Fire: Why it's the most significant risk to property

  • Deliberate fire setting continues to be one of the leading causes of fire across the UK
  • Vacant properties are a particular target for arsonists
  • It is important to regularly review and assess for any arson exposure

Deliberate fire setting continues to be one of the leading causes of fire across the UK, and with the National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) reporting a continued increase in deliberate fire incidents since 2014/15, it is clear why this is a risk that all property owners, organisations and businesses should be aware of.

Arson and wilful fire raising are the terms used to describe the deliberate act of setting fire to property and both are criminal offences. Whilst Wilful Fire Raising (applicable only in Scotland) is restricted to those incidents where a fire has been set deliberately, the definition of Arson extends to include those fires which are reckless but not deliberate. The NFCC reports that in 2017/18, 50.5% of fires attended by fire and rescue services across the UK were deliberately started. The estimated economic loss of those fires during this period is likely between £5.73bn and £11.46bn.(1)

Fire is one of the most significant risks to property, with deliberate fires often being the most damaging and catastrophic. Fires of this nature are often set at night when a premise is closed, and often in hidden or secluded locations. Multiple seats of fire and use of accelerants are also not uncommon.

Deliberate fire setting is not a new risk, with local communities, organisations and businesses across the UK being affected for many years, but it is a risk that is as prevalent and important to manage now as it has always been.

The Corona Virus has presented new challenges for organisations across the UK and is likely to continue to have a major impact on the economy, the effects of which are becoming evident as businesses start to emerge from lockdown. It is widely reported that the UK is headed for another major economic downturn as a result. During the last UK recession Zurich saw a significant increase in the number of vacant properties and with that, an increase in the number of deliberate fires. Fraudulent deliberate fire losses are also known to have increased and we should remain alert to these unfortunate exposures.

It is widely recognised that vacant properties are a particular target for arsonists, as are schools, especially during holiday periods. However building unoccupancy should not be considered the only factor when assessing the level of risk to your premises. The reasons why deliberate fires are started vary and usually involve a combination of factors. For example:-
 Poor external storage arrangements.
 Public spaces close-by, such as parks, where large groups of individuals can congregate.
 Deterioration in labour relations due to operational changes.
The introduction and increased use of modern methods of construction, including combustible construction materials, has led to some large and complex fires in recent years, which are more difficult for the fire and rescue services to tackle. These often result in much larger losses, albeit these issues are not restricted to deliberate fires. When assessing the deliberate fire risk to your premises, the construction of the building, including combustible materials which could burn rapidly and considerably aid fire spread, and potentially cause building collapse, must be considered as this could have a significant influence on the risk control measures you implement.

Considering the rise in the number of deliberate fires during the last recession, together with an existing increasing trend in incidents as reported by the NFCC, and the impact that modern methods of construction can have on the severity of a fire, now is the time to re-assess your exposure and current risk control measures.

There are many influencing factors that can impact on the level of risk to your premises and it is important to regularly review and assess the arson or wilful fire raising exposure. Having assessed the exposure, and the level of risk, it is essential to put in place risk control measures that will minimise the risk of attack against your premises.

RISK CONTROL MEASURES

Very often, simple, cost effective measures can be introduced to significantly lower the risk of deliberate fires. Many of the following measures will be familiar to building managers, maintenance staff and fire safety officers, however, deliberate fire losses continue to happen and it is vitally important all control measures are regularly reviewed, maintained and improved where necessary.

Perimeter Security

The physical security of a site starts at the perimeter. You should assess how easy it is to gain access to buildings. If access is open and unprotected, it will be easier to access any externally stored materials and to attack the building.

Where possible, the perimeter of the site should be protected by security fencing to keep intruders off the premises. Where utilised security fencing should be at least 2.4 metres high and any gates should be of equivalent quality; steel palisade or weldmesh fencing is recommended. For areas where there is a high risk of deliberate fire attacks, fencing may need to have anti-climb protection fitted on top and careful assessment of potential scaling points must be carried out prior to, and following installation.

It is appreciated that it may not be possible to secure the perimeter of your site, especially for retailers who operate within high street locations. In these cases consideration should be given to protecting vulnerable areas of the building. For example, access to flat roofs can be prevented by installing anti-climb products to the edges of roofs and drainpipes. If there is external access to first floor self-contained flats, consideration can also be given to providing extra security to external staircases, preventing unauthorised access to communal access routes.

Building Security

All buildings have access doors and most will have window openings and letterboxes. All of these openings should be well secured against attack. In assessing the level of physical security, the following features should be considered:

 All access doors to buildings fitted with suitable locking devices which are secured in place out of working hours.
 Door frames securely attached to the surrounding brickwork or steel frame.
 Accessible windows fitted with key operated window locks which are secured out of business hours.
 Roller shutters to doors and windows where there is high risk of arson and wilful fire raising, or malicious damage.
 Any louvre windowpanes securely glued or otherwise attached to their frames, making it impossible to remove individual panes of glass.
 Consideration of the installation of an anti-arson letterbox is a sensible precaution.

Electronic Security

Building and site security can be enhanced through the installation of electronic security systems. The following measures should be considered:

 Intruder alarm protection with monitoring of signals at a constantly attended location.
 Closed-circuit television surveillance system covering outside property and building perimeters, monitored at a constantly attended location, and recording images to hard drive for later review.
 Access controls within buildings to limit employees and visitors to authorised areas. Access controls may include badges for employees and visitors, visitor escorts, and door controls (such as key locks, keypads, and card swipes).
 The site should be well lit by an effective security lighting system which provides an additional deterrent. The effectiveness of security lighting should be assessed and upgraded as necessary.

External Combustible Materials

Perhaps the most important risk control measures concern external storage areas, especially where it is not possible to provide perimeter security fencing. Many arsonists will take the opportunity to start a fire by setting combustible materials stored outside the building alight. Once the fire has been started there is a risk of it spreading into the building or along the external walls if combustible construction is present.

In most cases, the risk can easily be minimised by measures such as:

 Eliminating combustible yard storage where possible.
 Placing combustible yard storage in metal shipping containers or other secured enclosures.
 Maintaining waste containers 10 m (30 ft) from buildings and important structures and 2 m (6 ft) from perimeter fencing.
 Establishing designated external storage areas for combustibles with good clearance from buildings. At least 15 m (50 ft) is recommended for most external storage and at least 30 m (100 ft) for very high hazard storage.
 Avoiding installing litter bins on walls.

Consideration should also be given to clearing any overgrown weeds and other vegetation in close proximity to buildings. Overgrown vegetation provides two additional arson risks:

 In hot dry weather the vegetation could be set alight.
 The overgrown vegetation could provide a screen for arsonists to work out of sight of passers-by.

Ideally, vegetation should be no more than 1 metre high and should be regularly cut back.

Temporary buildings, such as portacabins, should be kept as far from the main buildings as possible (preferably at a distance of at least 10 metres), especially if the temporary buildings are constructed of combustible materials; a fire within a temporary building could easily spread to main buildings. Voids underneath the floor of the temporary building should be securely boarded over to prevent an accumulation of combustible waste.

Housekeeping and Inspection

Good housekeeping will help to reduce the risk of a fire starting and developing. Combustible storage and waste should be constantly monitored as part of routine maintenance and inspections to ensure these items do not accumulate assisting an arsonist and aiding the spread of fire.

Formal regular and recorded inspections of the building are a necessity to ensure housekeeping is to a high standard and existing arson prevention measures remain effective.

General Precautions

The following general precautions can also be undertaken to reduce the risk of a deliberate fire attack:
 At the end of the working period ensure that all combustible waste is removed to a safe storage area and that the premises are tidy.
 Lock away flammables liquids at the end of each working day.
 No unauthorised persons should be able to remain on the premises at the close of business.
 Consider checking toilets and other backroom or quiet areas before closing up.
 Avoid parking vehicles close to buildings, particularly outside normal operating hours.
 Ensure that all doors and windows are properly secured and any alarms are set.
 Embed prevention in the company’s safety culture by including arson and wilful fire raising awareness within employee’s induction and ongoing safety training. Empower staff to report any suspicious activity.

Further and longer term risk control measures for consideration could include removing/excluding combustible materials from building construction that aid rapid fire spread, and the installation of sprinkler protection systems. Whilst neither will prevent a deliberate fire attack against your premises, both can significantly reduce the potential size of the resultant loss.

In summary, with arson and wilful fire raising continuing to be a leading cause of fire, and often the most damaging, appropriate risk assessment together with implementation of effective control measures and a continued awareness of the changing environment around you, will help to reduce the level of risk to your premises.