History of Fire Safety Legislation

Current statutory provisions within the United Kingdom have evolved from measures introduced slowly over many centuries. Most fire safety legislation was introduced as the result of a major fire or fires that killed a large number of people. It is known as stable door legislation, (Closing the door after the horse has bolted), because it is a response to an event that has already happened. It was not until the 19th century that structural provisions were made for the safety of people within premises on fire. Although large scale tests were carried out in the mid 18th century following the recognition that fire should be confined to the room of origin rather than the building, it was not until the end of the 19th century that we find the origins of standard fire tests. The following is some of the incidents that led to new Acts of Parliament or the modification of existing acts.

Note If you would like a concise version of the history of fire legislation read below for a more complete version, visit of the history of fire legislation at Fire Net

Index

Building Regulations
Places of Public Entertainment
Factories
Shops and Offices
Licensed Premises
Hotel and Boarding Houses
Houses in Multiple Occupation
Sports Grounds
The Fire Precaution Act
The Fire Precaution (Workplace) Regulations

Building Regulations

Under the London Building Acts 1930 – 39 powers were granted to make byelaws and the first set issued in 1938 covered many of the constructional matters previously contained in the earlier Acts. Powers were also granted in respect of means of escape from certain new and existing buildings based on their height and use. However, these byelaws were not entirely satisfactory in that local authorities were not obliged to adopt them, and many did not. The 1936 Public Health Act was therefore amended by the 1961 Public Health Act to permit the making of one set of building regulations to replace the 1400 sets of local byelaws. The first building regulations for England and Wales were made in 1965, the scope of which extended through the Fire Precautions Act 1971 to include means of escape in case of fire.

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Places Of Public Entertainment

The Home Office in the introduction to its “Manual of Safety Requirements in Theatres and Other Places of Public Entertainment” (produced in 1934) explained that its recommendations were based on experience of disasters at home and abroad. Nine fires were highlighted and the fires mentioned, were the 1887 fire at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, in which 186 people died. The Paris fire in 1897 involving a Charity Bazaar, which 124 people died and over 200 were injured, where none of the exits were indicated and untreated velaria (canvas awnings) covered the whole of the underside of the roof. The Ring Theatre Vienna where 450 people died (1881). The Iroquois Theatre Chicago where 566 people died (1903). The Empire Palace Theatre Edinburgh (1911). The Grand Assembly Rooms Leeds (1923). In Drumcollagher Co Limerick where 50 people died out of a total of 150 (1926). The Glen Cinema Paisley where 70 children were suffocated and crushed (1929) and Coventry (1931). Those at Edinburgh, Leeds and Coventry were included as examples of safe escape being made. At Edinburgh, where although ten of the performers and stage staff died as a result of the fire the whole of the audience of about 3000 apparently cleared the building in just under 2.5 minutes while the band played the National Anthem. As a direct result of the Paisley fire, an amending regulation was issued under the Cinematograph Act 1909.

Factories

As regards factories, the Factories Act 1937 considerably extended the requirements as to means of escape originally contained in the Factory and Workshop Act 1901 under which District Councils had been given powers in respect of premises where more than 40 persons were employed. Following a fire in February 1956 at the Eastwood Mills, Keighley, in which eight people died, the whole question of providing fire alarms and adequate means of escape was reviewed by the Factory Inspectorate and a survey of 40,000 to 50,000 premises was carried out. The 1961 Factories Act consolidated the fire provisions contained in the Factories Acts of 1937, 1948 and 1959 – the last of which had placed the responsibility for certifying means of escape on the Fire Authority and not the District Council as provided for earlier.

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Shops and Offices

Another notable fire occurred in June 1960 at William Henderson and Sons department store in Liverpool. Ten people were trapped in the fourth storey even though the brigade arrived within two minutes of being called. One man fell to his death from a ledge whilst assisting others to safety. This fire (the main cause of its rapid spread being the presence of suspended ceilings and un-enclosed escalators) prompted the fire sections contained in the 1963 Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act – the clauses being modelled closely on the 1961 Factories Act.

Licensed Premises

Also in 1961, during the proceedings on the 1961 Licensing Act, opportunity was taken to table an amendment with the intention of giving fire authorities greater powers over club premises following the Bolton Top Storey Club fire in May of that year. In this fire nineteen people died – fourteen bodies were found in the club room and five of the people who jumped, or fell, into the adjacent canal below also died.

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Hotels and Boarding Houses

A fire at the Rose and Crown Hotel, Saffron Walden on Boxing Day 1969 where 11 people died and a number of people were injured whilst escaping and 17 people were rescued by ladders, was one of a number of hotel fires which gave added impetus to the passing of the Fire Precautions Act in 1971. In 1972, hotels and boarding houses were the first premises to be designated as requiring a fire certificate under the act.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

The provision of means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation had been dealt with under Section 16 of the 1961 Housing Act (now controlled under Part X1 of the Housing Act 1985). However, following a number of serious fires, concern was expressed during the proceedings on the 1980 Housing Act about fire safety in hostels. As a result, the 1981 Housing (Means of Escape from Fire in Houses in Multiple Occupation) Order was made which provided that exercise by Local Authorities of their powers under the Housing Act should be mandatory for certain premises.

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Sports Grounds

Following the fire on 11 May 1985 at the Bradford City football ground where 56 people died and many were seriously injured, a committee was set up to enquire into the operation of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. The recommendations made in their final report resulted in changes introduced in the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 and the revision of the Home Office Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds.

The Fire Precaution Act

In 1971 fire safety legislation was a spread over many pieces of primary and secondary legislation using fire safety provisions. This caused confusion and the government wanted to simplify the law by getting rid of most of the overlaps and putting in place one set of legal requirements for fire safety that could apply to most places people use. The result was the Fire Precautions Act 1971 which was an enanbling act which would include all premises over time. Initially designating order were made for Hotels and Boarding houses, Offices, Shops and Railway premises and Facories but never progressed any further. The act was in force for more than twenty years and was expensive but very effective then a European directive required the government to harmonise the fire safety legislation and the Fire Precauction (Workplace) Regulations was created.

The Fire Precaution (Workplace) Regulations

All the fire provisions in the above acts of Parliament are for the moment are still in force but the primary fire legislation is the Fire Precaution (Workplace) Regulations 1997 which was introduced as the result of a directive from the EEC. The present government are proposing a new Fire Precautions Act that will encompass all the fire safety provisions of various acts into one act which exactly what the first Fire Precautions Act was intended to do. I believe the differences between the two acts will be the reliance on risk assessment instead of prescribed methods and enforcement will reactive, not proactive. But however time will tell.