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In safe hands

With new regulations now in place in Scotland, we take a closer look at the importance of competence when it comes to the planning and design of domestic fire detection and fire alarm systems

Inspecting an industrial fire alarm

Electricians are now commonly involved with the installation of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises.

However, it is often the case that the design of such systems is effectively undertaken by others – for example, by the manufacturer of fire detection and fire alarm products or by the housing developer or housebuilder.

Typically, such designs may specify the details of what types of alarms should be installed and where they are to be located, and may also include provision of the alarms specified. This article will consider whether such an approach meets the recommendations of the Building Standards Technical Handbook 2020: domestic and/or BS 5839-6: 2019 Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings Part 6: Code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises.

It is important that the reader understands how standards, other guidance and legislation interplay to achieve the desired outcome of providing a satisfactory fire detection and fire alarm system and, ultimately, a safe home.

Building Standards Technical Handbook 2020: Domestic

While the Building Standards Technical Handbook is not legislation, it does provide important guidance on how to comply with it, e.g. Clause 2.9.0 states “it is important that a fire alarm is installed to provide occupants with early warning of fire”.

Clause 2.11.1 requires what is, in effect, a minimum of a Grade D Category LD2 fire detection and fire alarm system to be installed.

The handbook recommends that smoke alarms are installed in the principal habitable room, every circulation space on each storey, every access room serving an inner room and also that a heat alarm is also installed in every kitchen.

BS 5839-6: 2019+A1: 2020

BS 5839-6 is a code of practice published by BSI detailing the recommendations for the planning, design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises. Such domestic premises include:

  • Single-family accommodation

  • Houses in multiple occupation (HMOs)

  • Sheltered housing

  • Supported housing.

The recommendations detailed in this standard apply to both new and existing domestic premises.

BS 5839-6 applies across the whole of the UK to bungalows, multi-storey houses, individual flats, maisonettes, mobile homes, holiday homes, sheltered housing, mansions, shared houses and houses divided into several self-contained single-family dwelling units.

It does not apply to hostels, caravans, communal parts of blocks of flats or maisonettes, non-domestic premises and boats, other than permanently moored boats used as a residential premises.

An inappropriate general approach

The vast majority of fatalities caused by fire occur in the home. It is also clear from statistics that the elderly have a higher fire-related fatality rate and, furthermore, elderly men are more likely to die than elderly women. The majority of fires leading to death start in the living room.

It is also clear that a standard approach to the planning and design of fire detection and fire alarm systems is not ideal. To quote part of the commentary of Clause 4.1 in BS 5839-6: “The design of any fire detection and fire alarm system installed in accordance with this part of BS 5839 needs to be based on a good understanding of fire risk in domestic premises.”

Therefore as part of the fire-risk assessment, BS 5839-6 expects the designer to account for the probability of:

  • fire occurring

  • injury or death of occupants if fire occurs

  • the system operating correctly at the time of fire

  • early detection and warning of occupants in the event of fire.

A standard approach to the selection of a particular grade and category of fire detection and fire alarm system in a dwelling often takes no account of the individual circumstances, and too often there is little thought given to the recommendations detailed in BS 5839-6 for different grades and categories of system.

Clause 4.2b recommends that, where practicable, the design of the fire detection and fire alarm system should be based on some form of fire risk assessment. Further guidance is found in Annex A of BS 5839-6.

However, Table 1 in BS 5839-6 provides a very helpful series of recommendations for the minimum grades and categories of system for most dwellings. This sits separately from the minimum requirements of the tolerable standards being introduced in Scotland from 1 February 2022.

This table provides a sensible starting point for judging whether the grade and category of system is appropriate, taking account of the fire risk assessment that should have been carried out by the designer.

The issue that arises from such a general approach to design is whether or not the installer is too reliant on the design capabilities of the manufacturer or housebuilder, and whether they are complying with the recommendations of BS 5839-6 when considering a specific dwelling.

It is therefore vitally important that the installer is suitably competent to undertake this work and should possesses an adequate knowledge of the design recommendations to be able to highlight any deficiency observed when design has been undertaken by a third party.

Responsibility for the design

Annex E of BS 5839-6 contains a model certificate for Grades C, D and F fire detection and fire alarm systems. This certificate should be issued for the design, installation and commissioning of fire detection and fire alarm systems and should also be accompanied by an Electrical Installation Certificate conforming to the requirements of BS 7671.

Members can access SELECT’s own version of this BS 5839-6 certificate, which is available in pad format or to SELECTcerts subscribers.

The first part of the fire detection and fire alarm certificate should be completed by the designer. The certificate makes this note: “Where design, installation and commissioning are not all the responsibility of a single organisation or person, the relevant words should be deleted. The signatory of the certificate should sign only as confirmation that the work for which they have been responsible complies with the relevant recommendations of BS 5839-6: 2019. A separate certificate should then be issued for other work.”

The following situations could arise:

  • the contractor has carried out all work and all parts of the form are signed accordingly

  • the manufacturer/housebuilder has designed the system and the contractor only installs and commissions the system.

Where the second of the two situations arise, it should be the case that two certificates are issued; one for design and one for installation and commissioning. However, it is often the case that the contractor will not get a ‘design’ signature and he or she issues the completed certificate, incorrectly assuming responsibility for the design as well as for installation and commissioning.

The assumption of such responsibility where such design work has not been undertaken is unwise.

Should a dispute arise the certificate issued will have demonstrated ‘proof’ that the contractor has carried out all three elements; design, installation and commissioning.


Save 25% on guide to fire alarm systems

SELECT Members are being offered an exclusive discount on The Practical Guide to Grade D Fire Alarm Systems by Tim Benstead.

The cover of The Practical Guide to Grade-D Fire Alarm Systems

Available at the special price of £14.96 – a saving of 25% – the book helps ensure that Grade D1/D2 fire detection and fire alarm systems are suitably designed, installed, commissioned and maintained, providing guidance for the working electrician on:

  • fire risk assessment

  • selecting appropriate grade/category of system maintenance and servicing

  • situations requiring a logbook.

The book gives a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, whether as a contractor, designer, landlord or housing manager and provides a suitable context in which all such work should be carried out. To order the book, please go to:


Tim Benstead portrait

About the author

Tim Benstead is the former Principal Technical Author of the NICEIC, a member of JPEL64, Chair of JPEL64/B and a member of FSH12/1, the BSI committee responsible for BS 5839-1 and BS 5839-6 for 15 years. He writes with authority and understands the concerns of the contractor and those responsible for domestic premises.


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