Peter Metcalf probably regrets not making sure the emergency lighting system at the New Kimberley Hotel in Blackpool, England was up to scratch. Too late now: he’s serving an 18-month prison sentence for breaching the Fire Safety Order.
Metcalf’s hotel on Blackpool’s Promenade, now boarded up, would have been a particularly bad place to get caught in a fire. Exit routes were blocked. Smoke alarms were disabled. And there was no proper emergency lighting. If a fire had broken out (as a result of the faulty wiring, for instance), guests would have had to fumble around in the dark, not knowing where to find the fire exits – some of which were chained shut anyway. Council officials called it a ‘death trap’.
Dave Russel, assistant chief fire officer for Lancashire Fire and Rescue, told the Blackpool Gazette at the time: ‘The property had a number of breaches of fire safety and extremely poor fire safety management. It presented a serious risk to life.’
Metcalf’s long list of fire safety breaches earned him the nickname Basil Fawlty, but it can take a lot less than his 15 counts of neglect to land a hotel facility manager in trouble. A faulty emergency lighting system on its own could, in the worst case scenario, land the person responsible in prison.
‘Because life depends on it, there surely can be custodial sentences for the most flagrant breach of the order that leads to a death or severe injury,’ says John Taylor from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
‘Ultimately it depends on the contribution it has to the outcome,’ continues Taylor. ‘The breach of the emergency lighting regulation within the Regulatory Reform Order can be a contributory factor, but usually it’s the overall picture and usually a breach of that one regulation is in the context of other breaches that lead to gross negligence. If someone is killed in the fire then it certainly can lead to jail.’
According to fire safety rules, the owner, landlord or occupier of a business has to carry out regular checks to make sure their emergency lighting is working. But in some cases, other people with responsibility, such as facility managers, could end up being held responsible.
‘The law is drafted to ultimately place the responsibility squarely with the owner of the property, but it also names in the act a “responsible person” who the owner of the property can appoint and delegate that responsibility to,’ explains Taylor.
‘Generally speaking the requirement is on the responsible person, whether it be the owner or someone they delegated it to, to make whatever provision necessary, including doing a risk assessment and having a proper fire safety schedule mapped out.
If the owner delegates their fire safety responsibilities to someone else, they’re responsible for making sure that person has been properly trained and shown all the equipment.
‘Your fire safety policy, which is required by the Fire Safety Order, should make it very clear who’s responsible for what,’ says Paul Turnbull of Turnbull Fire Consultancy. ‘If it’s not clear, and the training hasn’t been given properly, responsibility still lies with the employer.’
There is no standard form or procedure for this type of training, so the ultimate decision on who ends up in the dock depends on the evidence. ‘It would be down to the prosecutor to start disseminating that and to look at what the training actually consisted of. If there were a case brought against the company, they would investigate the training. Who delivered it, what were their competencies, how was the training received, how was it assessed?’
Consultancies, such as Turnbull’s, provide training and fire risk assessments, but responsibility still firmly lies with the person whose job it is to maintain the fire safety equipment, be it an owner or a facility manager.
If you’re caught
Even if nobody gets hurt, it can cost a business dearly if the fire authorities get wind of an emergency lighting system that doesn’t work. In November last year, Eli Zohar, a landlord from Morecambe, had to part with £23,000 ($35,000) after fire and rescue officers visited a rented house he owned (pictured, right) and found he had failed to properly maintain his emergency lighting. He also failed to act on an enforcement notice. Although the house was a residential property, it was classed as a house in multiple occupation, making it subject to the same rules as commercial premises. In another recent case, Travelodge was fined £13,000 ($20,000) for breaching fire safety rules (although not lighting specifically) at its Gatwick Airport hotel.
Fire authorities look into complaints about fire safety in public buildings, as well as carrying out targeted inspections, and investigating after fires take place.
Tony Crook, group manager of Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, said at the time of Zohar’s trial: ‘In our constant drive to make Lancashire safer, our fire safety enforcement teams are actively seeking out such premises.’
If they find a problem, the authorities will first give advice to the person responsible, or a formal warning. But if they conclude that there is a very serious risk to life, the fire authority can issue a notice preventing the premises being used for certain things, such
as sleeping. The consequences for a hotel could
Assess your risk
Taylor from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service reassures that owners and facility managers who comply with the Fire Safety Order, do a risk assessment, have a proper fire safety schedule mapped out and test their emergency lighting system frequently should be well equipped for a fire and safe from legal complications.
‘To be honest, if people follow the advice that’s freely available from sources like ourselves, then there isn’t a lot of complexity to it. It’s not rocket science – it can’t afford to be if you think about it, if the standards were so complex that the people responsible found it impossible to maintain them, there’d be a lot of unsafe premises about. And that isn’t the case, thankfully.’
Unfortunately, some facility owners and managers don’t keep up with their monthly tests as they’re supposed to. Section 5266 part 8 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order states that the person responsible for an emergency lighting system needs to make sure it is inspected once a year by a qualified electrician who is capable and competent of signing to the British standards, and then tested once a month by the person responsible for the system to see if it turns on. ‘The monthly test consists of either switching off the sub-circuit that feeds the lights or, if one has been provided, operating a test switch,’ explains Turnbull. ‘The test switch does the same thing, disconnects the sub-circuits feeding the lights. The lights then realise they have to go into emergency mode and switch on.’
A seemingly simple task, yet not everyone does it. ‘There are, believe it or not, premises where emergency lighting is still completely disregarded and even if installed, routine testing to ensure its correct operation is carried out only on an occasional basis,’ says Alan Daniels, technical director of UK-based emergency lighting manufacturer P4, says.
‘I have to say, it’s frequently missed,’ Turnbull agrees. ‘A lot of people are doing their annual test but missing their monthly one.’
While there is always a risk that your system might fail before it’s due for its next monthly test, proving that you’ve fulfilled and signed off your monthly testing duty should stop you getting prosecuted.
‘At the end of the day, you can’t test your lights every minute. There comes a point where reasonability kicks in,’ Turnbull says. ‘The British standards have reasoned that a monthly test is reasonable for emergency lighting. If you’re complying with that, you’re doing everything reasonable.’
Emergency lighting choices
There are several types of emergency lighting systems available. Central battery systems are often used in buildings that are operated on a term basis, such as hospitals and schools, but more common, in the UK at least, are emergency fittings with built-in batteries or standard luminaires with an in-built emergency function.
According to David Wright from ELP, emergency lighting incorporated into existing fittings is getting increasingly popular. ‘Architects and specifiers see emergency lighting as a necessary evil and if they can get it built into the mainstream lighting, that takes one of their worries away.’
Alan Daniels of P4 says: ‘Emergency lighting can be specified as either a complete system, which tests itself automatically, then reports and records the outcomes, or a system of ‘stand alone’ luminaires that require manual testing and observational reporting. Alternatively it can be existing fittings which are converted to work when required in an emergency mode.
‘Self evidently, for a product that is designed to provide valuable escape route illumination during an evacuation, the emphasis must be placed on quality and fitness for purpose.’