the stairwell to run their hoses through. When they open the door of the flat in which the fire started, smoke will start filling the communal stairwell.
If the fire does get out of control, communication is also a problem. With no alarms, how can residents be told to get out? At Grenfell, the firefighters relied on loudhailers and 999 calls.
Now this will all change. Sir Martin has ordered government to produce national guidance on evacuations. Building owners will be required to fit alarms and develop plans to evacuate the most vulnerable residents.
There are still some who believe stay put is the right approach. Colin Todd, managing director of CS Todd & Associates, says the policy protects people who are vulnerable and unable to escape. It also avoids putting firefighters at unnecessary risk.
He says the aim needs to be to fix buildings with flawed compartmentation, not to change the fire strategy: “If you had a situation where a car doesn’t have any brakes, you would focus on fixing the brakes, not changing the way we drive.”
But others do see the need for change.
Jan Taranczuk, a fire safety consultant, suggests a new approach called ‘stay put plus’. This would mean identifying flats that are particularly vulnerable to fire and installing additional fire safety measures, such as sprinklers or misters.
In Scotland, new regulations have recently come into force that require ‘manual alarms’ in new high rises. These can be controlled from ground level or an offsite monitoring suite, to enable firefighters to partially evacuate the parts of the building at risk – or to evacuate the whole building in phases.
There are also calls to move away from single staircases. Mr Bussey says RIBA is pushing for the government to introduce new regulations to either make second staircases mandatory in new builds or provide tax incentives to make them more attractive propositions.
But even if this was adopted, what about the hundreds of existing buildings with just one staircase?
Mr Murphy advocates a change to firefighting tactics to focus on ‘protecting the staircase’. This could involve new technology, such as smoke screens, which can cover communal doorways while hoses are run through.
Others suggest moving away from a standard approach of ‘stay put’ to a bespoke, block-by-block approach. The idea is that buildings would ‘earn’ stay put through intensive inspections of compartmentation.
For its part, a government spokesperson said: “We welcome the publication of the report from phase one of the independent public inquiry and will carefully consider its findings and recommendations in full.”
It is also worth noting that hundreds of blocks around the country have already dropped it. In May 2018, the NFCC published guidance suggesting that blocks known to have dangerous cladding adopt an evacuation strategy, backed by either a 24-hour waking watch or fire alarms.
Inside Housing recently visited one building in Plymouth that had adopted this approach. A full evacuation in an actual fire was accomplished in around 30 minutes, despite the building only having one staircase and several residents needing help to get out. Achieving this required knowledge of those residents, planning, communication and an alarm system, but it was done.
Stay put is also not global. In Australia, for example, most high rises are evacuated during fires and the installation and maintenance of alarm systems is a strict legal requirement.
Whatever the approach, it is clearly now time for change. Stay put works until it does not. Building failures may be rare, but they are no longer unheard of – and we need a plan for what to do when the next one happens. The lives of the people who live there could very well depend on it.