The ‘stay put’ policy has played an important role in housing block fire safety for more than half a century. Since the 1960s, official guidance has advised residents to only evacuate the building if their own flat is on fire. However, following the deaths of countless Kensington residents in last week’s Grenfell Tower disaster, this advice is beginning to come under intense scrutiny.
In an interview with the Guardian last week, Total Fire Services’ managing director Darren Baird said: “I’ve been to hundreds of tower block fires and everyone has been contained in the flat of origin. It very, very rarely spreads beyond the compartment of origin and sometimes is confined to the room of origin.
“Our general advice would be that unless the fire is in your flat, stay put. Unless you’ve had refurbishment work that you’re unsure of, stay put. It’s been inherent and built into buildings and tower block designs since the 1960s.” This is still an accepted principle in current building regulations.
The policy is based on the principle that such flats can contain a fire for at least 60 minutes. By which time the fire service should arrive to put out the flames.
However, Darren Baird warns that this “60-minute-box” can go out the window if major refurbishment works have taken place, that may have impacted on the fire resistance of the flats or common areas.
He points out that some refurbishment works may make it easier for the fire to spread and, if an up-to-date fire safety risk assessment hasn’t been carried out, initial guidance may no longer be valid.
Since the fire, we’ve been inundated with emails from housing clients who want to know if the advice they give to residents should change. We’ve worked with countless clients over the years and have attended hundreds of tower block fires, yet we’ve never before seen a fire spread as severely as this or cause such a huge loss of life.
Generally, the ‘stay put’ policy is good advice and helps to minimise panic and avoid the risk of injuries when residents are escaping. However, due to the sheer scale of the Grenfell fire, it’s likely that such safety advice will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. It’s essential that landlords, councils and housing associations carry out a thorough fire risk assessment for every tower block of this kind and introduce necessary safety measures to protect residents. It is critical that residents understand the fire evacuation policy for their particular block and more importantly what actions to take if circumstances change during any fire incident.They should ensure they have at least one working smoke detector, preferably mains powered with battery back-up and test it regularly. Residents should be advised to evacuate their flat if told to do so by the fire service or smoke and fire threatens their flat.