Care homes in context

Although care homes do not fall under the definition of higher-risk buildings in the Building Safety Bill, Howard Passey explains why they should be viewed as high risk in some instances.

Not only do fires in care homes pose a significant risk to life, especially given the vulnerability of residents, but they also threaten to destroy the homes themselves. UK building regulations are currently only designed to ensure that buildings are evacuated of their occupants, not to save the building from structural collapse. The loss of a building such as a care home and the displacement from a familiar environment can have a severe impact on the health and wellbeing of residents.

Care homes are deemed to be high-risk premises and, unlike other building types, the specific vulnerability level of residents (including issues such as mobility) must dictate the approach to fire safety, as there is likely to be a varying dependency level among residents in any care environment. It cannot be one-size-fits-all when it comes to fire safety and risk assessment, and this also applies to the skills and competency of those responsible for fire safety. It is essential that those responsible for the design, build, and management of care homes are competent in their approach to fire safety, and understand how new building regulations could affect them and the care homes for which they are responsible.

New fire safety legislation

The Fire Safety Act 2021 has provided clarity on several issues in relation to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The Fire Safety Order was originally designed to apply to workplaces which meant its application to residential buildings was not entirely clear. As a minimum, it applied to the "common parts" of a building for use by all residents, such as hallways, staircases, and landings. The new legislation clarifies that where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the areas to which the Fire Safety Order applies include the building’s structure and external walls (including doors, windows, and anything attached to the exterior of those walls, such as balconies, cladding, insulation, and fixings) and any common parts. It also applies to all doors between domestic premises and common parts such as entrance doors to flats.

It was previously unclear whether the existing legislation covered the structure and external walls of a building, and who was responsible for potentially dangerous external wall systems and structural issues in multi-occupancy residential buildings. The new legislation will require the owners and managers of multi-occupied residential buildings to ensure that the fire risk assessments for such buildings are reviewed and updated to encompass the structure, external walls, and flat entrance doors. Importantly, the Act also introduces the concept of "riskbased guidance" to support a proportionate approach towards assessing risk. Building owners and managers will need to be able to show compliance with the risk-based guidance once available, to demonstrate that the Fire Safety Order has not been breached.

The Building Safety Bill

The draft Building Safety Bill, which at the time of writing is working its way through parliament, is only applicable to higher-risk buildings, such as those which contain at least two residential units, and buildings at least 18 metres or seven storeys in height. Care homes are broadly excluded, although the definition of what constitutes a higher-risk building has evolved since the issue of the draft Bill, and may well change again either before the Bill is enacted or after its implementation. It is therefore important for those responsible for care homes to understand the new legislation that applies to higher-risk residential buildings.

The new regime required under the Building Safety Bill is not expected to come into force in full until 2023. However, elements of Gateway One, or the planning gateway, were introduced on 1 August 2021. Gateway One is being introduced to ensure that fire safety measures are included at an early stage, which means that a developer must submit a fire statement setting out fire considerations specific to the development, before planning permission can be granted. The new three-stage gateway outlined in the Bill has specific points at design, construction, and completion phases, to ensure that safety is considered at every stage of a building’s construction. Care homes will be required to meet the design and construction stage requirements — in principle the Gateway requirements which control the design, planning, and construction phases of new buildings — but not the occupation stage.

The Building Safety Bill also includes a requirement for a live digital record in relation to all fire safety matters. This ‘golden thread of information’ will apply not only to new builds, but also retrospectively to premises in scope, currently high-rise residential buildings. The list of information the accountable person will need to collate includes:

  • the size and height of the building
  • the building structure
  • makeup of the building fabric
  • escape and fire compartmentation information
  • systems in operations
  • permanent fixtures and fittings.

Duty holders must also identify and record where gaps in the required information exist and the strategy for updating it. Parties will have to provide evidence that the relevant standards have been satisfied before they can pass through one gateway to the next, and demonstrate that safety risks have been considered at the earliest stage of the planning.

Parts of the Bill apply to all higher-risk buildings, not only to those over 18m tall. For example, provisions relating to duty holders, competency, building control authorities and construction products will apply, where relevant, to all buildings, including residential care homes.

Fire risk assessment

The fire safety clause in the Bill highlights that the responsible person is required to record their fire risk assessment in full, and not just report on the significant findings as is currently the case. Current legislation requires every responsible person to ensure that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been undertaken, and to have put in place general fire safety precautions to ensure the safety of employees and building users. They must identify hazards — along with people at risk — and implement appropriate control measures. In a care home, people at risk will include service users, staff, visitors and contractors, but it is not just the range of building users that impacts fire safety in care homes.

A detailed risk assessment will help building safety managers and premises managers formulate an effective fire safety plan, including an evacuation strategy, and identify the fire safety-related equipment most suitable for their premises, such as detection systems and protected means of escape. This risk assessment should include the role of fire detection and alarm systems, smoke control,and fire suppression systems where applicable.

A competent fire risk assessor will also identify potentially hazardous substances within the care home, such as oxygen cylinders, ointments, and fuel used in back-up generators. Ensuring the appropriate staff are aware of these risks and have the competency to handle these safely will reduce the risk of fire. Those carrying out fire risk assessments must also have highly specialised knowledge of the specific risks posed in care homes to ensure they are mitigated as far as possible through processes, and fire protection and prevention systems.

Ensuring competency

The fire safety clause also requires the responsible person to appoint a competent fire risk assessor. The responsible person may be liable in the event of a fire if they cannot provide evidence that they have used a competent provider. Seeking third-party accreditation of contractors is the best way to ensure competency and provide evidence of this should it be needed. A competent provider will often offer ongoing support should any changes to the business or building be made. It is essential that those involved in any facet of the management, building, or design of care homes ensure that competency requirements can be proven, for example through third-party accreditation and professional body membership.

Under the same clause, the responsible person is also required to record the identity of any person appointed to undertake or review their fire risk assessment, as well as record their fire safety arrangements. They are also required
to take reasonable steps to ascertain whether there are any other responsible persons that share or have duties in respect of the premises and to continue, as is currently required, to cooperate and coordinate with them.

Changes to building regulations

Changes to the building regulations include the height threshold for the provision of sprinklers, which has been reduced from 30m to 11m. Sprinklers in residential blocks of flats are not required in common areas when these are fire sterile. A protected stairway, for example, is designed to provide a ‘fire sterile’ area which leads to a place of safety outside the building. Once inside a protected stairway, a person can be considered to be safe from immediate danger from a fire.

The Fire Protection Association advocates for the installation of a sprinkler system for buildings such as care homes, where occupants are vulnerable and may require more time to exit the premises, as they increase the time available for evacuation. Sprinklers can play a vital role in the event of a fire, not only helping to minimise the immediate threat to life but helping to save buildings and limit the knock-on effects for residents.

New guidance also addresses the provision of consistent wayfinding signage for use by the fire service in flats with a top floor more than 11m above ground level. Signage should include floor level identification and information about flats accessed on that floor. The new provisions will apply to extensions so that sprinkler protection and wayfinding signage will be necessary in any newly formed accommodation in buildings with a floor 11m or more above ground level.

It is essential that those responsible for the design, build and management of care homes are competent in their approach to fire safety and understand the impact of new building regulations for higher-risk buildings. New legislation has provided much needed clarity on what the fire risk assessments for multi-occupied residential buildings need to encompass, and places new competency requirements on the responsible persons of higher-risk buildings such as care homes. Seeking third-party accreditation of fire risk assessors and contractors will be essential to ensure that competency requirements are met.

The FPA’s free Residential Care Home Fire Safety Guide provides care home managers and staff with the basic steps that need to be taken to help maintain fire safety standards. It can be downloaded free at:

 Fire & Risk Management is the UK’s market leading fire safety journal, published 10 times a year, and is available exclusively to FPA members in digital and print format depending on your requirements. You can find out more about our membership scheme here.

Howard Passey is Director of Operations and Principal Consultant at the Fire Protection Association (FPA).