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Fire detection & alarm update query in licensed HMO

Guest Matt

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We have a 5-bed licensed HMO (shared cooking facilities (not bedsits) where all tenants knew each other prior and signed one tenancy agreement) which is located over 3 floors. It was first licensed in 2015 and the license was renewed in August 2020, as part of this there was a renewal inspection in January 2020. In accordance with the LACORS fire safety guidance for a "Shared house HMO of three or four storeys (shared cooking facilities)" we installed a "Grade D: LD3 coverage + additional detection to the kitchen, lounge and any cellar containing a risk (interlinked)" fire detection and warning system. We also installed one emergency light on the first floor since although the escape route is neither long or complex the first floor landing does not receive any effective borrowed light (whereas the top and ground floor landings receive effective borrowed light from a skylight and window respectively). Our council's housing compliance and enforcement team (who inspected the property and issued the licenses) were happy with these arrangements in 2015 and again this year in 2020.

The issue now is that we just had the annual inspection of the fire detection and warning system described above (as we have every year since 2015) and this year the testing contractor has come back to say that the following work is now required on the property:

  1. "supply and fit 5 x Aico smoke alarms to bedrooms (with new wiring and trunking) to upgrade to LD1 system in house for licensed HMO"; and
  2. "supply and fit 3 x emergency lighting on landings for HMO license".

The quote for this work to be carried out is £450. I haven't queried it or accepted it yet as I wanted to do some research, but as far as I can ascertain thus far these upgrades are not required, but I wanted to check if I have missed something. I am aware that BS 5839-6:2019 made some changes last year to fire detection and alarm system standards, but I'm not sure whether these actually affect this property. I am aware that under BS 5839-6:2019 LD3 coverage is now considered only suitable for owner occupied bungalows, flats, single-storey units or maisonettes with no floor level above 4.5m from ground level or owner-occupied two-storey houses. However, the coverage in this house is not LD3, it is "LD3 coverage + additional detection to the kitchen, lounge and any cellar containing a risk (interlinked)" and therefore under BS 5839-6:2019 this coverage is actually classified as LD2 coverage (I believe). As far as I am aware, LD2 coverage remains suitable for an HMO such as this one. 

As far as I am aware the LACORS has not been updated so all the systems in this house still meet the guidance (although I believe we can expect an update to it relatively soon but no-one knows yet what will be in it). I am aware that one solution would be to simply ask the council's housing compliance and enforcement team their opinion, but I am worried that if I pick at that stitch they will simply require the higher standard to cover their own liability, or quite simply out of laziness since there is no real benefit to them agreeing that the lower spec is the appropriate one.

I wonder therefore whether I have missed something which has caused this contractor to specify these upgrades?

Thanks in advance.




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The only thing that has changed is the publication of the 2019 version of BS5839 which would, even for existing premises, recommend the above improvements. Oddly missing from their recommendations would be the requirement at the same time to replace any Grade D common system with a Grade A, LD2 system (i.e. commercial grade system equipment - control panel, manual call points, etc).

The cynic in me would think they are holding that off so the job isn't too expensive to put you off then hit you with it next year - the reasonable part of me would counter that they are going for the priority areas (i.e. those with no cover) now and the common upgrade suggestion can wait as at least those areas have cover.

There is no longer a statutory bar in fire safety legislation, so the 'it was compliant back in.....' argument no longer holds - but on the other hand it doesn't mean you automatically have to upgrade either - instead the risk assessment process looks to see if the departure from the latest standards holds an unacceptable risk - as a result in premises there are often some legacy arrangements that I consider still provide adequate safety and can wait until a refurbishment or similar for modernisation, whereas there may be others that need immediate change.

An extreme example being that in 1974 when fire safety legislation first fully encompassed hotels it was possible to get a fire certificate with a manual fire alarm of call points and sounders and no detection - the statutory bar in the old Fire Precautions Act meant that if the premises didn't change materially they couldn't be compelled to add detection despite it being obviously very important in such a building. The change in 2006 with the commencement of the Fire Safety Order removed this bar so said hotel would no longer be able to argue the system complied at the time it was installed any more as the risk to life without detection would be too great.

The lighting is an interpretation of the current BS5266 which, whilst not completely dispensing with borrowed light, makes it an exception rather than a rule to accept due to local authorities reducing street lighting times and moving to more focussed LED lights that cast far less light to areas other than the road and pavement.

Should you do all these works? It's down to the risk assessment really. Ultimately they should be done, but this may well be a task that could wait until renewal or at least be done in small stages over a couple of years.

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Thanks AnthonyB. Yes I totally understand that you cannot rely on past compliance for future changes. However, my point really was that the 2019 update of BS5839-6 does not recommend the improvements set out above by the contractor for the property I have described.
The property that I have described above is a "shared house" under BS5839-6:2019 and not an "HMO" (under BS5839-6). As a result, under Table 1 of BS5839-6:2019 the minimum grade and category of the alarm system (for new or existing premises) is D1: LD2 (as I pointed out in my original post). 
The contractor has said to me "it is a licensed HMO therefore it needs a Grade A alarm with LD1 coverage" but this is not true, it is not what BS5839-6:2019 says. The definition of an HMO under BS5389-6 is not the same as the definition of an HMO under the Housing Act (2004), under BS5839-6 an HMO is a much narrower description and only includes a subset of the legal definition of an HMO under the Housing Act (2004) i.e. a property can be a licensed HMO but not an HMO under the provision of BS5839-6. 
BS5839-6:2019 covers homes that are:
  1. designed to accommodate a single family; 
  2. HMOs comprising a number of self-contained units, each designed to accommodate a single family; and 
  3. sheltered housing, including both the dwelling units and the common areas."
All 3 categories are dealt with differently throughout BS5839-6:2019 and homes defined under number 1 above can also be HMOs as defined under the Housing Act (licensed or not). To be included under category 2 and referred to as an HMO for the purposes of BS5839-6:2019, the HMO must comprise of "a number of self-contained units, each designed to accommodate a single family" i.e. a bedsit style HMO under LACORS. Therefore the property I have described in my original message is defined under BS5839-6:2019 as a "shared house with no floor greater than 200m2in area". Table 1 in BS58939-6:2019 goes further under footnote (B) to table 1 and describes such dwellings as "houses shared by no more than 6 persons, generally living in a similar manner to a single family (e.g. houses rented by a number of students)" which describes the tenants in our property precisely.
On that face of it, it is confusing that BS5839-6 uses the terminology "HMO" to mean just a subset of what is described as an HMO is other areas of housing (e.g. "licensed HMO", or HMO as defined under the Housing Act (2004)). However, it is key to understanding the provisions of BS5839-6 which has always distinguished between "shared houses" and "bedsit style HMOs". The 2019 version is no different in this regard and therefore the correct minimum alarm system under the standard is D1: LD2 (upgraded from DLD3+ under previous versions of the standard). Of course this is a minimum requirement, and thereforeI think this misunderstanding of HMOs is causing people (like my contractor) to over-spec alarm systems rather than risk misinterpreting the standard. But it doesn't change the fact he is incorrect, in my opinion.
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Ultimately it's your decision, not theirs. The standards are only a guide in any case and if your precautions satisfy your licensing authority & the guidance they use, then you are fine as you are.

If indeed it's a shared house, then Grade D systems are generally still appropriate, after all whilst not related they are, as you point out, effectively living as if a family group and Grade A systems only kick in when it's a seriously big house!

I think they just saw the words HMO - which I did to some extent. Re-reading it it is a shared house and the HMO side shouldn't change that. It doesn't help when different guidance uses different definitions and there really should be consistency!

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