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02 November 2021
Automist uses multiple sensors and an electronically trigger to provide faster detection and earlier activation than traditional sprinklers. The aim is to increase available evacuation time and reduce the heat and smoke output by the fire. The introduction of IoT (remote monitoring) allows Automist to provide additional value beyond just suppression, making it easier for landlords to demonstrate compliance, identify vulnerable residents, monitor the environment, and even save money on maintenance and heating.
Against an overall background of a significant reduction in fire fatalities in Great Britain in the last 30 years, fire safety challenges are constantly changing. An ageing population and increasing prevalence of dementia means we need to find new ways to protect vulnerable residents. Fire safety technology needs to be a key part of a combined solution.
The recent report by Building Research Establishment BRE titled “Fire fatalities in Scotland and recommendations to help reduce them” is a significant and helpful piece of research. It reviewed 123 Fire Investigation reports of all accidental dwelling fires, in Scotland, from April 2013 to March 2017. Over this period 19,645 accidental domestic fire incidents resulted in 147 serious injuries and 126 fire fatalities.
The BRE report highlights the characteristics of those who are most vulnerable to fire. It states: “Factors such as living alone, being vulnerable or elderly, falling asleep or being asleep, having medical conditions, illnesses or temporary lack of physical mobility, or not hearing the alarm all contribute.”
It emphasises that the elderly and those suffering from conditions such as dementia, will need a more sophisticated solution than alarms. The combination of frailty caused by age, and mental and physical disability lead to a slower response time to fire and challenges leaving a property. For this population it is unrealistic to expect that the installation of a traditional fire alarm system is enough to save lives.
Protecting those most at risk
This is of clear interest to social landlords, who have responsibility for housing a highly vulnerable population. Scottish government figures show that 27 per cent of social housing tenants are classed as single pensioners or in households with at least one pensioner. It also shows that 45 per cent of adults in both local authority properties and housing association properties report a disability, a much higher figure than the owner occupier population.
In addition to this, research in the USA found fire deaths seem to be strongly associated with frailty, at least among adults, which suggests that measures to reduce fire deaths among adults should be focused on the disabled and those who suffer from the infirmities of age. Similarly, a Norwegian study found that approximately one third of the victims in Norwegian fatal fires were aged 70 years or older, which was disproportionate to the population; only about 10 per cent of the population is actually aged 70 or more.
With these findings in mind the increasing prevalence of dementia, is also of concern. In 2015, it was reported that there were around 901 million people aged 60 years and over across the world representing 12.3 per cent of the total population. By 2050, this figure will have increased to 2.1 billion or 21.3 per cent of the global population.
There are currently over 800,000 people in the UK currently living with dementia, with numbers estimated to reach over 1 million in the next decade. Dementia impacts the brain and body in a number of ways, including judgement, sense of time and place, behaviour, physicality ability and the senses, presenting an even wider range of challenges and disparate needs for housing providers to address.
This challenge, alongside the occupier risks identified by the BRE demonstrate that we need to find new ways to protect vulnerable residents. Fire safety technology needs to be a key part of a combined solution.
Innovative fire strategies
The BRE report was optimistic about the impact of new technologies in fire prevention and the protection of residents. The 14 recommendations are much needed and should be widely welcomed in order to ensure adequate fire protection is provided to all. They outline a number of effective technical solutions which are currently available, including the extension of detection and water mist suppression systems.
This data shows that we should not rely on traditional fire strategies or technologies as a guarantee of safety for vulnerable residents. It is Plumis' belief that as a society we must go beyond the minimum standard. This often means employing a range of technology-based solutions to match the individual needs of tenants and to cater for varying property types. The challenge for providers is meeting the very disparate needs of a wide range of people and being able to adequately adapt provision to protect the most vulnerable residents, especially when facing tight budget constraints.
Our team have already taken the steps to develop a system that provides early detection and operation by using electronic activation:
- Faster detection - increasing the available evacuation time
- Early activation - reducing the heat and smoke output by the fire
By integrating the early warning alarm, Automist can raise the alarm at the earliest possible time and even send a message as some dangerous fires do not produce enough heat to trigger a sprinkler.
- Case study 1 - The clothing of the individual was ignited by careless disposal of smoking materials. The deceased had mobility issues and was vulnerable due totheir mental health. The deceased subsequently died of their burns. The fire did not reach a sufficient size for the sprinkler system to be activated. It is believed that the impact of the fire was exacerbated by the use of emollient cream (a fire accelerant) (source).
- Case study 2 - The result of careless disposal of smoking materials on a settee. The deceased was alcohol dependent and had mobility issues. By the time the fire was hot enough to activate the sprinkler system, the deceased had already suffered injuries they would later succumb to (source).
Our latest testing has shown it can operate faster particularly for slow burning fires than sprinklers, as it can be triggered by a progressive temperature rise:
The system features multiple detectors and spray heads to protect each area and connects to the normal domestic water supply making it easy to retrofit, as it does not require a large tank or water supply upgrade. The water supply plays a significant role in determining the cost and ease of installing a traditional fire sprinkler.
Preparing for future changes
We’ve also been awarded a Smart Grant of £349,526 from Innovate UK to further develop Automist so that if offers even more value for housing providers. In this next phase of research and development, we’ll be using our systems infrared temperature sensors to provide environmental monitoring that can link to smart thermostat functionality. Our aim is to offer housing providers a better understanding of any potential risk in the home, particularly for those whose vulnerability may have changed, enabling them to intervene and mitigate any risks. It will also help landlords to identify potential cases of fuel poverty and provide information on occupancy that can be used by the fire brigade in an emergency situation.
Social landlords are already retrofitting water mist systems to protect their vulnerable tenants. In February 2020, work started to retrofit Automist Smartscan in eleven sheltered housing schemes in London. The aim of the project was to increase fire protection for some of the council’s most vulnerable residents, with minimal disruption. Installation took approximately two days per dwelling because the system uses the existing water main, as opposed to requiring a tank like traditional systems.
Since the installation, there have been two activations reported. One incident involved someone falling asleep with a lit cigarette left in an astray and the other was a kitchen hob fire. On both occasions, the residents were made aware of a fire by the systems alarms, which are automatically triggered when activated, whilst the Automist spray heads began scanning for heat changes to assess the danger.
In both cases, upon hearing the alarm the residents extinguished the fires themselves. Heat changes were observed indicating that there was no significant fire present, so the system automatically returned to standby as there was no need to deploy the water mist and therefore there was no unnecessary damage. If, however, the system had identified any heat changes resembling a growing fire the system would have targeted the fire with a dense fog of water mist.
Following both incidents – and in any situation where the scanning is triggered – a log is recorded on the internal memory, providing a timeline of events and recording the temperatures in the room. This report was then supplied to the social landlord enabling them to make an informed assessment of what happened and identify whether any additional precautions or interventions are needed to mitigate any further risk.
Taking action now
We welcome the new regulations in Scotland and hope similar regulations will be implemented in other countries. Whilst the types of properties covered include those that are likely to house larger numbers of vulnerable residents, more needs to be done to protect those most at risk in existing homes. Especially given that the final phase of the BRE report suggests that more lives could be saved if existing technologies are applied immediately.
Whist, implementing measures to improve protection for vulnerable residents, wherever they live, may not be straightforward, it would have a significant impact on reducing fire related injuries and fatalities.