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Revised SABS standards on fire safety

A timely reminder

By Jen Stern

, |

Revised SABS standards on fire safety

A timely reminder

By Jen Stern

, |

2 min read

The South African Bureau of Standards has updated the national standard on fire alarm systems, in a move that could have far-reaching consequences for residential estates.

High-profile fires

High-profile fires have – perhaps inevitably, and almost invariably – prompted a post-horse-bolting closing of stable doors. The Great Fire of London in 1666 ushered in the building codes that many of us grew up with – brick houses instead of wood, and wider streets. And New York’s Great Fire of 1835 stimulated the construction of a sophisticated water supply including aqueducts. (Interestingly, both these fires occurred in the midst of pandemics or epidemics – respectively the Great Plague of London, and New York’s cholera epidemic.)

Closer to home, in mid-April 2021, a major fire swept the lower slopes of Table Mountain, spreading to the neighbourhoods of Newlands, Rosebank, Mowbray and Rondebosch, destroying priceless documents in the University of Cape Town’s library, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of students. On the same weekend, 700 patients had to be evacuated from Johannesburg’s Charlotte Maxeke Hospital after a fire tore through the facility, causing what Health Minister Zweli Mkhize described as ‘a huge amount of destruction’. It has since emerged that a fire safety audit at the hospital had been signed off just a few weeks before the blaze.

This is where the need for stringent fire safety standards becomes clear. In an August 2019 assessment, not one state health facility in Gauteng was found to be compliant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act. That included the newly built Bheki Mlangeni Hospital, which was found to have blocked fire escape doors and malfunctioning fire alarm systems. Far East Rand Hospital was also found to be lacking in emergency exit routes, with no fire detection systems in most parts of the hospital.

The job of saving lives

As its formal (and wordy) title makes clear, the SABS’s revised standard – the Code Of Practice For Design, Installation, Commissioning And Maintenance Of Fire Detection And Alarm Systems In Non-Domestic Premises (SANS 10139:21) – includes recommendations about fire prevention equipment and procedures for non-residential buildings, which obviously include factories and hospitals, but may also include clubhouses, guardhouses, storerooms and maintenance rooms in residential estates.

The regulations define:

  • when alarm systems are necessary
  • what type of alarm systems are suitable for different types of premises
  • how these alarms are linked to emergency services.

There is also a section dealing with false alarms – possible causes, mitigations and prevention.

The regulations go into quite a lot of detail outlining different scenarios in which human lives may be at risk in non-residential buildings, but – while any developer or manager absolutely should purchase the full standards document – it may be more practical to bear in mind the purpose of the document. So, rather than wade through the regulations in order to cover your rear end in the case of a fire, apply some common sense, and then double check that you have not fallen foul of the regulations. If there is one thing we have learned from the recent Cape Town fire, it’s that fires can get out of hand very, very quickly.

So, whether you are building a warehouse or a frail care centre, early fire detection can save lives. When it comes to fire, prevention is soooo much better than cure, and it is always wise to err on the side of caution.

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