Shirley Wyles: Fire and smoke alarms in Scottish homes
Shirley Wyles reminds us of the delayed fire safety regime and its legal aspects.
While the catastrophic blaze that ripped through Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June 2017 with the loss of 72 lives is the subject of an ongoing public inquiry, there have already been legislative responses to the tragedy both north and south of the border. With the issue of cladding perhaps being the main focus of public attention, significant changes to the legal requirements for fire detection in Scottish homes may, at this point, have gone unnoticed by some.
Under the Scotland Act 1998, housing and building standards are a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In the aftermath of Grenfell, Scottish government working groups were set up leading to the passing of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 (Tolerable Standard) (Extension of Criteria) Order 2019. While new homes, those undergoing renovation and rental properties are already required to meet certain standards for fire and carbon monoxide detection, the new legislation requires every Scottish home to comply with new standards. It is estimated that the average cost of installing the required equipment in a three-bedroom home will be £220.
The new requirements include “one smoke alarm installed in the room most frequently used for general daytime living purposes, one smoke alarm in every circulation space on each storey, such as hallways and landings and one heat alarm installed in every kitchen.”
The guidance issued by the Scottish government on the type of alarms that all homeowners must now install explains that “If you choose battery alarms, they must be tamper-proof long-life lithium battery powered and must be capable of being interlinked. The carbon monoxide alarm must have a sealed battery for the duration of its operational lifespan, which may be up to 10 years… Once you have chosen which system to install, choose a reputable brand, make sure the packaging clearly displays compliance with BS EN14604:2005 for smoke alarms and BS 5446-2:2003 for heat alarms…”
The guidance also issues a particular warning to homeowners that the Nest Protect System does not meet the standard for the required heat alarm in kitchens.
Concern about the ability of all homeowners to meet the cost of bringing their homes up to the new standard led to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service being allocated £1m to install alarms in homes assessed to be at high risk of fire.
Local authorities will be responsible for requiring homeowners to bring their properties up to the new standard and compliance will form part of the Home Report produced on the sale of properties. Originally, the new standard was due to come into force in February 2021 but because of concern on a lack of public awareness and the impact of Covid-19, the implementation date was extended to February 2022.
Aside from enforcement by local authorities of the new standard, interesting legal questions could arise in Scots civil law if, after February 2022, a fire starts in a Scottish home which is not compliant with the new standard, that fire damages a neighbouring property and the damage might reasonably have been avoided by earlier detection of the fire. It could be argued that failure to meet the new standard on fire detection is relevant to the question of negligence on the part of the owner of the non-compliant home where the fire started.
If there is widespread compliance with the new regulations, we should see a reduction in the risk of loss to fire of both life and property in Scotland, but will some homeowners delay incurring the cost of the required work until the point of any enforcement by a local authority or perhaps even beyond that?
Any homeowner failing to comply with the new standard should be aware of the impact this may have on their buildings and contents home insurance cover. The Scottish government’s guidance document states “Different home insurance policies provided by different insurers will have varying terms and conditions which a homeowner must comply with in order for their home insurance to be valid. Anyone who is unclear about the terms and conditions of their specific policy in relation to the fire and smoke alarm requirements should get in touch with their home insurer in the first instance, to check whether the new requirements will be specifically included in their policy or not.”
It is certainly to be hoped that all Scottish homeowners will have the required new equipment installed before the law requires that in February 2022.
Shirley Wyles is a partner at BLM