LETTER: Is Peterborough Hospital Trust seeking costs for fire fear?

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Regarding your article in the PT (April 14th), I would advise that the issue appears to be one of (fire) ‘compartmentation’.

I am wthout benefit either of the statutory annual Fire Risk Assessment (FRA), in which any competent Assessor would identify non-compliance or risks regarding combustible materials, detection equipment, building fabric resistance to fire and the spread of flame - which would encompass compartmentation, or any specific report into issues previously highlighted, but....

Assuming first that the fire detection equipment (there are various types of smoke and heat detection equipment, and their servicing, battery backup systems in case of power failure and just as importantly their location all affect performance) has been properly installed both to ceiling surfaces and within hidden voids; notably the space between ceiling grids and the structural soffit above which is often used to accommodate service pipes and cables - as are the spaces beneath raised tiled floors (less common in hospitals perhaps but often found in offices etc.), one gathers from your article that this issue relates to there being gaps through walls and possibly floors, perhaps where later services have been installed or where partitioning has been resited - these are sadly common occurrences where alteration works are instructed without the benefit of a competent professional overseeing the project.

Small alterations such as moving a wall or door to facilitate better access or increased occupancy can have a disasterous effect if the altered design compromises the fire security or fire protection previously in place.

Compartment walls need to be continuous, of non-combustible material (or integrity expressed as half-hour fire resisting, one-hour fire resisting etc, as for fire doors with smoke seals and self-closers), and with no holes or penetrations not treated with intumescent material. Intumescent material expands when heated to fill gaps and prevent flame, smoke, hot gas and heat transfer, as well as shutting air / oxygen needed for combustion.

The important thing is to (a) identify with reference to record drawings (which would have been approved by the Building Inspector - not necessarily PCC as approval may have been granted by an outside body) the location of breaches or inadequacies, (b) determine the correct remedial measures, and (c) carry out the required works to ensure compliance with legislation.

It is not an incredibly difficult thing to do. Granted, it is often problematic in hospitals because such buildings are necessarily in use round the clock every day of the year. However, there are ways of managing this. I would hazard that the original design was checked as compliant before the construction works began. It is possible that the hospital was built with some slight variation from the original design/approved scheme, but within the construction phase these variations would also have been subject to compliance. Part of the FRA alluded to above will consider ‘phased evacuation’ in case of fire.

Having identified where the outbreak has occurred using detection equipment which provides an address code for the building/floor level/room, patients, visitors and staff can be led to safety by the appointed building fire marshall. Safety can be considered as within a boundary having at least half hour fire separation from the site of the fire. That half hour provides the opportunity to decant to another more distant area or perhaps to the outside for assembly and dispersal.

How do I know about these things? In 2008 I was appointed consultant to a Primary Care Trust to address similar issues to a much smaller hospital in Northamptonshire, which required renewal of fire detection equipment throughout and remedial building work to address compartmentation issues in ceiling voids - and fire door replacement/upgrade. Fortunately, PCH doesn’t date back to the 1800s, nor ought it to have further complications with asbestos materials as none should be present.

I wouldn’t have thought that it would take until 2019 to fully address this issue at PCH. Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service would only have issued an enforcement notice following a period where the issues having been identified had not been progressed with sufficient drive over an agreed time frame. Enforcement considers that issues had been brought to the attention of the Trust and that plans and procedures of sufficient adequacy have not been put in place.

Having said that, I surmise that remedial works have been considered in sufficient detail for the projection of “until 2019” to be advanced.

This does place the Trust in an awkward position; the insurers (is not the NHS ‘self-insured’, being too big an operation for commercial underwriters? I seem to recall being told this some years ago, but things change over time I suppose.) As I was saying, the insurers may reduce or refuse to cover areas of the hospital that are non-compliant with fire or building legislation.

If the Trust is not funding the cost of the remedial work, are we to assume that there is a legal action for recovery of costs or damages being sought from another party? Perhaps this might explain the delay.

Jonathan Wilde

Labour candidate