Civica’s client relationship manager, Alex Oldman, shares his thoughts on what housing providers can do to prepare residents for action and to improve safety.
After the tragic events of Grenfell Tower in 2017, the release of the Hackitt report and the introduction of the Fire Safety Act 2020, building safety managers have been challenged to improve and maintain the safe occupation of high-rise residential buildings.
Understanding residents’ behaviour
Resident engagement is important to ensure that people have sufficient information to react appropriately in any given situation. But how best to gauge residents’ perception of fire risk? Research by Gary Glauberman on fire-risk behaviours in high-rise buildings shows that residents closer to the ground floor are less inclined to prepare for evacuation or evaluate immediately in the event of an alarm.
Glauberman highlights that prior experience of high-rise fires also has a major impact on how individuals think about fire safety. One individual reported that after experiencing a fire in her building, her family created a detailed emergency plan including details of how to contact people, meeting places, insurance and a financial cushion.
Many residents will say that fitting sprinklers will make them feel safer. But once faced with the price, they may argue that the cost outweighs the benefit.
Putting ‘building safety leadership’ in place will focus residents’ minds on preparedness. Building safety managers are highly skilled and experienced individuals, combining cross-domain technical knowledge with the ability to communicate, and providing the right tools for effective communication is vital.
Testing your emergency planning
How likely are residents to take emergency cues? We’ve all been in offices or hotels when an unplanned alarm activates. What do you do? For many of us, the initial reaction is to sit and wait to see if it’s a false alarm, and perhaps observe people around us to see how they react. In effect, we become sheep, just observing other people and following their actions. In these circumstances, it takes a leader to decide to evacuate for others to follow (voice evacuation systems can help with this).
Once a community has been rehearsed for evacuation, the decision to evacuate becomes more automatic. In the pre-pandemic days, you might recall office fire evacuation exercises. The importance of rehearsing building evacuation is critical to individuals’ ability to take action in response to a previously-rehearsed cue.
What about taking action not in an emergency? How likely is a resident to immediately mitigate a risk on spotting it, such as ensuring that escape routes are clear and unobstructed or reporting a problem with signage, or even asking for permission for their own DIY and then ensuring that the work is completed to the required standards?
Influencing residents’ behaviour
What about the information requirements – what is the most effective way to communicate pertinent information?
Housing providers should consider having a single and easily accessible source of all relevant information regarding emergency preparedness. This could be a website, portal or application, with consideration given to residents’ demographics, such as age, culture and language.
What’s the best approach to engage with residents on fire safety and technical issues? We recommend that you share information and check their subsequent understanding, including clarifying the housing provider and residents’ respective responsibilities. Communicate what action to take in the event of a fire in terms of raising the alarm, tackling the fire and evacuation routes.
Communicating essential information
Essential information can be communicated at the start of each tenancy as part of the welcome pack, and community notice boards can share the latest information. But update the notices regularly to keep people looking and consider having notices in stairwells and lifts. Use enhanced communications such as letters, emails or text messages, and participate in community days or run pop-up events. In addition, many residents’ groups have access to portals and mobile applications which can be used to push information, such as a building fire alarm test to residents. And of course, social media is a vital channel to communicate about fire safety, again taking into account the different social media platforms used by residents.
Special consideration should be made for older or more vulnerable residents who might not get out as much or be able to access technology. Civica’s ‘A word from the wise’ report revealed a large upsurge in the number of over 70s using digital technologies as a consequence of the lockdowns.
However, this doesn’t mean that digital channels are always the best way to reach each resident; the personal touch still matters. Why not arrange to visit each household? Even in these pandemic times, a doorstep meeting might be acceptable. Work with vulnerable residents to provide personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPS) which detail specific arrangements according to each vulnerable resident’s needs.
Key contact details for the building safety manager should be available to all residents. The contact details should be easy to find via information boards, mobile apps and portals.
Reporting fire-critical faults & repairs
The Hackitt report highlighted the need to engage with all stakeholders and bring them to the decision-making table. There should be a clear and simple process for reporting faults or repairs relating to building safety.
Other points to consider include: how will visitors to the building be made aware of the fire plan; is the fire plan displayed publicly; how good is the signage?
Emergency service responders could be included in the communication events. Most fire services will actively engage with high-rise communities to carry out risk assessments, give advice and be part of any emergency preparations. Furthermore, do they have access to critical emergency response information while in transit to the building?
Where requested, residents might also require access to information about current and historic fire risk assessments, upcoming planned maintenance, building servicing and inspection regimes, details of any preventative measures, fire protection and prevention, structural assessments and planned and historic changes to the building.
In conclusion, there is much that a housing provider can do to prepare residents for action and to improve safety through changing residents’ behaviour. Managing two-way communications is critical, and technology can help with sharing important information about emergency plans and checking that people have understood it. Above all, consideration needs to be made to how residents receive information, how they retain it and how they might act in an emergency.
Alex Oldman is a client relationship manager at Civica.