St Francis Tower in Ipswich will see fire alarm systems installed during safety upgrades, after its combustible cladding began to be removed last year.
In August 2018, it was announced that cladding on the tower would begin to be removed to ‘mitigate risk’ of a serious fire, with the building ‘Suffolk’s tallest occupied block of flats’. Building management company Block Management UK Ltd took over the building in 2016, and commissioned fire risk assessments (FRAs) that found the cladding should be stripped, with residents of the 116 apartments assured that their ‘safety is paramount’.
At that time, it was said that cladding removal should take ‘six to eight weeks’, with so called “crash-deck” scaffolding fitted first. The cladding was removed due to its combination with the insulation and its ‘overall installation’ process, and there were ‘no immediate plans’ to replace the cladding, with an ‘extensive review’ to take place once it was removed.
The tower had been ‘extensively refurbished’ about 13 years ago, and while the cladding was not aluminium composite material, an ‘intrusive’ FRA and a compartmentation report concluded – alongside studying the cladding – that it should be removed, with ‘mitigating’ fire safety measures installed in a partnership between the owners, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
These measures included a four man waking watch equipped with air horns to ‘safely simultaneously evacuate people floor by floor; fire extinguishers installed throughout the building; information events and meetings; repair of a damaged external vent to the laundry room; up to date fire action notices posted to all residents; and details of emergency fire procedures ‘clearly displayed’ on notice boards on each floor in different languages.
Ipswich Star has now reported that fire alarms are now to be installed at the block, alongside heat detectors, with the news outlet noting that ‘despite hopes’ that the cladding would have all been removed by Christmas 2018, ‘some of it is still on the building’ as workers ‘ran into issues with gaps behind it’. Now, it is expected that the cladding would be fully removed ‘in the summer months’, with ‘further improvements’ being worked on ‘in the meantime’.
There had been no fire alarm system at the building previously, as a stay put policy was in place until a decision on cladding removal was made, and once the cladding was confirmed to be removed by Block Management UK Ltd, a temporary evacuation policy was put in place. The waking watch sees four staff present at the building, with the completion of the alarm system to necessitate the removal of these staff, alongside the installation of automatic air vents and sprinklers.
The absence of a fire alarm system previously was something that the company was ‘keen to stress’ had been the case for a ‘good reason’, in that if an alarm system was installed it would have encouraged residents to breach the stay put procedure, with fire risk assessors to continue to investigate the tower over the next few weeks.
Simon Matthews, operations director for Block Management UK Ltd, stated: ‘Everything is being done to make everyone safe. Providing the fire alarm system is in place – which it will be in the next two weeks – if the fire risk assessor agrees, the waking watch will no longer be needed.’
The Fire Protection Association offer a practical route to understand the installation, commissioning and maintenance of detection and alarm systems, emergency lights and the relevant legislative requirements.