The Grenfell Tower disaster serves as a stark reminder of the pressing need for robust fire safety measures in residential buildings.

The blaze engulfed the 24-storey block in North Kensington, West London for 60 hours, claiming the lives of 72 people and injuring more than 70. Overall more than 220 people were forced to flee their homes1.

Evidence from Phase 1 of the subsequent enquiry presented the challenges firefighters encountered within the building when tackling the blaze. Amongst the list of multiple failures were broken fire doors, hazardous cladding, and no evacuation plan. A lack of wayfinding signage was cited as a key priority as part of a broader update to fire safety regulations2.

Context for change

The Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 were introduced to enhance fire safety measures in high-rise residential buildings, acknowledging a number of challenges facing emergency response teams and building inhabitants that could be partly, or wholly, remediated by wayfinding signage3.

Challenges due to absent wayfinding signage in residential high-rise developments include:

  1. Delayed emergency service response: Including challenges in navigating the building quickly, leading to potential delays in reaching the affected areas and compromising rescue operations.
  2. Increased panic and confusion: Particularly where building occupants are unable to identify escape routes or find their way to safety.
  3. Hindered evacuation: Lack of clear directions provided by wayfinding signage leading to residents struggling to locate stairwells and exit routes, hindering their evacuation efforts.
  4. Lack of identification of floors and flat/apartment numbers: Making it harder to point rescue efforts to where they are most needed.
  5. Inefficient communication: Wayfinding signage is critical to enabling emergency responders to guide building occupants to designated assembly points or safety zones.

Robust fire safety management

Enhancing emergency response with wayfinding signage

Fire safety regulations set out a series of requirements and general guidance for owners and managers of residential buildings containing separate dwellings4:

  • It is a legal requirement to install wayfinding signage, including clear markings identifying floor and individual flat/apartment numbers to assist the Fire and Rescue Service in navigating their way around, particularly when visibility is low.
  • Appoint a designated ‘Responsible Person’ to maintain signage and conduct a signage survey to ensure the building is, and remains, fully compliant.
  • Building plans are to be made available in a secure information box on site.
  • Signage should comply with 2020 amendments to the Fire Safety Order (15.14 to 15.16 of Approved Document B, Volume 1 edition) prioritising firefighting shafts and protected stairways, as well as individual dwellings5.

The Fire Protection Association (FPA) highlights the vital role of clear and visible wayfinding signage in high-rise residential buildings. Buildings equipped with clearly marked signage experience significantly reduced response time for firefighters. In buildings where the signage are readily visible and legible, firefighters could navigate the premises quickly as they have a clear direction to check and understand the pathway in times of emergency.

The availability of clear markings identifying floor and individual flat numbers instils a sense of direction and security during critical moments. Having easily accessible and understandable stairwell signage provides a sense of direction and calmness during evacuation drills. Ensuring the timely and safe evacuation of occupants is paramount during emergencies, and wayfinding signage plays a pivotal role in improving their chances of reaching safety.

Embracing a unified approach to fire safety

The role of the Responsible Person as the guardian of fire safety has never been more critical. Compliance with the regulations and proactive maintenance of wayfinding signage demonstrates a dedication to the safety and well-being of building occupants. Open communication channels with residents foster a sense of shared responsibility for the protection of the building. Engaging with residents regarding fire safety measures, including the significance of wayfinding signage, is pivotal in garnering their support and cooperation.

Implementing enhanced fire safety regulations and wayfinding signage demonstrates a commitment to fostering a culture of safety and responsibility within the residential building sector. A collaborative approach involving building owners, managers, and residents is pivotal to ensuring the successful adoption and maintenance of these measures.

Fire Prevention Act compliance

The introduction of enhanced fire safety regulations and the mandate for wayfinding signage represents a significant advancement in prioritising fire safety in high-rise residential buildings. From a broader perspective the emphasis on clear and visible wayfinding signage reflects a growing recognition of the crucial role that effective communication plays in emergencies.

In England, the following multi-occupied residential building categories are subject to the full scope of the fire safety regulations6:

  • Low-rise structures.
  • Structures taller than 11 and 18 metres.

Providing firefighters with simple to locate and easy-to-follow information can significantly reduce response times, leading to more efficient rescue operations. This data-driven approach enhances the likelihood of successful evacuations and highlights the value of incorporating technological advancements into fire safety measures.

At the same time, there are practical challenges associated with the Building Safety Act's implementation and the new fire safety standards that took effect on 23 January 2023, under the Fire Safety (England) standards 2022.

While these compliance challenges exist, professional services like those offered by the FPA provide practical solutions for building owners and managers. By embracing the regulations and continually improving fire safety measures, the longer-term ambition is to create a workable platform where occupants and emergency responders can navigate prevailing challenges with increased confidence and efficiency.

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The sole purpose of this article is to provide guidance on the issues covered. This article is not intended to give legal advice, and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and/or market practice in this area. We make no claims as to the completeness or accuracy of the information contained herein or in the links, which were live at the date of publication. You should not act upon (or should refrain from acting upon) information in this publication without first seeking specific legal and/or specialist advice. Arthur J. Gallagher Insurance Brokers Limited accepts no liability for any inaccuracy, omission or mistake in this publication, nor will we be responsible for any loss, which may be suffered as a result of any person relying on the information contained herein.