Fire Safety during COVID-19

To help businesses and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the easing of the nationwide lockdown, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) suggests the following should be considered as a priority. This guidance is only valid for the duration of the current situation after which it should be disregarded.

Fire risk assessments

The Fire Safety Order (2005) remains current during the COVID-19 pandemic and operating businesses should ensure they are complying. As always, we want to engage with businesses as early as possible to offer advice to avoid the need for more formal enforcement action later. The approach undertaken by SFRS to assist businesses is now a risk-based approach.

Whether your premises has remained open, closed, or is starting to plan to reopen, all are experiencing changes in risk. Therefore fire risk assessments should be reviewed accordingly, to ensure they are suitable and sufficient. Responsible persons should always be reminded to seek advice from a competent fire risk assessor where doubt exists.

It may also be advisable for the responsible person to consult with their insurers when considering risk assessment and mitigation. It should be noted that the insurer's role is not to determine compliance with the Fire Safety Order.

Premises about to re-open

With some premises starting to re-open and operate again in accordance with the government's latest guidance on working safely, fire safety should be considered. This includes:

  • Reviewing and updating your fire risk assessment. Where staffing and occupant levels have changed this may affect evacuation arrangements in event of fire. Also, where parts of the premises are not being used or are being used differently due to rearrangement of layouts, this may affect the means of escape
  • Social distancing control measures should not adversely affect fire safety measures, including obstructing the means of escape, fire escape signage, fire detection and alarm systems, sprinkler or suppressions systems
  • If a one-way system or process is introduced to control the flow of occupants, its impact on the means of escape must be assessed to ensure occupants have a suitable means of escape in event of fire, and specifically that they do not have to travel excessive distances
  • Ensuring any changes impacting the exterior of any premises such as temporary structures or queuing systems do not obstruct means of escape or compromise assembly points. If the existing means of escape or assembly point is compromised, alternative suitable arrangements should be in place in accordance with the revised fire risk assessment. If unsure, seek advice from your competent fire risk assessor
  • Ensuring means of escape are easily available as they may not have been used for some time or where an escape route is shared, and other premises remain closed
  • Reviewing measures implemented to increase security and reduce the risk of arson whilst the premises have not been used, as these may have adversely affected fire safety measures
  • Reviewing storage and stock levels such as the amount and positioning of stock
  • Where fire safety measures have not been maintained such as automatic fire alarm and detection systems or automatic fire suppression systems and have not received their routine servicing or testing.
  • If staff training hasn't not been undertaken for some time, new staff have started, or fire safety measures have been altered then staff should be provided with appropriate fire safety training.

Closed premises

Although many premises are closed during the lockdown period, it is important that the following is considered:

  • Risk of arson - securing premises is important to reduce the risk of arson. This includes removing any external sources of fuel or ignition which could cause fire spread. Ensuring gates and fences are closed and locked as well as having working CCTV, security systems and external lighting may help to prevent the anti-social behaviour which can lead to arson
  • Shared means of escape - securing a premises should not affect the means of escape from other premises which are still open, from residential buildings or where Wayleave agreements are in place
  • Maintaining fire safety measures - internal fire protection measures such as fire doors should be kept closed and in good order as these provide vital protection in the event of fire
  • The maintenance and testing of the fire detection and alarm system should be continued where it is possible and safe to do so. This should be prioritised based on the risks identified by the responsible person and their contractors
  • Where the fire detection and alarm system serve multiple premises (some of which may still be operating) it should be ensured that the system still provides the required level of cover to all areas. Arrangements should also be put in place to access closed areas of the building if maintenance is required.

Scaling the risk

Premises which remain open are likely to experience a surge in demand. The following should be considered:

  • It is essential that fire risk assessments are undertaken or reviewed where there are significant changes in ways of working or processes. This may include more materials, storage requirements, or higher quantities of finished product being on site than would normally be the case. Also where parts of the premises being closed, the fire risk assessment should determine the level of risk resulting from the changes and any mitigation measures which may include more frequent deliveries and collections or the use of other sites to provide storage
  • Where staff numbers have been increased, premises must ensure that they continue to provide appropriate staff training. This is sometimes overlooked where employees of the same company come to work at a different site. Responsible persons should be able to show that all personnel are aware of what to do in case of fire. They should also test their emergency procedures, particularly after staff numbers increase
  • Reductions in staff due to sickness and self-isolation is to be expected. While the numbers of those who are absent will be bolstered by those returning to work, in the short-term, premises should ensure that their fire risk assessment reflects the added risk of such reductions. Issues may include having insufficient staff available to carry out processes safely, increasing the risk of fire. Similarly, a reduction in staff may result in employees not being able to successfully carry out evacuations and emergency procedures such as in-house fire response or fire warden duties.

Vulnerable people

Premises may employ people who are classed as vulnerable, or those who are vulnerable may be in their care. The effects of the virus on working practices and available staff may negatively affect the ability of vulnerable persons to escape in the event of fire.

Employers should continue to undertake and review their Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans for their staff. This is particularly crucial in the care industry where residents may rely on staff to instigate evacuation measures. In any case, procedures should be reviewed so that they accurately reflect the staff available. Such reviews must carefully weigh the risks from fire and the ability of such businesses to operate safely.

Alterations to buildings

While the use of buildings for medical purposes is underway across the country, this normally refers to field hospitals or expansion within the existing NHS estate.

Other alterations such as wedging fire doors open to reduce the need to touch door handles or sealing fire doors in order to prevent air movement between sections of a building could affect fire safety measures to provide protection from fire and access to means of escape. Similarly, premises may have undertaken other measures, such as partitioning or simply locking of doors that may compromise a building's existing fire strategy.

Some premises may also have been repurposed to undertake other work. An example would be a warehouse which previously had a very small risk and few staff, now undertaking essential work to provide manufacture of medical items or the packing of food parcels. This may have happened within a short timeframe and it is unlikely that fire safety will have been a primary consideration. Such actions may increase the risk due to the type of work being carried out, the number of staff present, and any material works that may be necessary to allow the building to facilitate its task.

In all cases, a review of the fire risk assessment should be undertaken to determine the effect on risk and the mitigation measures that may need to be taken. In addition, the current pandemic does not remove any requirements under building regulations to ensure that alterations meet the functional requirements.

Social distancing and fire safety in schools and early years settings

Following Government guidelines on social distancing and year group 'bubbles', we are aware that some schools and early years settings are locking doors or removing door handles to prevent unauthorised mixing of staff and pupils.

If this is something that your school/early years setting is considering or adopting, it must only be carried out after careful thought regarding fire safety and the impact on the means of escape. Alterations such as wedging fire doors open to reduce the need to touch door handles, or sealing fire doors in order to prevent air movement between sections of a building, could affect fire safety measures provided for protection from fire and access to means of escape.

In order to comply with the current legislation, the following should be confirmed:

  • That a suitable means of escape is still available from all of the rooms
  • If limited to one escape door, that the maximum occupancy is 60 persons
  • If limited to one means of escape, the maximum distance to the exit is 18m, including the route around any furniture
  • The exit route should either lead direct to fresh air, or to a fire protected route, capable of withstanding the ingress of fire or smoke for 30 minutes
  • Exit signage is adjusted to show the new layout and exit route
  • Doors protecting staircase exit routes should not be wedged open
  • Staff must be instructed to remove any wedges in the event of an emergency
  • Your fire risk assessment is adjusted to reflect any changes you have made.

If staff training hasn't not been undertaken for some time, new staff have started, or fire safety measures have been altered then staff should be provided with appropriate fire safety training, taking into account the items above. If further advice is required, please contact Surrey Fire and Rescue Service's Duty Fire Safety Officer on 01737 733733 who can help you.

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