Concern grows about increased safety risk from faulty smoke alarms

11 Dec 2019

Almost 40 per cent of battery-powered smoke alarms failed to activate in residential fires in England in the past year – a level virtually unchanged in nearly a decade, the Local Government Association has revealed.

Latest figures show a fifth of mains-powered smoke alarms failed to operate in residential fires in 2018/19 – but this “failure rate” is almost double for battery-operated alarms and has stayed between 38 and 40 per cent since 2010/11.

Battery-powered alarms are routinely found in private rental property.

The LGA, which represents councils and all fire authorities in England and Wales, is urging people to test their smoke alarms regularly, but especially during the run-up to Christmas when festive decorations, candles and lighting pose a potentially greater fire risk.

Industry figures show that one in 10 homes do not have a working smoke alarm, while more than a fifth of households never test their smoke alarm. 

This is despite experts calculating that people are around eight times more likely to die in a fire in a home with no working smoke alarm.

Missing or faulty batteries account for 20 per cent of battery-operated smoke alarms failing to activate. The main reason for a smoke alarm failing to activate is due to the fire not reaching the detector in 45 per cent of cases.

The LGA is urging people without a working smoke alarm to buy one and test it regularly to check it is working – and to do this for less able family members and neighbours, changing batteries where necessary to help keep them safe.

It is also advising people to fit more than one smoke detector in their homes, with at least one fitted on the ceiling of every floor.

Councillor Ian Stephens, chair of the LGA’s Fire Services Management Committee, says: “Smoke alarms are proven life-savers, but these worrying ‘failure’ rates are a reminder to people to test their smoke alarms regularly and change batteries where necessary.

“Smoke alarm ownership has risen over the years to more than 90 per cent, but this encouraging trend is being dangerously undermined if they don’t activate due to faulty batteries.

“With the increased potential fire risk from Christmas trees, decorations, candles and lighting, and people spending more time using heaters, open fires, and cooking hot food during the colder winter months, anyone without a smoke alarm should buy and fit one as soon as possible. They should also check the alarms of less able family members and those on their own – it may save their life.”

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£10,000 Civil Penalty Fine – Landlord loses appeal

29 Nov 2019

The First Tier Property Tribunal has thrown out an appeal by Islington Landlord Iqbal Ahmad.

The property, a flat in Holloway Road London N7 was inspects as part of the licence application process and he accepted a licence with conditions pertaining to amongst other things not having adequate fire protection measures. 

When the council re-inspected the property in April 2019 – twelve months later – they found that the landlord had not undertaken nor even planned to undertake the remedial works. This of course left the occupants at risk to life in the event of a fire.

In May 2019, the council issued a Final Notice and issued a Civil Financial Penalty ‘fine’ of £10,000

The landlord admitted that he had been at fault but nonetheless decided to appeal against the amount of the council’s fine and took the matter to the First Tier Property Tribunal.

The Council told the Tribunal that they took the view that the severity of the offence was determined to be serious and as such would fall within Band 3 of their Financial Penalty Charging Policy as a serious offence. For example, fire safely works had not been carried out nor indeed planned. 

The council stated that there were actually five “ breaches” and that each breach could incur a penalty of £10,000 meaning that had they so decided, they could have adopted a figure of £50,000 rather than the £10,000 actually charged. 

The Council said they however set the penalty of £10,000 in view of the nature and circumstances of the offence and its ramifications. 

The Tribunal noted that this property had been licensed and that as such the Respondent knew that as an HMO it needed to be licensed and that he had complied with the requirement to licence. 

The problem was he had not complied with the conditions of the licence and that this put occupants at risk especially as a result of the missing fire safety equipment. 

Mr Iqbal confirmed to the Tribunal that he did not dispute the facts of the case but thought that the penalty should not be so high. He said in his evidence to the Tribunal, “I was always aware I was at fault.”  

Summing up, the Tribunal said that Mr Iqbal had plenty of time to carry out the works required. Unfortunately, he chose a different solution. He decided to seek to revoke the HMO licence and to reduce the number of occupants in the property. This did not address the issues that were already in play. The works were necessary and would not go away because of his decision. 

The Tribunal has decided the Financial Penalty in the sum of £10,000 is proportionate and that the appropriate penalty is therefore £10,000.00 

The full Tribunal decision is here

Landlord fined £340,000 in 2017 is now fined another £150,000

02 Dec 2019

A rogue landlord has been fined more than £150,000 after failing to rectify safety hazards in a property he let.

Two years ago Rehman was ordered to pay in excess of £340,000 after illegally converting houses into bedsits.

A rogue landlord has been fined more than £150,000 after failing to rectify safety hazards in a property he let.

Latif Rehman of Birmingham was fined a total of £151,070 by Wolverhampton Magistrates Court for three breaches of an Emergency Prohibition Order served in relation to a house of multiple occupation.

Dudley council officers originally inspected the three storey, four bedroom property following a complaint from one of the tenants in February.

Officers found numerous hazards related to fire and electrical safety as well as risk of entry by intruders and deemed it posed an imminent risk to the safety of its tenants.

A re-inspection in April found that insufficient works had been carried out to rectify the problems. Fire doors still failed to comply with regulations, access to the property was not properly controlled and damp was still present in one of the properties.

Last month Rehman was fined £50,000 for each offence and ordered to pay £1,000 in costs and £170 victim surcharge.

The council will now consider applying for a rent repayment order and a banning order against the landlord.

Two years ago Rehman was ordered to pay in excess of £340,000 after illegally converting houses into bedsits.

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Student Building Fire highlights deadly danger of ‘False Alarm Fatigue’

20 Nov 2019

“We ignored the fire alarm because it goes off all the time” said many of the 211 students who were incredibly lucky to escape death as a fire ravaged their student residence at The Cube in Bolton on Friday 15th November 2019.

Many others, who spoke to the Manchester Evening News reporters also said they had ignored the sounding alarms.

Summing up what the result of ignoring fire alarms could mean, one student tweeted “The thought that I would have been dead if the smell hadn’t woken me up, is traumatising.”

Now, before you say ‘typical lazy students’ or any such knee-jerk response, let’s look at WHY they ignored the fire alarms. According to Phil Turtle, HHSRS inspector with compliance specialists Landlord Licencing & Defence (LLDL), “Here we have a classic case of False Alarm Fatigue. I see examples of this all the time as I inspect HMOs and other rental properties.”

One student summed up the situation perfectly: “The fire alarm was going off, but nobody was paying any attention, IT GOES OFF ALL THE TIME, maybe every hour during the day, because somebody does something in the kitchen and it’s set off the alarms.”

Other students said, “I heard the alarm, but it kept going off so I thought it was just a drill until one of my flatmates shouted down the corridor that it was a real fire.” Another said, “I was just sitting there, not really doing anything, then someone knocked on my door.”

So, here’s the potentially-deadly problem: The design and operation of the alarm system had TRAINED most of the 211 students to ignore the alarms.

LLDL’s Turtle explained: “Faced by ‘false alarms every hour’ during the day and often ‘three or four times’ at night (even if these are slightly over-stated), Pavlovian Conditioning kicks in and the occupants become programmed to believe there’s always a 99.9 per cent likelihood any alarm sounding is a false alarm. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to evacuate their home on an hourly basis. Even less likely in the middle of the night.”

False alarms

It appears obvious that the Fire Alarm system was not properly designed to avoid false alarms. Worse still, the students are fully aware of this and so there is no excuse for the landlord or building manager not being aware and not having taken corrective measures to stop the False Alarm Fatigue.

We can all recall Aesop’s fable of “the boy who cried wolf” once too often with disastrous results as the villagers think ‘another false alarm’ and the wolf eats his sheep.

The avoidance of false alarms is a critical element of system design if death or injury due to ‘false alarm fatigue’ is to be avoided.

According to Turtle, “Here’s the scary thing, we are ALL conditioned to ignore fire alarms already!”

Think back to occasions where you’ve been in a hotel lounge, company meeting room or restaurant when the fire alarm has sounded.

Nobody moves.

Instead people sit uneasily, looking at each other thinking ‘probably not real’, ‘it’ll stop in a minute.’ A minute late people are thinking or saying ‘it’s not stopping’, ‘do you think it’s real?’ and finally ‘I guess we’d better get out – just in case it is real’.

Human Factors

At Landlord Licensing and Defence, we are very concerned that Fire Alarm system designs do not currently appear to take the blindly obvious danger of ‘False Alarm Fatigue’ into account – yet this one factor renders many fire alarm installations all but useless.

And this is despite seven sections in the LACORS Housing Fire Safety Guide (which is used by Councils and Landlords nationwide as the bible for fire system design) stating the need to avoid False Alarms and insisting that ‘Clear fault and false alarm reporting arrangements should be put in place, and the responsible person or his/her agent should respond to reports at the earliest opportunity.’

If we are to learn anything from the Bolton Cube and many other fires it is that ‘False Alarm Fatigue’ needs to be designed and engineered out of the physical system.

For example, the fire detection system must be able to differentiate between burnt toast or sausages and a real fire. The system must be able to do this even if the kitchen door is propped open (yes we know it shouldn’t be, but it will be – this is just an unavoidable fact of humans living humanly). So even if the kitchen is correctly fitted with a ‘heat’ detector, not a ‘smoke’ detector – the benefit of that is lost if there is a sensitive ‘smoke’ detector just outside the kitchen door.

“Ah, but students / tenants set the alarms off for a prank,” we hear landlords and building managers moan.

Well stop them!

Lives are at risk! If necessary, train CCTV cameras on the ‘fire call points’ then any fool setting them off can, and must, be brought to book.

Put notices next to call points such as ‘False alarms can kill, don’t risk a manslaughter charge’, (OK, we know the likelihood of a such a charge is low because of the difficulty of proving causality, but ‘speed camera’ signs are proven to work when there isn’t one!)

All residences

“We’re not just talking student residences here,” says Turtle. “As a certified Housing Health and Safety Rating System inspector I frequently see rental homes and HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupation) where smoke detectors are covered in Sellotape, with socks, or even with condoms stretched over them to stop the false alarms.”

Where alarms are battery operated (or even mains operated with battery back-ups), we see that tenants have often remove them completely! Why? ‘Because the beeping was driving us mad,’ they say.

Now these human actions are potentially even more dangerous than the False Alarm Fatigue effect that they are a symptom of. Because, in a real fire, the alarm is not going to sound at all.

Change is needed

According to Turtle and his colleagues at Landlord Licencing and Defence, there are the things that need to change:

  1. All fire alarm systems need to be designed to make false alarms as near non-existent as humanly possible. Fire Risk Assessors need to cover human factors in their Fire Risk Assessments.
  2. Landlords and building managers need to ensure they are made aware of, and log, every single false alarm, and to understand WHY it happened.
  3. Once aware of False Alarms, landlords and building managers need to get alarm experts to modify the system to engineer these false alarms out of the system.
  4. Everyone involved in fire alarms needs to understand that no amount of ‘lecturing’ and ‘instructing’ tenants or occupants is going to overcome our deeply in-built human ways.
  5. It is no good saying ‘the system was correct’ if you ignored human factors and the occupants are now dead or maimed.
  6. It is essential for designers, engineers, landlord and building managers to understand, the humans are a critical PART of the System.
  7. That said, once false alarms have been engineered out of a poorly designed system, it is the landlord or building manager’s responsibility to convince residents that they can now trust the system.

It’s not an easy task, but an explanation individually or to a group to say ‘We’ve identified the cause of the false alarms – here’s what we’ve done to stop it happening again – and now if you hear the alarm, it’s real so drop everything and GET THE HELLL OUT!

LLDL’s Turtle concludes, “Leaving the human element out of any system design is a route to system failure. Don’t let it be a route to unnecessary deaths on your watch!”


Countrywide chain Beresford Adams and landlord together fined £30,000 over HMO

23 Sep 2019

Wrexham council discovers that HMO is unlicensed and that conditions at the property include inadequate fire safety provision.

A landlord and her letting agent, 28-branch Countrywide chain Beresford Adams, must pay a total of £32,300 in fines, costs and victim surcharge after an HMO visited by inspectors in Wrexham found it to be unlicensed.

Landlord Jane Sabio, who had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing, was fined £5,000 with costs of £1,697 as well as £170 victim surcharge. Beresford Adams, which managed the property, was fined a total of £22,500, plus a £107 victim surcharge and £2,819 costs.

An officer from the council’s Environmental Health and Housing Standards team found the unlicensed HMO during an inspection following up on a complaint from a tenant about a lack of repairs.

The letting agents Beresford Adams, part of Countrywide, had also, earliest in the month, pleaded guilty to a number of breaches at the same property, including inadequate fire safety measures and failing to supply an electrical safety certificate to Wrexham Council.

Cllr Hugh Jones, lead member for communities, partnerships, public protection and community safety, said: “The council is proactively working with landlords and letting agents to assist them in raising standards for tenants. But if they choose not to co-operate and not to comply with the legal requirements, we will have no hesitation in taking firm enforcement action, as this case demonstrates.”

Wrexham Council added, “Most landlords and letting agents ensure HMOs are properly licensed and maintained, but if your landlord or letting agent fails to acquire an HMO licence or carry out the necessary repairs and make adequate fire safety arrangements, you can contact the Environmental Health and Housing Standards team.

“We keep a list of currently licensed HMOs on our website and also provide information on what an HMO is, and how they can be licensed.”

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