Born out of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, a waking watch is a fire safety measure in residential buildings. It involves trained fire marshals patrolling the building continually, to detect a fire, raise the alarm, and aid with evacuation if necessary. This vigilant approach ensures an immediate response to potential fire safety issues, maximising resident safety.
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) further explicates waking watches in their guidance, emphasising the importance of these watch services in the case of a compromised fire alarm system. These watch services form a fundamental part of interim measures implemented to mitigate fire risks, pending the resolution of fire safety deficiencies.
When is a waking watch required?
A waking watch is typically required when the fire alarm systems in a building are deemed inadequate or compromised. Under such circumstances, these safety measures serve as a temporary simultaneous evacuation strategy, aiming to provide sufficient warning in the event of a fire.
Furthermore, the London Fire Brigade outlines that waking watches become a necessity when a 'stay put' strategy is put to simultaneous evacuation due to unsafe cladding systems or other fire risks.
A Responsible Person (RP) – typically the building owner or residential managing agents – is obliged to consult with the fire and rescue service to assess the necessity of waking watches in their buildings. High rise buildings with flammable cladding, for instance, are prime candidates for these measures.
In line with official guidance, these interim strategies should be employed until the identified fire safety issues are fully resolved. The Local Government Association provides further information for concerned residents, detailing the stipulations for when a waking watch identifies a fire incident and the process to follow.
Recognising the waking watch costs, the government also introduced the Waking Watch Relief Fund to support residential building owners in ensuring safety standards.
The role of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) in shaping waking watch guidelines
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), together with other industry partners, continues to shape the standards and practices for waking watch services. In August 2022, they published the fourth edition of the Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance (SEG). This document replaced the previous one published in October 2020 and serves as the benchmark for evolving fire safety standards in buildings.
The NFCC is clear in its guidance. It states:
If a building has been identified as high risk because of an unsuitable external wall system, or other fire safety defects, interim fire safety arrangements can be adopted for the temporary, short-term management and mitigation from fire risks, and the risk to life if a fire occurs.
These arrangements can range from simple steps to remove potential ignition sources that might give rise to a fire, through to a change in the evacuation strategy for a building, moving from Stay Put to Simultaneous Evacuation supported by the installation of common fire alarms and/or a waking watch.
This guidance highlights the flexibility and adaptability of waking watch as a response to various fire risks.
Transitioning from a waking watch
The NFCC also provides guidelines on transitioning from a waking watch to other interim measures such as installing a fire alarm system, particularly when the responsible person recognises a switch from a Stay Put strategy to SEG is needed. The NFCC advises that:
Where a waking watch is implemented, as soon as practicable but within a month, the Responsible Persons should make a plan for implementing sustainable means for supporting the evacuation strategy to allow the building to transition away from a waking watch. Such a plan should include details such as costings, timeframes, a resident engagement strategy, and relevant procurement processes. In the immediate and transitional term, this plan could include the installation of a first aid fire alarm system.
Common fire alarms: a sustainable solution?
Replacing waking watch with a common fire alarm system is a feasible option proposed by the NFCC. Such systems are designed to provide an early warning in the event of a fire, allowing residents ample time to evacuate safely.
However, the complexities of each residential building mean that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Therefore, assessing the effectiveness of a common fire alarm system is a task best left to the responsible persons in consultation with professional bodies like the Fire Protection Association and local fire and rescue services.
Waking watch costs and relief
Maintaining a waking watch over an extended period can result in substantial costs. Recognising this, the UK government established the Waking Watch Relief Fund. This fund aims to help building owners bear the financial burden of the waking watch costs, providing some respite while more permanent safety measures are put in place.
The fund represents a collaborative effort between government and building owners to ensure fire safety, reduce risks, and support residents while addressing underlying fire safety issues such as unsafe cladding systems.
Engaging with residents
Residents play a crucial role in the effective implementation of waking watches and other interim measures. The NFCC's guidance emphasises the importance of a resident engagement strategy when transitioning from a waking watch.
This includes providing regular updates, clear communication, and opportunities for residents to voice their concerns and ask questions. By keeping residents informed, building owners and responsible persons can ensure that everyone is prepared and understands what to do in the event of a fire.