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13th July 2017

£460,000 fine after fatal retirement home fire

A property company has recently been handed one of the biggest ever fines for fire safety offences after a large retirement development in Surrey was destroyed.

What happened and why were the owners implicated?

In the early hours of 30 September 2011 a fire broke out at Gibson Court retirement flats in Esher. It was caused by a faulty television in a first-floor apartment. The fire alarm was triggered and the Fire & Rescue Service called. However, residents did not leave the building. The facility operated a “stay put” policy, meaning that in the event of a fire residents were encouraged to stay in their flats, with the building’s passive fire precautions intended to contain the fire in the area of origin.

No rush

With this in mind and deeming the fire to be confined to one area, the house manager actually decided to dish out tea and biscuits to those in the lounge. In the meantime however, the fire spread and caused the roof to collapse within 75 minutes.

Because the buildings weren’t evacuated, fire fighters had to re-enter multiple times to rescue residents. One lady died in the fire, but at her inquest the coroner concluded that many more would have perished if the fire fighters had not put their own lives on the line.

Failings

Gibson Court’s attic space was divided by fire curtains into eight compartments. These were installed from floor to ceiling and should have considerably delayed the spread of fire. However, doubts were raised in court about the condition of the fire curtains.

To compound matters, there were no external vents from the residents’ kitchens; instead they were vented directly into the roof space. After years of cooking, the roof had become lined with grease and fat from the vents which, once ignited, led to catastrophic consequences.

Unfortunately, none of these problems were ever identified beforehand as the Fire risk assessment of the site was undertaken by the manager, who never went into the attic.

Fire risk assessments must be carried out by a competent assessor, will identify weaknesses in a building’s fire protection which others may miss.

Fire barriers must be inspected periodically – an annual check during your fire risk assessment review is a good time. This will also reveal other fire hazards such as the storage of combustible materials.

Prosecution

FirstPort Limited, formerly Peverel Management Services, pleaded guilty to four offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. These included failures relating to fire risk assessment, staff training and weaknesses in fire precautions (such as propped fire doors and the lack of separation in the roof space). The company was fined £360,000 plus costs of £100,000.

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