How Europe regulates fire safety

A comparison of fire safety regulations across Europe shows that on the whole, most are more prescriptive than the UK’s

To examine fire regulations across Europe is at first sight like comparing apples with nectarines, lemons with lingonberries. There are the remits of official agencies to be understood, different devolved systems of government, contrasting legal systems, and diverse approaches to the public and private sector. 

In most European countries  the national government sets the fire regulations. But in Germany, it is the responsibility of the federal states. They rely heavily on Musterbauordnung – a national model building code – but are free to tweak this to come up with their own Landesbauordnungen (federal state building code). In the UK, Scotland has devolved building regulations and enforcement is carried out by 32 local authority ‘verifiers’.

The UK is not alone in allowing private companies to certify fire safety. In Spain, both at the design stage and when the structure is finished, a building can be approved either by the local authority or by a private contractor certified to provide such services.

In France the system is rather different. In public and high rise buildings fire installations are signed off by safety commissions. These bring together technicians, experts and firefighters who hold a brevet de prévention, or prevention certificate. This can take place at different stages: during the procedure to gain planning permission, before the mayor allows the building to be opened to the public or at any time afterwards, in the form of unannounced visits. For houses there is no systematic mandatory control, just spot checks on newly constructed buildings.

And what of clarity? After the Grenfell Tower fire there was no consensus on whether the cladding contravened or complied with UK building regulations. In Sweden the rules are pretty clearcut, says David Tonegran, a fire safety expert. In cladding it is a simple choice: non combustible material or pass a test, SP Fire 105.

Perhaps the most fundamental divide is prescriptive rules versus performance testing. In the UK the regulations do not state how a building should be designed. Instead they set out how it is expected to perform, says Danny Hopkin, an associate at Olsson Fire in London. ‘It allows creative, iconic buildings to be delivered based upon sound scientific and engineering principles.’ Many countries have variations on this. Italy has ‘an old way’ – rules –  and a ‘new way’, performance modelling, says Enrico Molinaro, a fire safety consultant in Milan. ‘The new way is hardly followed in Italy because it is giving the technician a big responsibility.’ In other words, fire experts are more comfortable with the rules than going out on a limb.

In Germany, fire safety relies on prescriptive rules, although industrial buildings have more performance based testing, says Boris Stock, a fire safety consultant. ‘There is a growing trend for using computer based models, but it is not as widespread in Germany as in the UK,’ Stock says. You might show the resistance of steel through a simulation for example. But use a computer model to prove that burnable materials would be acceptable on a skyscraper? ‘No chance.

England and  Wales

The Building Act 1984 is the primary legislation. The legal requirements for fire safety are found in two principal pieces of fire legislation: Part B of Schedule 1 of the Building Regulations – sets out the requirements for design, alterations and refurbishments. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order applies when a building is in service. Even before Grenfell, pressure was growing to review the building regulations. In 2009 a fire at Lakanal House, a housing complex in south London, killed six people. The inquest found that panels fitted to the outside of the block in 2006-07 burnt quicker than the original materials. The coroner called Part B ‘a most difficult document to use’ and recommended it be reviewed. In particular the section relating to ‘external fire spread’, regulation B4, should ‘provide clear guidance’ with regard to ‘the spread of fire’ over the outside of a building and whether ‘attention should be paid to whether proposed work might reduce existing fire protection’. Since 2007 all new tower blocks in England over 30m high must be fitted with sprinklers by law. Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 so did not have any installed.

Scotland

Scottish building standards are defined by the Building (Scotland) Act 2003. No local authority or housing association tower blocks in Scotland have been found to have the same cladding as Grenfell Tower. After a fire at Garnock Court, a tower block in Irvine in 1999, a series of reports led to a different policy from England’s. Scottish regulations state that cladding on high rise domestic buildings built since 2005, and cladding added to existing high rise domestic buildings since 2005, must be made of non-combustible materials or a cladding system that has met stringent fire tests. A fire in January 2004 at Rosepark Care Home in North Lanarkshire resulted in the mandatory fitting of sprinkler systems in all care homes from 1 May 2005 onwards.

Republic of Ireland

The Building Regulations 1997-2017 Part B (Fire safety) of the second schedule of the Building Regulations states the statutory minimum standards of fire safety provision. Fire safety is considered at the detailed design stage, after planning permission has been granted. A fire safety certificate is required before work begins. This is issued by the building control authority (local authority) which states that the works/building will comply with the requirements of Part B. 

A certificate of compliance on completion is signed by the builder and the assigned certifier. These certificates must be submitted to the building control authority. The regs apply to existing buildings for material alterations, change of use, extensions, repair and renewal. They prohibit works that would cause a new or greater contravention of any provision of building regulations. The Fire Services Acts 1981 & 2003 place responsibility for fire safety on every person having control of a building. Fire authorities have powers of inspection and a range of enforcement powers.

Where works do not require a fire safety certificate, the design certifier states before they begin that the proposed designs comply with the regulations.

France

The fire directorate (Direction des sapeurs-pompiers), attached to the civil security and crisis management directorate general, sets the legal framework for fire prevention in public buildings and buildings more than 28m high. It is a public authority attached to the interior ministry. For houses, the interior ministry shares responsibility with the housing ministry. France brought in strict laws for high rise and public buildings after a fire in an Isère night-club in 1970 killed 146 people and three years later 20 people died in a Paris secondary school. 

Since October 1977, materials used in construction have to be non-combustible and any works in the building after its opening cannot begin without a building permit, an authorisation of the préfet (the state’s regional or local official) and an oversight of security commissions. But more recent high-rise fires – at Roubaix in 2012, and an arson attack near Orly airport in 2005 – suggest problems remain with inflammable cladding and toxic smoke.

 

Germany

In Germany fire protection is regulated by federal states, which are guided by a national model building code, Musterbauordnung. Most states’ rules differ only in nuance. Fire protection is included in the first stages of the design process. For nearly all buildings with a floor level above 7m, some proof of fire protection is needed. This also applies for all buildings of special usage. During the design stage a fire protection concept is devised by the Sachverständige, a qualified private fire expert. These are then checked by the building regulator or certified experts. After construction, detailed checks on structure and fire safety are done by private contractors. These are then backed up by more basic checks by the building regulator. 

All special buildings must be rechecked from time to time. This is usually done by a special unit of the local fire department.

 

Spain

The document regulating fire regulations is called DB-SI (Documento basico deseguridad en caso de incendio). It is national law under the responsibility of the ministry of housing. A developer will need to show the building design is compliant with the DB-SI as a  proyecto basico. This is when a project has not reached detailed design but is more than concept design. It has to gain approval from the Colegio de Arquitectos (institute of architects), whose members do the first sign off. The project will also need to be registered with and approved by the municipality. Either it will check the project or the developer can use a private contractor approved by the municipality. When the structure is complete it is  either signed off by the municipality or one of its certified contractors. Spain suffered two serious fires in the 1970s. In 1977 a hospital in Seville caught fire and although no one died more than 300 children had to be evacuated. In July 1979 a hotel fire in Zaragoza killed more than 80 people. These incidents led to the first national fire safety regulation, the NBE CPI-82 (RD 1587/1982).

 

Italy

Fire safety rules are set nationally. The law is the Decreto Ministeriale 3 agosto 2015 – Approvazione di norme tecniche di prevenzione incendi, ai sensi dell’articolo 15 del decreto legislativo 8 marzo 2006, n 139. The fire brigade supervises the rules. At the design stage a technician (usually a fire engineer) checks that a project accords with the regulations. Before the developer can start construction they must receive approval from the local fire brigade authority. When the structure is built the technician must apply to the same body for a certificato di prevenzione incendi before the building can be used. This has to be renewed every five years. If something is changed the owner must apply for a new certificate.

 

Finland

Fire regulations come under the Land Use and Building Act (132/1999). Revised requirements concerning fire safety can be read in Section 117b Fire safety of an amendment, Land Use and Building Act (958/2012). Building legislation is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. During the building control process the local authority consults with the fire authority about the fire safety aspects of most building work. In high risk developments such as public buildings, healthcare facilities and high-rise buildings, a fire authority normally carries out a fire inspection before the premises can be used. The owner is responsible for safety during its lifetime. A building permit is required for repair and alteration work if it is obvious that it may affect the safety or health of those using the building. The fire authority has the powers to require additional fire safety measures if alterations have been carried out.

 

Sweden

Laws and regulations are set at national level. The detailed fire rules are found in the BBR (Boverkets Byggregler). Proposed buildings are handled at the municipal level – a fire safety strategy document is often required to get a permit to start construction. But this is not always the case; there are differences between municipalities. After a design has been built a private contractor certifies that the building meets the code. This is often with the help of the fire consultant who designed the fire strategy. Sweden had a fire disaster in 1998 when 63 people died at a disco in Gothenburg. The disco was in a building not approved for that activity. The fire began in an adjacent stairwell, and when someone opened the door to the disco, the fire filled the disco with smoke and fire within seconds. Today for performance based design it is mandatory to consider that a fire might break out in an existing building adjacent to the new public place, if that building has no fire alarm. 

 

Netherlands

The Woningwet (housing law) covers all buildings, not just housing. Technical requirements, including fire safety, are found in the Bouwbesluit (building decree) and the Regeling Bouwbesluit (building decree regulation). The rules are national and fall under the purview of the ministry of the interior and kingdom relations. Minor additions can be made by local authorities. Fire risk is usually considered in the later stage of the building design process. The regulatory regime is a mixture of prescriptive requirement and performance based testing. A permit is given by the local authority not only on fire resistance but all other fire safety aspects covered by the building decree.

After a building is complete the local authority may check whether it accords with the accepted design. But often this is not done or only for a very limited part of all aspects, says Rudolf van Mierlo, a senior fire safety consultant at DGMR. For any substantial alterations the owner needs a new permit from the local authority. The owner has prime responsibility for the fire safety of the building.

 

Austria

Fire regulations are set by Austria’s federal states, but they are linked to national regulations known as OIB guidelines, which refer to subjects such as fire safety, fire in operational structures, garages, car parks, and tall buildings. 

Fire protection compliance has to be carried out as early as possible in the design phase. Consideration at a later stage leads to increased costs. For specific projects, it is possible to deviate from the provisions of the OIB guidelines if a fire protection concept demonstrates that the same level of protection can be achieved. 

After construction, a licensed engineer, who must be different from the builder and the construction supervisor, has to confirm that the project complies with the building permit and the regulations. This takes into account inspection reports of the active and passive fire protection systems. If changes are made to a building (eg construction of a new facade), approval must be obtained from the local authority.