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Why fire risk assessment is key when altering house design

Real Estate
  Parag Mendiratta, the regional manager - Eastern Africa of Eaton Electrical. [File, Standard]

As you prepare to restructure your building or office, you could inadvertently affect its fire safety system and be swapping one hazard for another.

Whether a building is changing its use or layout, including temporary constructions, Parag Mendiratta, the regional manager - Eastern Africa of Eaton Electrical states that you must consider whether you need a new fire risk assessment. Eaton is a global power management company with a presence in over 175 countries.

In the last two years, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many offices had to alter how their employees moved or were stationed in the office.

Commercial building owners had to think about how they were going to use their space to keep both employees and the public safe. For many, this led to a change in both the layout and how people moved through the space.

Building regulations typically state that if you alter the property, you must reassess your current fire risk assessment. Kenya, as well, has building regulations that prescribe a code of practice for fire safety in the design, management, and use of buildings.

These regulations include a guide on fire safety and also speak to the role and importance of the building design, which can often lead to fire hazards or reduced protective structures.

As such, as building layout changes, including many temporary internal and external structures such as protective barriers and screens, organisations and building managers need to think about key fire safety tools including fire detection and alarm, exit signage, and emergency lighting layout.

Increased risk

According to Mendiratta, compromised fire safety measures in buildings lead to increased risk of harm or injury to the people inside the building and to the owner who does not consider it.

Over the last few years, Kenya has seen businesses face losses worth millions of shillings due to fire damages. In some cases, there has been a loss of life and long-term injuries. "We have also seen company owners or building managers face large fines and in extreme cases even imprisonment for failures in meeting basic fire safety requirements or because of a lack of fire safety planning," he said.

"With far-reaching effects, it is crucial that buildings have the statutory and necessary measures inbuilt to prevent fire or reduce the exposure of risk to fire-related harm,'' says Mendiratta.

Escape routes

He advises one to take a look at retail and hospitality outlets for example. Most have organised one-way traffic through their premises either with arrows showing the direction of travel or in some cases by blocking off passages with barriers, rope, or tape.

''Having proper escape routes is key for simple and safe evacuation and building managers should have this in consideration as they redesign buildings.

This also includes the presence of necessary tools such as fire extinguishers on each of these escape routes,'' he says.

Warning segregated people

In addition, if you are constructing new rooms, partitioning off areas, or changing the layout to segregate people, you need to check that there are fire detectors installed in each new space and that people can hear or see fire alarms when they are in them and that they are still compliant.

Some of these partitions, Mendiratta says will also cause a fire safety hazard whether it's because they create a tunnel that funnels smoke or in many cases because they are plastic, which would create a lot of smoke if there was a fire.

If the worst were to happen and a fire broke out then you could potentially be blocking or inhibiting one route of evacuation, and if this structure were to catch fire it would create thick and toxic smoke.

Risk assessment

While organisations have had to implement many of these measures in a bid to be pandemic-proof, Mendiratta says is still the duty of building owners and employers to consider all the risks that employees and the public may face in the spaces that we are responsible for.

''It means that we may need to adapt or change our fire safety systems so that we can mitigate the risk from these new measures,'' he says. A well-designed fire safety system will have 20 per cent extra capacity and allow some flexibility within its system, but sadly most do not and even those that do will not have considered the extent of change that we need to make to our buildings.

For new build and refurbishment projects, Mendiratta says it is sensible to plan fire safety systems with flexibility in mind. By specifying and installing fire safety systems with flexibility in mind, and considering adaptive evacuation technology, he says.

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