HSfB Blog

Common Causes of an Office Fire

The acute "beep, beep, beep, beep..." of the office fire alarm resonates around the room and a momentarily look of concern presents itself on every face that has risen in unison. This, for the incalculable time, is a test alarm and one that arrives each week with wonderment. We are all aware, however, that this scheduled blast has a serious agenda; a job that we can't resent and a role that could save our lives. The fire alarm is possibly the most understated colleague in any office.

For anyone who's experienced the horror of a real-live, raging fire – whether in the office or at home – it is something I'm sure they will not want to experience again. Businesses across the UK have introduced additional safety equipment, upgraded facilities and implemented more coherent training for their personnel to prevent such incidents meaning fire safety in the work place has never been more prominent, with more vigorous checks being recommended by fire officials to make properties impervious to fire.

The First Statistics Monitor, which is published quarterly by Communities and Local Government, encompasses provisional figures on fires, fire fatalities, injuries and false alarms. During 2007/08, The UK Fire and Rescue Services attended 799,000 fire and false alarm incidents (at both domestic and commercial properties) – noting an 8 per cent decrease on the previous 12 months. The total number of UK fires fell by 11 per cent to 382,000 and are at their lowest since 1988. The figure for UK fire deaths, however, increased by 8 per cent to 500, and embedded within this statistic, 373 deaths occurred in England; the latter being contrary to the long term downward trend.

In July 2003, over 100 fire fighters spent hours contending with a fire that broke out in a prodigious office block behind Paddington Station. Resilient fire crew tackled the blaze continuously for two days, and five were treated in hospital for injuries. It later emerged that the building had recognised electrical problems and insufficient fire safety appliances, mainly fire extinguishers and blankets. Five floors of the structure were lost that day, but fortunately no lives.

In May 2007, Council headquarters in Leicestershire were obliterated by a fire which was caused by an electrical fault on a light fitting. The building hosted over 150 staff, and although every staff member was safely evacuated successfully, over three quarters of office space was lost. Local emergencies praised the speed in which everyone left the building and the manner and organisation they did so. After a rigorous post-mortem check of the buildings smouldering carcass, fire officials applauded the overall safety equipment that was in place at the time. Malise Graham, Leader of Melton Borough Council, made the irrefutable point: "We may have lost most of the office, but we still have all our staff in one piece. I'm glad that we can plan for a new building and not for human loses."

The office is a perfect breeding ground for a fire. Electrical equipment such as fax machines and photocopiers are both potential heat-generating threats, and although there are constant warnings about monitoring and upgrading fire safety devices, often old or defective machines like the humble photocopier can be fire hazards. Even a kettle or fridge should be considered and documented.

"Appropriate fire training for all staff is essential to ensure that the correct action is taken in the event of a fire," says Active Fire Management, who provide a professional fire consultancy service for all aspects of fire safety and training requirements. " The Fire Safety Order 2005 requires timely and effective training for all personnel. Any training provided should also be repeated at regular intervals. Organisations should ensure that details of training and names of those who have received it is recorded in the fire log book."

Combustible objects such as books, magazines and bags of materials waiting to be recycled act like fire lighters on a log fire, and should be stored properly and not piled up around the office. All storage areas should be adequately located away from heat sources, for example; servers, computers and plugs. Be extra conscious of having excessive electrical outlets and try to reduce the amount of extension cables that weave across the floor.

"Effective management of electrical cables in the workplace is essential in order to avoid trip hazards to staff, but also to reduce the possibility of an unwanted fire," continues Active Fire. "Ensure that all electrical equipment undergoes a regular PAT test and maintain appropriate records."

If you are sat at your desk as you finish reading this, take a few minutes out of your busy day to distinguish who is one of the most undervalued team mates in the office. The fire alarm? And let's not forget your other assistants: fire safety equipment. All of you are in the same team and one day may really depend on each other.

For more information visit www.activefiremanagement.co.uk

Words by Matthew Crick