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How can organisations manage and mitigate fire risk?

At a glance

  • Arson and hot works are among the most common causes of fire in the UK
  • Changes to the built environment, for example increasing use of modern methods of construction, are also a leading factor in many fires
  • Paul Redington, Regional Major Loss Manager at Zurich, discusses how organisations can manage and mitigate fire risks

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Arson and hot works are among the most common causes of fire in the UK. Changes to the built environment, for example increasing use of modern methods of construction, are also a leading factor in many fires. But how can organisations manage and mitigate the risks?

Arson and wilful fire-raising (see boxout) remain the most common causes of fire in the UK, and are often the most damaging. According to the National Fire Chiefs Council, arson accounted for 50.5% of all fires attended by fire and rescue services in the UK in 2017/18, and the estimated economic loss over this period was between £5.73bn and £11.46bn. While cases of arson declined by 30% in the period following 2011/12, there has been an upward trend since 2014/15.

Paul Redington, Regional Major Loss Manager at Zurich, says: “During the last recession, where we saw a large increase in the number of vacant buildings, we also  saw a rise in arson. Since then, the Property Major Loss team continues to see claims that have resulted from arson, which put both property and lives at risk.

“Malicious or deliberate fires are not uncommon in empty premises, but very often claims involve occupied buildings, many of them residential. While such fires will remain a significant issue regardless of the wider economic situation, the fear is that in the event of an economic downturn, we may see more deliberate fires, particularly if the volume of vacant properties increases.”

Schools can also be at greater risk of malicious damage and fire setting, particularly during holidays. Organisations can take a number of measures to reduce the risk, from reviewing and  upgrading building security, to relocating combustible external structures such as sheds, waste bins, litter bins or temporary buildings away from main buildings.

Organisations should also conduct routine inspections of high-risk sites (regardless of whether or not they are occupied), ensure procedures and maintenance schedules are up-to-date, and implement an effective incident reporting process.

Zurich Municipal’s recent white paper, Fire safety: addressing risk improvement actions, provides tips and guidance for organisations looking to reduce the risk of arson and wilful fire raising.

Hot works

Hot works – defined as any building, maintenance or refurbishment work that requires the application of heat, such as grinding, welding or torch applied roofing – represents another major fire risk, with Zurich claims data revealing that 15% of all fires in commercial and industrial properties are caused by hot works. Over last three years, this has accounted for losses worth over £250m when both property damage and business interruption losses are accounted for.

Recent high-profile examples have included substantial fire damage caused to a hotel after a planted green wall was set alight by nearby welding work. Elsewhere, major fire damage was caused to a hospital and cancer research lab as a result of hot works in the rooftop plant room.

The potential risks of hot works include: extensive fire damage; explosions as a result of sparks coming into contact with flammable gases or combustible dusts; and injuries including burns and inhalation of fumes. The inherent risks of hot works can be exacerbated by poor practices and processes.

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Fully understand the nature of the works taking place and the specific risks they pose
  • Select an experienced contractor who will select the lowest risk methods
  • Remove all combustible materials from the site vicinity or apply the right controls
  • Maintain fire watches during breaks in the day and after hot works have finished
  • Establish proper procedures for dealing with an emergency

We are continuing to invest in technology and digital solutions to help reduce the risks posed by hot works.

Changes to the built environment

More and more organisations, including local authorities and housing associations, are embracing modern methods of construction (MMC).

These new technologies are used in the construction of a variety of buildings, from small blocks of flats to education, health and leisure centres. Indeed, as construction practices and technology continue to rapidly develop, taller and more complex buildings are being erected using MMC.

The use of MMC can be particularly attractive to local authorities and housing developers looking to construct public buildings and social housing developments in the most efficient manner, while also meeting the latest standards on sustainability and environmental performance. These methods, if used appropriately, can: minimise waste; deliver quality architecture; reduce costs and build times; ensure greater consistency and quality standards; and satisfy green energy requirements.

Zurich is clear that the potential benefits of innovation in construction can be far-reaching. However, despite the range of benefits, many popular MMC solutions also introduce added risks and reduce resilience when compared with more traditional builds, both during construction and throughout a building’s lifetime.

Pre-fabricated designs

Advances in pre-fabrication are enabling larger and more complex components, ranging from wall panels to whole sections of buildings – including plumbing and electric fittings – to be manufactured offsite and assembled onsite. This can make construction quicker, cheaper and more accurate. However, there are also additional risks. For example, voids between modules can allow fire, water and smoke to spread quickly through a building.

Changes of use

In the modern built environment, many buildings are changing use, which can present new fire risks. Paul Redington explains: “A few years ago we saw a number of former refrigerated warehouse units being converted into offices and other uses, but with the original combustible insulation still in place. That situation has changed, but we need to avoid sleepwalking into a similar scenario as other buildings are re-purposed.”

For more information, please speak to your local Zurich contact.

This article was taken from the Zurich Municipal Whitepaper, “The human impact of fire”. Click here to download the full report.

Wilful fire-raising

Wilful fire-raising is a criminal offence in Scotland that is similar to arson, but not identical. Wilful fire-raising only covers fires that were started deliberately, whereas arson includes fires that were reckless but not deliberate.

This article was taken from the Zurich Municipal Whitepaper, “The human impact of fire”.

Click here to download the full report.

Image © Getty

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