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Case Study: How to keep balconies safe from fire

At a glance

  • During the summer months, balconies become the perfect location for socialising
  • However, property owners and registered providers should remind tenants of the wide variety of perils they could be exposing themselves to
  • Following a recent balcony fire in Barking, we re-examine the fire risks with balconies

During the summer months, balconies become the perfect location for socialising. However, as the risks associated with this range from barbeques, to discarded cigarettes and heaters, property owners and registered providers should remind tenants of the wide variety of perils they could be exposing themselves to. Following this recent balcony fire in Barking, we re-examine the fire risks with balconies.

Key Risks

Barbecues must never be used on balconies or indoors under any circumstances. This ban includes all types, all fuels and all sizes of barbecue including those that are inappropriately being sold for use on balconies.

A number of recent fires in private rental and social housing properties have demonstrated the potential hazards, for example:

  • Falling embers or carelessly discarded cigarettes setting fire to items on the ground or balconies below
  • Barbecues being left unattended after use
  • Inappropriate storage of combustible furniture and contents on balconies
  • Balconies and facades may be constructed with combustible materials and insulation

The risks are compounded by the fact that wind speeds are stronger at a greater height, and wind patterns can be less predictable due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings. This may support rapid fire and smoke spread up the building which could affect the ease of escape for building occupants.

The Government have recently issued a guidance note for owners of residential buildings with balconies. In short, this note advises that ‘the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies’.

The guidance note states that ‘Where there is doubt over the materials used, or risk presented, building owners should seek professional advice from an appropriately qualified and competent professional (i.e. a fire engineer or construction professional with significant knowledge and experience of fire safety)’.

A blazing balcony fire – case study

During a recent summer, a tenant was sat on her balcony having lunch when she noticed smoke rising from below her. Initially, she thought someone had lit a barbecue which was causing the rising smoke, as there had been issues with her neighbours lighting barbecues on their balconies the previous week.

However, whilst leaning over her balcony to investigate further, she noticed smoke and flames coming from what she thought was a ground floor apartment. The property she lived in was a five storey purpose-built apartment block, comprising 50 apartments. All of the apartments on the front elevation of the upper ground, first, second and third floors had balconies, which were decked in timber, with timber partitions separating each balcony. Recognising the danger, she left her apartment and alerted the fire brigade immediately.

Two passers-by also witnessed smoke and flames and established that a fire was coming from one of the first floor balconies, where a mattress was on fire. They also called the fire brigade for help.

Once the fire was put out and the building was safe to inspect, Zurich appointed forensics investigators to determine the starting point of the fire. Upon examination, the exact cause of the fire was never determined. However, forensic investigators clarified the fire had started on a first floor balcony, on which were the remains of a mattress, which was stored upright and against the timber partitions that separated neighbouring balconies.

The conclusion drawn was that the fire was started by discarded smoking materials, which were found on the balcony. However, Zurich has not been able to establish whether tenants of this flat or someone who had discarded their smoking materials from a balcony above, was responsible.

When handling this claim, it was imperative that the correct team was engaged from day one. Having been immediately advised of the claim, our claims teams were able to agree the appointment of forensic investigators, so they could attend with the adjuster the following day. This meant that the inquiries into the cause of the fire did not delay the progress of the claim.

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please get in touch with your local Zurich contact.

Top 10 barbecue safety tips

While barbecues must never be used on balconies, they can be used safely in outdoor communal areas, provided these safety procedures are observed.

  1. Ensure the barbecue is strong, sturdy and in good working order.
  2. Place it on level ground to avoid it tipping over.
  3. Keep it well clear of any trees, shrubs, or flammable objects.
  4. Keep children and animals well away.
  5. Never pour on petrol or other accelerants.
  6. For gas barbecues, ensure the tap is turned off before changing the cylinder.
  7. Never leave the barbecue unattended.
  8. Keep a bucket of water or sand close by.
  9. Ensure the barbecue is cool before attempting to move it
  10. Never empty ash into a dustbin, always empty out on to bare garden soil
Image © Getty

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