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A Comprehensive Guide to Fire Alarm Regulations for Commercial Buildings in the UK

A Comprehensive Guide to Fire Alarm Regulations for Commercial Buildings in the UK
A Comprehensive Guide to Fire Alarm Regulations for Commercial Buildings in the UK

Are you trying to figure out the fire alarm rules for your commercial building? Every business owner has a legal responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of their workforce, and all visitors who may attend their commercial premises – but the fire alarm systems you choose may depend on the nature of your organisation and the types of fire hazards present.

In short, UK fire regulations for commercial buildings state that business owners must take ‘appropriate’ action to prevent fires from occurring and limit the time taken to identify a live fire incident, eliminate the blaze, evacuate the building, or notify the emergency services if a fire is serious.

During the year to September 2023, the Fire and Rescue Service attended over half a million incidents, including over 62,500 serious fires – demonstrating the frequency of fires that may, in some cases, have been preventable with the proper precautions.

In this article, we outline the fire alarm regulations for commercial buildings and discuss the recommended solutions to comply with these regulations. 

fire alarm

Four steps to commercial fire alarm compliance:

Step one: Are you running a commercial building?

In the UK, a commercial building is generally defined as any structure or part of a structure that is used for business activities. These can include a wide variety of buildings designed for commercial, industrial, or business purposes. Here’s a breakdown of what is typically classed as a commercial building in the UK:

  • Office Buildings: These are spaces where administrative and office activities are conducted. They can range from small offices to large skyscrapers in city centres.
  • Retail and Shops: This category includes individual retail stores, shopping malls, and shopping centres. Retail buildings are specifically designed for selling merchandise and services directly to consumers.
  • Industrial Properties: These buildings are used for manufacturing, production, distribution, and warehousing. They can vary greatly in size and design, depending on their specific use.
  • Hospitality: This category includes hotels, motels, and other accommodations that provide lodging services to travelers and tourists.
  • Leisure: Buildings such as cinemas, restaurants, bars, clubs, sports facilities, and entertainment centers fall under this category.
  • Healthcare Facilities: Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and dental offices are included in this category. These buildings are designed to provide healthcare services to people.
  • Educational Buildings: Though primarily public, private schools and colleges that are operated like a business are considered commercial properties.
  • Transport Facilities: Airports, train stations, bus stations, and parking facilities serving commercial purposes are included in this category.

If you run or operate one of these types of buildings then you’ll need to follow the general fire alarm regulations for these buildings but remember that there may be specific rules for your type of business. It’s best to speak with one of our fire alarm consultants who can advise you on your specific requirements.

Step two: Who is responsible for Fire Alarms Within Commercial Premises?

British businesses must comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. This legislation has been updated several times since but puts the responsibility for having a suitable alarm system primarily on the business owner.

Some companies may identify one responsible person, while others have two or more trained fire safety officials. Larger organisations may have a designated health and safety executive or committee – but ultimately, the onus is on the owner, manager or key decision-maker to take appropriate steps.

Step three: Read up on the regulations for commercial fire alarms in the UK

There are 4 main pieces of legislation that commercial building owners need to adere to:

  • Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO): In England and Wales, the RRO applies to all non-domestic premises, including commercial businesses. It emphasizes the importance of conducting fire risk assessments and implementing appropriate fire safety measures, which include fire detection and alarm systems.
  • BS 5839: This is a suite of British Standards that provides guidance on the planning, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems in buildings. BS 5839-1, for instance, focuses on non-domestic premises and is a key standard for commercial businesses.
  • BS EN 54: This European standard series specifies requirements and test methods for fire detection and fire alarm system components. While it is a European standard, it is widely recognized and adopted in various countries, providing a benchmark for the quality and performance of fire detection equipment.
  • Local Building Regulations: Building regulations in various jurisdictions will often have specific requirements for fire safety, including the need for fire detection and alarm systems. These regulations are designed to ensure that buildings are constructed and maintained with adequate fire safety measures.
  • Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974: Although not exclusively about fire safety, this Act places a duty on employers in the UK to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare of all their employees at work. Part of this responsibility includes protecting employees from the risks of fire.
what are fire detection systems?

BS 5839 Explained

All fire alarms must adhere to the British Standard (BS) 5839, which categorises fire alarms into grades depending on the type of monitoring system and the assessed risk profile of the business premises.

BS 5839 refers to a British Standard for the design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in buildings. It is divided into several parts, each covering different aspects or types of buildings and situations. The standard is intended to ensure that fire detection and alarm systems are effective in alerting occupants of a fire, thereby helping to save lives and protect property.

The most commonly referenced parts of BS 5839 are:
  • BS 5839-1: This part covers fire detection and alarm systems for buildings except for dwellings. It includes recommendations for the planning, design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of these systems in and around commercial, industrial, and public buildings.
  • BS 5839-6: This part specifically deals with fire detection and fire alarm systems for domestic premises. It provides guidelines tailored to the needs of residential buildings, including houses, apartments, and accommodations such as student housing.

Each part of BS 5839 provides comprehensive guidelines on various aspects, including:

  • The types of systems and components that should be used,
  • The siting of detectors and alarms,
  • The level of coverage and zoning,
  • The control and indicating equipment,
  • Power supplies,
  • Installation and cabling,
  • Testing and maintenance procedures.

BS 5839 is a critical reference for building owners, managers, architects, and professionals in the fire safety and construction industries, ensuring that fire alarm systems are appropriately specified, installed, and maintained to provide maximum protection for occupants and properties.

BS EN54 Explained

BS EN 54 is a series of European standards that specify requirements and test methods for fire detection and fire alarm systems. These standards are designed to ensure the reliability, performance, and safety of fire detection and alarm equipment and systems.

The BS EN 54 series covers various aspects of fire detection and alarm systems, including but not limited to, smoke detectors, heat detectors, fire alarm control panels, voice alarm systems,

An accomplished fire safety adviser will recommend the most suitable systems, monitoring equipment, response mechanisms and fire prevention protocols, with alarms and components grouped into categories as follows:

  • Category M alarms are manual – alarms have to be manually activated, normally at a fixed call point that generates a simple audible siren.
  • Category L alarms are part of a life protection system, with five potential levels from L1 to L5. These systems provide more automated and early fire detection.
  • Category P alarms are designed primarily for property protection, again with sub-grades, P1 and P2, allocated based on the types of detection used.

To further complicate your choice of commercial fire alarm, several grades differentiate between simple and more complex fire alarm networks.

For example, a Grade A fire alarm system meets British Standard BS EN 54 by incorporating separate sounders and detectors, feeding information to a central control panel supported by a backup emergency power supply. In contrast, a Grade F2 fire alarm system may have one or more fire detectors powered by a replaceable battery or set of batteries.

It is essential that you know which category of fire alarm system you require, meeting your fire safety obligations based on the factors we discussed earlier.

Step four: Implement a fire system

Once you’re familiar with the legal requirements, you can begin to assemble a fire alarm system that works for your commercial building. You’ll need to install a fire alarm system with the following components:

  • High Specification Site-Wide Fire Alarm Systems: This refers to fire alarm systems that are designed to cover an entire site or facility, often incorporating advanced features and technologies to ensure comprehensive detection and notification capabilities. Such systems are typically customizable and scalable to meet the specific needs of a large or complex site.
  • Analogue, Conventional, and Addressable Installations:
    • Analogue Systems: Also known as intelligent systems, they provide more detailed information about the location and status of detectors, allowing for a more nuanced response to fire incidents.
    • Conventional Systems: These divide a building into broad zones, with detectors wired in circuits to the control panel. When an alarm is triggered, the control panel indicates the zone but not the specific detector activated.
  • Addressable Systems: Each device (e.g., smoke detector, pull station) has a unique address, allowing the control panel to pinpoint the exact location of an alarm, facilitating faster and more accurate response.
  • Public Address and Voice Evacuation Controls: Systems that use spoken messages to manage evacuation during an emergency. These are more effective than traditional sirens or bells as they can provide specific instructions (e.g., which exits to use) and can be used to communicate other important information.
  • On and Off-site Control Panel Management: The ability to monitor and manage the fire alarm system both on the premises (on-site) and remotely (off-site). This ensures that the system can be monitored 24/7, even when the site is unattended, enhancing safety and security.
  • Alarm Verification Solutions: Technologies or methods used to verify the authenticity of an alarm signal before emergency services are notified. This can help reduce false alarms, ensuring that emergency services are only dispatched when genuinely needed.
  • Remote Alarm Monitoring and Emergency Services Liaison: A service that involves monitoring alarm systems from a remote location, with the capability to liaise directly with emergency services on behalf of the property owner. This ensures a rapid response to alarms, potentially reducing the impact of fire incidents.

Each of these components or functionalities plays a critical role in the design and implementation of a modern, effective fire safety strategy, ensuring not only compliance with safety regulations but also the protection of lives and property.

You can read more about our commercial fire alarm installation recommendations here.

Factors Impacting the Right Type of Fire Alarms for Your Business

Factors Impacting the Right Type of Fire Alarms for Your Business

Every business should have some sort of commercial alarm system, but as we’ve mentioned, the alarm signalling, response mechanism, and type of monitoring will vary depending on:

  • The layout of the premises – Do you have multiple storeys, sites, or buildings within your business premises, or are there restricted evacuation routes?
  • Types of activities and materials stored on-site: Are there flammable chemicals, high-heat manufacturing processes, or other higher-risk activities such as cookery?
  • The monitoring procedures in place – How long would it take for somebody to spot a fire if it were to initiate in a little-used part of the premise, and how quickly would you identify smouldering materials or other early indications that a fire may be about to ignite?

In some cases, a simple fire alarm call point may be sufficient, where an audible alarm would be immediately heard by everybody on a site where there is minimal risk. However, in more complex environments, for businesses with potentially vulnerable site users, employees, or clients, or where the processes and activities taking place increase fire risks, your alarm systems may need to be more proactive.

Standards and Rules Around Business Fire Alarm System Design and Installation

We’ve talked about the core legislation that sets out your duties to manage fire risks, but the alarms you choose must also adhere to defined standards when it comes to design and installation. The guidance is that a fire alarm system should be designed and installed by a specialist or fire alarm professional with adequate training and experience to offer reliable assistance.

We recommend always using a fire safety adviser with a recognised accreditation validated by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). That could be National Security Inspectorate (NSI) licensing or a certified Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (SSAIB) member.

Alternatively, a fire alarm installation provider with Third Party Certification (TPC) from a scheme like the British Approvals for Fire Equipment (BAFE) SP203-1 or Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB) Loss Prevention Standard (LPS) 1014 offers similar assurances of high-quality advice and design expertise.

Engineers and consultants with these accreditations have the knowledge and skill to advise on technical specifications and British Standards related to any fire alarm system or component you may be considering.

Fire Suppression systems from Clearway

What are the rules around fire alarm maintenance and testing?

Don’t forget that once you have installed a compliant fire alarm system, businesses have a legal duty to maintain their fire system.

In the UK, every commercial space, business, and public facility is required by law to have an effective fire detection and alert system in place, which must be regularly tested to ensure its functionality. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 mandates that a responsible person must oversee the installation of suitable fire alarms and their maintenance, including regular testing, often on a weekly basis, as per BS 5839 standards. This encompasses a variety of properties, with the responsibility extending to landlords in rental situations. The testing process includes activating at least one call point weekly, ensuring the system’s audibility, and maintaining a log of all tests and inspections for compliance, insurance, and safety verification purposes.

We’ve written a full article on the laws for weekly testing of commercial fire alarms here.

How to Select Compliant Business Fire Alarm Systems

The first step in choosing the right fire alarm system is to contact a fire safety consultancy with one or more of the accreditations or qualifications listed above. This ensures that any adviser you speak with will be well-versed in BS 5839 and can offer independent recommendations to help you meet all of your fire safety responsibilities.

From there, we might conduct a site-wide fire safety risk assessment, evaluate the suitability of current fire safety controls, and suggest the fire alarms we feel will offer the best protection while complying with the legal standards and regulations.

It’s also important to ensure that you work with an experienced fire safety professional to carry out ongoing maintenance and servicing. The British Standard guidelines indicate that business fire alarm systems should be serviced by a certified professional every six months.

You are welcome to contact the Clearway team at any time for further information about UK fire alarm regulations or advice on your fire safety setup.

Daniel Meeajane

Business Development Director, Clearway Fire and Security

Daniel Meeajane is a Business Development Director for Clearway Fire and Security.

Having been involved in some major projects and achieving successful results Daniel uses his knowledge and experience to leverage awareness in Fire Protection. To do this a deep understanding of the BS 5839 PT1 is required along with keeping updated on the latest technology.

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