Housing Technology interviewed the London Borough of Ealing’s health and safety manager for assets and property within its regeneration and housing division about his experiences of selecting and deploying IoT-based fire safety devices and monitoring software from FireAngel.
What is your background at Ealing Council and previous organisations?
After a period in the electrical contracting industry, I moved into facilities management for a local authority, managing their corporate estate. As is often the case in the public sector, through the perpetual cycle of efficiency savings, outsourcing and service reviews, my role expanded over the years to pick up health and safety management and, later, emergency planning.
My last interim assignment was with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, where I had the privilege of working as part of the management team, transforming the housing repairs service following the Grenfell Tower disaster. This was an incredibly humbling experience where I was fortunate to work with residents who showed their unwavering resilience, engaging at every opportunity to help shape their services and leading the long road to improvement and recovery.
At Ealing, my role includes health and safety management within the housing service as well as technical and operational support to our mechanical and electrical, asset investment and DLO teams.
What was your experience of IoT before the adoption of FireAngel Connected?
Connected stuff isn’t a new idea; the IoT label always seems a bit ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ because engineers have been connecting remote devices to other places for a very long time now. After all, traffic lights, railway signals and weather monitoring kit has been ‘connected’ and sharing status information long before the internet was invented.
Like my peers in the commercial and industrial sectors, I’ve installed lots of remotely-connected, IP-based systems over the last 15 years. These have ranged from access control and security systems in remote library buildings through to climate control, fire detection and lighting controls across large office campuses.
Why did you consider an IoT solution?
Why wouldn’t we? Smoke detectors are a fairly long-term investment and whatever we fit now will be there for another decade.
The technology in the FireAngel kit we’re deploying has already been used widely across Europe for the last five years which in technology terms probably gives it ‘veteran’ status already!
Why and how did you choose FireAngel, and what impact has that choice had on Ealing Council and its tenants?
Being a council project, it’s hardly a surprise that our starting point was cost!
We had started a small programme of installing LD2/D1 alarms across our void and specialised housing stock back in 2017 using devices from another manufacturer. When we looked retrospectively at the cost of doing this (including those hidden in the supply chain), it quickly became apparent that rolling out the programme across our entire stock of 17,000 homes would be unaffordable.
We engaged with a number of manufacturers and spent a lot of time ‘unpicking’ various commercial arrangements and gaining a better understanding of the various technologies. At the same time, we worked with our procurement colleagues to streamline our total construction materials purchasing across the council. Using a national framework, we entered into contracts with a small number of suppliers enabling Ealing to not only purchase at very competitive rates but also give our residents the highest levels of transparency about our spending.
FireAngel was open and honest throughout our dialogue and this has helped us to develop a trusting relationship which has now expanded to include CEF.
Our ‘simplified’ supply chain generated significant savings which led us to review our own internal specification against BS5839-6 and our newly-acquired knowledge of domestic connected alarms. After much internal discussion, regulation quoting, theorising, risk assessing and testing (lots and lots of testing…), we adopted an approach whereby we will retrofit a connected category LD1 system into each of our 17,000 council homes in Ealing using grade F1 (battery-powered) devices. This solution provides the highest possible levels of protection for each of our residents, in every room of their homes, all of the time, regardless of their age, their vulnerability status or their mobility.
Working with FireAngel and others, we’ve developed an approach that allows devices to be mechanically fixed but avoids the need for our installer to drill the 250,000 holes that we would have done previously (and the associated issues with ACMs). The battery-powered devices avoid the need for any surface wiring and containment and has resulted in a hardware saving in excess of £1 million compared with the equivalent product from our previous supplier.
The simplified installation methodology and pre-commissioning of the devices by FireAngel has reduced time on-site to less than one hour per property and means that installation can be undertaken by competent trained staff without the need for wider electrical competencies.
Overall, the cost savings associated with the product purchase and installation easily run into many millions of pounds.
With fire-safety and other related regulations subject to constant revision, how does FireAngel help Ealing with compliance?
In recent years ‘compliance’ has become a whole industry in itself, a collective often focused solely on the administration, processing and hoarding of paperwork demonstrating adherence to standards and regulations.
We’re doing it the other way around. We’ve sourced the best system available on the market, we’re training our contractors to risk assess every property where a system is being installed (we’ve worked with FireAngel to build individual installer validation into the system).
The system is connected to a gateway which we’re securely locating in the communal areas of the block, the network infrastructure is built around Cisco PoE switches, with each network communicating through two independent 4G routers, each with roaming sims. The networks are remotely managed, every device is remotely monitored, the competence of every installing engineer is checked, every installation is assessed to ensure that the maximum levels of detection are provided and the system automatically produces a BS 5839-6 certificate on completion.
We’re not complying, we’re exceeding, and we still think we can do better.
What are the council’s next plans for FireAngel Connected and any other IoT-based solutions?
The approach that we’ve adopted with our network infrastructure installation has been a bit like the reintroduction of electricity for us; all of a sudden, we have options to install and connect more stuff that we hadn’t necessarily imagined.
We allowed 50 per cent capacity on our switches, with the intention of rolling out IP-based video-entry systems and access control when our older systems needed replacing, and we’ve just placed the order for the first 50 of these systems.
We’re in the final stages of validating our smart thermostat and remote boiler diagnostics solution and are currently building our heating servicing contract around the availability of data from our systems. From a contractor’s perspective, this will enable failing parts to be replaced proactively during a single annual visit, thereby reducing financial risk.
From a tenant’s perspective, we’ll provide more comfortable, controllable homes with less inconvenience and lost income from multiple service calls, and for Ealing, we’ll be able to redirect our budgets to where they’ll have a greater impact on the lives of our residents.
The technology also starts to give meaningful pre-emptive data about resident vulnerability because of their health or limited mobility. Combine behavioural data with tenancy information and we can potentially replace our clunky paper-based ‘premises information box’ with a mobile device that’s never out of date.
What are your suggestions and recommendations to other councils and housing providers considering IoT projects?
Think long term and get advice from more than one source; standards for IoT are still emerging, particularly in the non-mainstream devices and systems that have been developed for the social housing sector.
In general, the housing sector has become lazy and relationships have developed which don’t always benefit our residents. Not only does this approach perpetuate a kind of ‘technology premium’ for IoT (usually with the idea of it being the panacea of all things compliance-related), but it also means we’re not always buying the best product.
Finally, and most importantly, IoT, connected stuff, dashboards and a datacentre full of AI bots don’t excuse you for not getting the basics right.
If the accommodation you provide is fit for purpose and well maintained, your colleagues and contractors are competent and you already listen and respond to feedback from your residents (after all, they’re your single largest connected network of finely-tuned sensors), then deploying IoT devices will almost certainly save money, reduce carbon emissions, and help to enhance the lives of residents, closing the technology divide in social housing.
Paul Cook is the interim health and safety manager for assets and property (regeneration & housing) at the London Borough of Ealing.