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Labour Councillor Calls for Immediate Reinstallation of Fire Alarms in Flats

Published on: 7 Dec, 2017
Updated on: 8 Dec, 2017

The removal of scores of smoke alarms from communal areas in blocks of flats across Guildford has been described as “an unacceptable risk to the lives of residents”.

Labour borough councillor James Walsh, who represents Stoke ward, is calling on the council leadership to reinstall the alarms without delay.

But a council spokesperson said: “We take the safety of our tenants and residents very seriously. We followed the advice of Surrey Fire & Rescue Service when removing smoke alarms in the communal areas of council-owned blocks of flats.”

Cllr James Walsh.

Cllr Walsh discovered that officers at Guildford Borough Council (GBC) have taken away smoke alarms from the stairwells and corridors of flats across the borough, including at Downsview Court in his ward, in Park Barn, at Mount Court on Portsmouth Road and in Bedford House in Bedford Road.

He said that when he started asking questions about the alarms, he discovered that the council had not consulted with residents about their removal and that officers had carried out the work following advice from the fire service. In addition, he was told that residents’ own alarms would be sufficient – despite the council not checking first if any of the residents had any alarms or taking in to account the possibility of fires breaking out in stairwells or corridors.

Southway Court Court, at the junction of Southway and Applegarth Avenue, Park Barn.

The alarms were taken away in October and November and, according to officers, no prior fire assessment was necessary. When questioned further, Cllr Walsh was told that fire assessors would visit the blocks “in the new year”.

Cllr Walsh said: “This is the most shocking thing I’ve come across in many years as a councillor – the council has effectively put hundreds of tenants and leaseholders has risk by removing alarm systems from the communal areas of many blocks of flats without a single consultation or fire risk assessment.

Bishops Court. One of the two ten-storey blocks of flats on the Portsmouth Road. – Photo Wikipedia.

“I was first told about this by a concerned resident in Bellfields and, shocked as I was by her allegations, nothing could prepare me for the scale of the work carried out or the complete lack of risk mitigation undertaken – not one resident was asked if they had their own alarms and, because she hadn’t, my constituent had to go and buy one straight after the communal alarm was removed.”

He added: “The decision to do this so soon after the Grenfell fire, and the terrible way it has been handled, have caused me great concern and I have called for the leader of the council to clarify the situation and take immediate action to reinstall the alarms.”

In response to the statement circulated by Cllr Walsh a council spokesperson said: “The fire service recommended, in their recent assessment of a number of our blocks of flats, that ‘the smoke detection in the common areas is not necessary and may be removed.’ They further stated that fire detectors in common areas are not necessary due to the fire strategy in place for these properties.

“In the event of a fire occurring outside their flat, residents are advised to stay put, raise the alarm and to wait for the fire service to attend. This is primarily so that the stairwells are kept unobstructed and clear for the fire service. Fire alarms in communal areas do not support this strategy, as they encourage residents to evacuate, potentially obstructing the fire service and putting themselves at risk and that is why they are being removed.

“In the event of a fire occurring inside a flat the resident should evacuate and close their flat door, raising the alarm when it is safe to do so. It is therefore, important that all flats should have a smoke detector and it is the council’s policy that all flats with council tenants have one installed.

“However where flats have been sold, it is the leaseholder’s responsibility to ensure they have fitted their own smoke detector and that they maintain this equipment in an operational condition. If they let out their flats as private landlords, they have a statutory duty to install smoke detection within their property.”

But Cllr Walsh is unhappy with the “Stay Put” policy for flats. He added: “…failing to consult and find out who has their own alarm has left some residents without adequate safety precautions. ‘Stay Put’ depends on flats being compartmentalised, so that any fires that break out in them can be isolated and therefore not spread to other properties.”

“There are serious questions about ‘Stay Put’ after the Lakanal House fire in 2009 and Grenfell, and I would have likeed the council to have waited to see what the findings from the latter inquiry were and how they may affect the policy before going ahead with this.

“Ultimately, this is an issue that tenants and leaseholders should have been consulted before any actions were taken.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves.

Caroline Reeves, a Lib Dem ward councillor for Friary & St Nicolas in which Guildford’s highest blocks of flats Mount Court are situated said: “I haven’t had any contact from any residents living in flats in my ward about the removal of smoke alarms. Perhaps the situation comes down to communication, or lack of it, which is unfortunate for residents.

“The issue emphasises the difficulties of managing buildings with a mixture of council and private tenants as well as private owners. This was highlighted by Grenfell and the results of the inquiry will drive the need for a review. Private landlords should ensure their properties have alarms but this isn’t checked as frequently as council-owned properties. There’s no check on private ownership properties.”

Cllr Susan Parker.

Susan Parker (Send), leader of the Guildford Greenbelt Group at GBC, said: “After the Grenfell fire I asked, at an Executive meeting, what the implications were for Guildford. I was assured that all precautions would be taken to protect all residents and that proposals to instate cladding would be put on hold because the risk of fire was such an important matter.  This seems a move in the opposite direction, so well done James Walsh for raising this matter.”

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Responses to Labour Councillor Calls for Immediate Reinstallation of Fire Alarms in Flats

  1. Brian Creese Reply

    December 8, 2017 at 10:30 am

    I am genuinely astonished at the actions of Guildford Borough Council in this matter. At a time when you may have thought everyone had learned to be more sensitive and cautious in their approach to fire safety in high rise buildings, this Tory council again acts with outrageous arrogance.

    No consultation, complete adherence to the discredited ‘stay inside and wait for help’ approach to fire safety, no discussion, no apology. They are a shambles.

    Brian Creese is Guildford Labour’s communication officer

  2. Susan Jones Reply

    December 8, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    The answer is to demolish Bishops Court – it is a tragic blot on the skyline of Guildford. With suitable design the site can accommodate just as many properties with only three levels. The new properties can then be fitted with all modern safety equipment.

  3. Lisa Wright Reply

    December 8, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Why did GBC waste taxpayers money to remove functioning smoke alarms? Surely you’d just leave them there?

  4. Adam Aaronson Reply

    December 8, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    “In the event of a fire occurring outside their flat, residents are advised to stay put, raise the alarm and to wait for the fire service to attend.”

    I can see that this might work during the day. Perhaps someone could explain how this would work if the fire starts in the middle of the night when everybody is asleep and nobody is awake to raise the alarm?

  5. Brian Holt Reply

    December 13, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    The council now say the smoke alarms are no longer wanted. Why were they fitted in the first place?

    Surely smoke alarms are very sensitive and go off with any smoke giving people more time and a warning to get out.

    It would be interesting to hear the views of the Surrey Fire & Rescue Service, and perhaps they can give Guildford Borough Council some good advice on fire safety.

    The fire alarms were removed by the council on, they say, advice from the Fire & Rescue Service. Ed

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