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Modern smoke ventilation systems are the most effective form of smoke control available today. Smoke is often the first sign of fire and its ability to damage the human body shouldn’t be underestimated. Smoke control is an essential part of fire safety, as smoke inhalation is the number one killer of fire-related deaths.

It’s logical to assume that smoke can be harder to control in taller buildings like high-rises. Many blocks are built around a central column, usually a staircase and/or lift shaft. Minimizing/preventing smoke from migrating from the floor of origin is the is the main intention of the smoke control system. 

What is a smoke ventilation system?

When a fire breaks out, smoke will rapidly accumulate and start to travel around any open spaces it can find. It’s often the first warning sign that a fire has occurred, but unfortunately, it’s also deadly.

If your building has a smoke ventilation system, it can actively work during a fire. Heat or smoke detectors pick up the presence of heat and smoke which will trigger the vent system, often also known as an AOV system (which stands for ‘Automatic Opening Vents’).

It’s likely to have vents in the roof and wall space around the building. Because smoke and heat naturally rise, they are vented out of the building while clean air is simultaneously drawn in, allowing inhabitants to breathe during an evacuation.

What does the law say about smoke control in high-rise buildings?

As with any fire safety guidance, regulators and legislators understand that there are significant variations in what’s achievable as all buildings are different. Architects and contractors working on new builds are guided by the latest building regulations, especially BS 7346:8, which covers best practice for design, installation and maintenance.

However, for existing buildings, it’s a different story. With continuous updates to building regulations, the compliance of some of the buildings has fallen further and further behind. It would be fair to say that many, if not most, high-rise buildings do not comply with smoke ventilation best practice. Old forms of smoke ventilation, such as permanent vents are not considered useful in all situations. New methods include mechanical ventilation and pressurisation systems which actively draw smoke out of buildings.

However, it’s not always practical to retrofit an old building with new technology. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states that you must implement measures which assist people in evacuating safely, such as smoke control. However, it does acknowledge that not all buildings are created equal.

Risk assessment for high-rise buildings

You must carry out a fire risk assessment. A fire risk assessor can take a pragmatic view, providing you with smoke ventilation advice and solutions which can be accommodating within the existing fabric of the building you’re managing and which also comply with the RRO. They will consider smoke ventilation as part of a suite of fire safety measures; for example, if your building has unventilated lobbies or corridors, this may not require remedial work if you have appropriate fire doors or a sprinkler system.

It’s never ‘ok’ to stick with an unsatisfactory smoke control system and if your assessor believed that to be the case, they would advise you against it. Remember, buildings which deviate too far from today’s standards may well require remedial works and improvements and your local authority can prosecute you under the Housing Act 2004 if you fail to comply.

What might a fire risk assessor say about smoke control?

There is much guidance available, but without experience, it’s a challenging subject to tackle alone. It does pay in this instance, to seek professional help. A fire risk assessor with the right experience will know at this point what’s needed to bring your tower blocks up to current safety standards. 

What about long-term maintenance? 

The standards for maintenance and regular testing of smoke control systems are the same for tower blocks and other blocks of flats as they are for any building. 

BS 9999 and BS 7346 Pt8  cover them. In summary, you (or the building owner) should test the system weekly to ensure it is operational. Full inspection must be carried out at least once a year by a qualified technician. 

The benefits of adhering to a rigorous maintenance schedule are clear. We can all agree that smoke is a killer and any fire safety system which eliminates smoke during a fire must be well maintained. When you install a smoke ventilation system, you are committing to: 

– Improved fire safety and security

– More effective smoke control

– Aiding emergency services in their fire and rescue efforts

– Better natural ventilation for the whole building (where vents can be in use during hot weather)

– Long-term cost savings 

Can any fire safety supplier help me with smoke ventilation? 

Most will undoubtedly claim they can, despite it being a specialist industry. We believe it’s safest to let fire safety suppliers deal with fire alarms and other fire-related equipment while smoke ventilation is dealt with by specialist contractors. 

Smoke ventilation systems are most commonly in high-rise buildings which present additional challenges to mainstream fire safety. If your fire safety supplier claims to have expertise in this area, ask them for information about other work they’ve done and speak to their clients. 

At the Silver Group, our main USP’s are that we work across both fire safety and smoke ventilation equally and have specialist knowledge of both. We also work with the UK’s leading manufacturer of smoke ventilation equipment, SE Controls, giving us access to the latest in innovation and technology.

We work with many housing associations and other landlords of blocks of flats on the issue of smoke ventilation. If you’re the responsible person and you’re unsure what the law says about smoke control or how to implement a smoke control policy, we can help.

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